Tony Phillips wants a better job description. "Please don't call me a utilityman. I hate that," he says. "I've been fighting that most of my career."
Utilitymen usually aren't good enough to play regularly. Tony Phillips is an every-day performer for the Tigers. He's their leadoff man and one of their best players, and he might make the American League All-Star team. But he doesn't have an every-day position. Veteran Tiger manager Sparky Anderson says he has never seen a player do what Phillips has been doing this year. That's because no player in modern history has been asked to do what Phillips does.
Through Sunday, Phillips had started at least one game at seven different positions, including 17 games at second base, 17 in the outfield and 13 as designated hitter. He also started seven games at shortstop and seven at third, putting him on a pace to start 10 games at five different positions. No one has ever done that. Only the Cardinals' Jose Oquendo (in 1988) and the Indians' Chico Salmon ('68) have played—not started—10 games at five different positions in a season.
Oquendo shuttled mostly between second, third and shortstop in 1988 and usually hit at the bottom of the order. Salmon was a true utilityman, hitting .214 in 276 at bats in '68. Phillips, however, has been the Tigers' spark, hitting .278 with six homers and 32 RBIs through Sunday. A switch-hitter, he is tied for second on the Tigers in walks, with 42.
In an age when players often whine about where they're playing, Phillips never complains, not even when he played at six different positions in six straight starts this year, from May 18 to May 24. "Most guys would moan about being moved around," he says. "The way I see it, without me having the talent to do these things, I wouldn't be around, because this really is the first year that I have swung the bat this well for this long."
Second base is Phillips's natural position, the one he feels most comfortable playing. But after seeing action everywhere except at catcher and pitcher in the last 3½ years, he says, "I'm not worried playing any [position]. As long as I'm playing, I don't care where."
Phillips was an invaluable utilityman for the Oakland A's from 1982 to '89, playing all over the diamond—but not nearly with the regularity that he has this year. In '89, though, he tied a major league record by playing three different positions in a World Series game. But in the off-season, when the Tigers offered him a three-year deal worth $4 million and the A's didn't match it, Phillips signed with Detroit. That same winter Oakland lost designated hitter Dave Parker (97 RBIs in '89) and pitcher Storm Davis (19 wins) to free agency. Yet A's pitcher Dave Stewart said the only free agent Oakland would miss was Phillips. He was right. The Athletics still miss him.
Phillips, 31, is able to play all these positions because he's such a good athlete. At Roswell (Ga.) High, he lettered in baseball, basketball, football, track and cross-country. Though he's only 5'10", 175 pounds, he sometimes wonders how far he could have gone in basketball.
The closest Phillips has come to having an every-day position was last season when he was the regular Tiger third baseman at the beginning of the year. But when rookie Travis Fryman was called up on July 7 and installed at third, Phillips lost his job. "That's the way my whole career has been," he says. "I didn't like it, but I accepted it."
Phillips says he has no desire to play all nine positions in one game, as the A's Bert Campaneris did in 1965 and the Twins' Cesar Tovar did in '68. "I take a lot of pride in what I do; I take it seriously," he says.
Anderson has recommended Phillips as an All-Star candidate to Oakland's Tony La Russa, who will manage the American League team this year. "He's the type who helps you wherever you play him," La Russa says. "He has grown to understand how valuable he can be. What he's doing this year is harder than playing one spot every day." Every Sunday, La Russa reviews the names on his list of possible All-Stars. "Tony's still on the list," he said late last week.
But at which position? How about making Phillips the DP? Designated Player.
Phillips is happy as long as his name is somewhere on the lineup card.