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The Most Criminally Underrated Player in Baseball History

“I didn’t have a chip on my shoulder – it was a chunk.”

Illustrations of MLB legend Tony Phillips, one of the most underrated utility players in baseball history.
Credit-MLB/Oakland Athletics/Joker Mag

By the numbers, he should be an easy Hall of Famer. But most baseball fans wouldn’t even know his name.

We’re talking about Tony Phillips. Ring a bell?

Throughout the 80s and 90s, guys like Wade Boggs, Don Mattingly, Rickey Henderson, and Dwight Evans took the spotlight away from Tony.

Even when he played for the Oakland Athletics, he was outshined by the Bash Bros – Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco.

Don’t get me wrong, those guys are legends, but we gotta give Tony his flowers.

Phillips was a gamer from the jump.

In high school, he was 5’ 8” and 145 lbs.

“I’ve always had Little Man’s disease,” Phillips told Sports Illustrated in 1997. “Your whole life people tell you that you can’t do this, you can’t do that. I always thought, Oh, yeah? Well, I’ll show you, you so-and-so. I didn’t have a chip on my shoulder – it was a chunk.”

While he didn’t have the ideal build for an MLB prospect, Tony was a hard worker. The type of ballplayer you always want on your team because you know he’ll scrap it out until the last pitch.

He was known across baseball for his volatile temperament.

Here’s a quote from Tony that gives you a little window into his mindset:

"You have a job to do. That’s how I go about my business. I’m f*cking going out there to get it f*cking done, no matter f*cking what.” – Tony Phillips

After two years at New Mexico Military Institute – a public military junior college –Phillips debuted in 1982 with the Oakland A’s and played there for the first eight years of his career.

After a couple of rough years in ‘88 and ‘89, the Athletics granted him free agency and he signed with the Tigers, where his best years were still ahead of him.

Giving up on your future stars – classic Oakland A’s behavior (at least up until now).

Phillips had a lot of great attributes, but let’s start with his most impressive skill: his defense.

You could put this guy anywhere on the diamond and he’d be solid. Many people argue that he is the game’s best “Super Utility Player” of all time.

He played first, second, third, shortstop, and every spot in the outfield throughout his career.

He had a lifetime defensive WAR of 6.3 and a .968 fielding percentage.

One of his most ridiculous defensive performances happened on July 6th, 1986, when he recorded 12 assists – tying an AL record.

At the plate, Tony always did one thing very well.

Over the course of his career, he drew 1,319 walks and had three seasons with an on-base percentage north of .400.

His power seemed to increase as he got older too.

Tony hit 19 homers with 95 walks in ‘94, and 27 bombs with 113 walks the following year. This man was legitimately Billy Beane’s wet dream.

A quote from Tony Phillips: "I didn't have a chip on my shoulder. It was a chunk."

His cumulative WAR was 50.9.

And to put into perspective how impressive that is, here’s a short list of guys who are in the Hall of Fame with a lower lifetime WAR:

  • Harold Baines
  • Phil Rizzuto
  • Jim Rice
  • Lou Brock
  • Bill Mazeroski

Meanwhile, Tony never even got elected to a single All-Star Game.

Despite his lack of “official” accolades – for which he is more than deserving – Tony Phillips will forever remain an unsung hero of the game.

His story reminds us that chasing greatness shouldn’t be driven by external validation or subjective awards. It’s all about having a burning passion for the game, working your tail off, and leaving it all on the field.

Heck, Tony was still playing professional baseball at 52 years old, where he hit .269 in 29 games for the Yuma Scorpions.

Sportswriter Bob Ryan summed his career up best:

“(Tony) Phillips puts every ounce of energy into every game he plays. If it means fouling off six pitches before drawing a rally-extending base on balls, he’ll do that. If it means stepping in and out of the batter’s box to irritate the pitcher, he’ll do that. If it means breaking up a double play with a hard slide, he’ll do that. If it means moaning to the umpire, he’ll do that.”

“He has a tremendous knack for getting on people’s nerves. He also has a tremendous knack for helping teams win baseball games.”

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