Tony Phillips was 56. Dave Henderson and Bob Welch were 57. These guys are too young to be dead. It seems like yesterday they were helping the Oakland A's win three straight American League pennants from 1988 to 1990. Those were the "Bash Brothers" A's, maybe the most iconic team since I've been watching baseball, with Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco smashing forearms, Dave Stewart's scowl, Eck pointing fingers and Tony La Russa, the smartest dude in the room.
Phillips, who passed away Wednesday of an apparent heart attack, wasn't a big name on those teams. He was a bench player in 1988, hitting .203 in a bad season. The next year he was a super-utility guy, batting more than 500 times while starting games at five positions, mostly second and third base. Phillips, like most of his teammates, was easy to dislike (unless, of course, you were an A's fan): He batted from a crouch, similar to Rickey Henderson, and it seemed like his only goal at times was to work a walk -- the classic, pesky little hitter. Mostly, of course, we disliked the A's because they were good.
I don't remember the exact circumstances, but Phillips signed with the Detroit Tigers after the 1989 season as a free agent. Maybe the A's didn't realize what they had. Maybe the Tigers promised him regular playing time. He was already 31 years old, but his best seasons were ahead of him.
Somebody on Twitter -- sorry, forgot who it was -- referred to Phillips as Ben Zobrist before Zobrist. That's a good comparison, as Phillips moved around from year to year, usually between third base and a corner outfield position while filling in at second.
Tony Phillips had the highest career WAR in the All-Star era by any player who never made an All-Star team pic.twitter.com/Mrd3ybkxdN
— Baseball Reference (@baseball_ref) February 19, 2016
He also perfected his approach at the plate and -- like a lot of players of his generation -- added power to his game. He drew 90-plus walks seven times in his 30s, twice leading the league. He scored at least 110 runs four times -- or three more times than Tony Gwynn -- and led the AL with 114 in 1992.
Those were fun Tigers teams in the early '90s, with Phillips and Cecil Fielder and Mickey Tettleton, and Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker still hanging around. They drew a ton of walks and hit home runs but never had much pitching and never won anything.
Phillips, like Zobrist, was vastly underrated. At least with Zobrist, we now have a metric like WAR that allows us to better understand his value. Phillips reached 4.3 WAR or higher six seasons in a row from 1990 to 1995, but never made the All-Star team. He stands as maybe the best player never to make an All-Star Game.
Dennis Eckersley on Tony Phillips: "I'll never forget him -he tossed the ball to me for that last out. We always had a connection."
— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) February 19, 2016
Phillips moved around at the end of his career. It could have been a reflection of other teams always wanting him, in addition to being a reflection of his volatile personality. Heck, back in 2011, while playing at age 52 for his ex-teammate Jose Canseco in the independent North American League, he got into a brawl with former big leaguer Mike Marshall.
Other teammates remembered Phillips as the ultimate competitor. Have doubts about that? Many writers were tweeting their favorite Tony Phillips stories. I can't link to them because of the language, but go check out either T.J. Quinn's or Jeff Passan's timeline.
Might have been toughest pound-for-pound player I ever saw. Fearless. When a pitcher nailed him, TP would go after him at BP the next day.
— T.J. Quinn (@TJQuinnESPN) February 19, 2016