On July 20, 2015, the Reds and their fans were in the middle of some trying times. The team was in fourth place, and had finally committed itself to a rebuild - at least, moreso than they had when things looked just as bleak a year before. Trade rumors were flying around about all of the most successful players of the team’s recent history, and it seemed clear that some of our favorite Reds were playing their last days in Cincinnati. That day, I took a trip to Great American Ball Park to try and watch everyone who was trade bait play together one last time, even if I didn’t know who would be gone within two weeks.
I doubt anyone who wasn’t in attendance at that game against a surging Chicago Cubs team would remember the home runs hit that night by Todd Frazier, Jay Bruce and Marlon Byrd. Aroldis Chapman’s game-ending strikeout wouldn’t stand out either, nor would Joey Votto’s two walks. And the pitching match-up of Michael Lorenzen vs. Clayton Richard certainly wasn’t a marquee ticket.
What even a casual fan may remember from that night, however, is this play:
In many ways, that night was a perfect snapshot of Brandon Phillips’ career in Cincinnati. He led off for the Reds that night, .317 on-base percentage be damned. He went 1-for-4 with a single, seeing 13 pitches in four plate appearances, clocking in just a hair under the 3.6 pitches he averages per PA for his career. And in a critical point of a close game, Phillips made the entire stadium explode by doing something on defense that we’d never seen before.
On Sunday, the Reds traded Phillips to the Atlanta Braves. Cincinnati will pay the 35-year-old second baseman $13 million to not play for them in 2017, with the hope that the move will open up an opportunity for the team’s second baseman of the future, be it Dilson Herrera, Jose Peraza or someone else entirely, to reveal himself. The deal comes after trades in the past year to the Diamondbacks, Nationals and, rumoredly, even the Braves, were blocked when Phillips exercised his 10-5 rights.
The deal also brings an end to one of the weirdest, most awkward and complicated team/player/fan dynamics in recent memory.
It’s difficult to come up with another player who is as polarizing to his own fan base as Brandon Phillips has come to be in recent years. Nearly every Reds fan on the planet thinks of the second baseman in one of two ways: he’s either the best player on the team, or someone who should have seen his playing days as a Red come to an end long before now. Those in the first group spent Sunday struggling to wrap their minds around what the Reds could possibly be thinking. Those in the latter group are rejoicing.
It’s difficult for those on one side to reconcile the thinking of the other, but it’s not impossible. Because while Phillips has never been the most valuable player on the team from a wins above replacement standpoint - the closest he’s ever come was second to Aaron Harang in 2007 (remember when Aaron Harang posted a 6.0 bWAR season?) - there were a few years where he was the most exciting player on the team. There just aren’t a lot of second basemen that a team acquires for next to nothing who show up and blast 30 homers and swipe 30 bags in a season the way Phillips did in 2007, while also making plays in the field that made him a staple of ESPN’s Top 10 plays for years. When taking into account the fact that he was one of the first athletes to become really active on social media and use the medium to interact with fans, Phillips was arguably the face of the franchise for a period of time. To some fans, he’s still the face of the franchise, and that’s why Sunday hurt.
It’s in that way that Phillips is the perfect symbol of the conflict between old-school and new-school that affects today’s game. Because while no one can take away everything that the last paragraph mentioned, the same can be said for the fact that Phillips has never walked with any frequency, and doesn’t hit for much power anymore. He hasn’t posted an OPS+ of 100 or better since 2011, and last year was the first time since 2012 that he slugged better than .400. As for his glove, Phillips actually posted -0.5 dWAR in 2016, according Baseball-Reference. Defensive metrics are fickle and not always reliable, but even the eye test said Phillips doesn’t possess the range and quickness he did when he was annually challenging for gold gloves.
Phillips has been perhaps even more polarizing off the field than he has been on it. He’s been, in many ways, a pillar in the Cincinnati community, from showing up to a little league game to taking time just about anywhere he is to stop and chat with any fan who wants a picture. He’s also someone who’s been known to openly feud with and belittle members of the media, and had that weird incident last month where he nearly got into a fight at a University of Cincinnati men’s basketball game. He’s been vocal about not wanting to play for anyone but the Reds, and seems to love his teammates, but he’s also stood in the way of the advancement of the franchise on more than one occasion - blocked trades included.
Remember when he got into a shouting match with Yadier Molina that started the most infamous Reds brawl of this century? What about when he bashed a walk-off bomb against that same stupid team a year later? Or that time he showed us all that he definitely, defiantly, does not grasp how getting on base is a good thing? But maybe who cares because how fun was this guy?
And after 11 years of all of that, Phillips has left Cincinnati in a way that even two years ago would have been incomprehensible. It’s hard to come up with another player who played for a team this long, had this much support from fans, was this memorable on the diamond, who has gotten this kind of unceremonious and grueling of an exit. The same team that made him one of the richest second basemen in the game spent the better part of the last two years publicly, painfully searching for ways to get him out of town. And for as many things Phillips made look easy on the field, this was the one `thing that he made harder than it needed to be.
Phillips is stubborn. That stubbornness kept him in Cincinnati longer than he otherwise would have been, and that stubbornness is likely to keep him in the game longer than one would expect him to be. He’ll play his age-36 season for his hometown team in Atlanta, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see someone take a flyer on him season after season. He’s just a year removed from a 3.5 bWAR season, after all.
His Reds career, however, is over. And we’ll all remember him for something different, whether it’s the glove and the smile or the bullheadedness and the conflicts.
But we’ll all remember him. That’s for sure.