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Rookie Card | News Lead | Cleveland Scene

Rookie Card | News Lead | Cleveland Scene

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Published by: thomasrfrancis on May 23, 2012
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E-NEWSLETTER enter your email address
JUNE 25, 2003
Rookie Card
Brandon Phillips must learn to walk before he can swagger.
byThomas Francis
The first time Brandon Phillips laid eyes on a
, he didn't like what he saw. "How come I'm not on the cover?" hesaid, frowning.Phillips, at that moment, sported a batting average of exactly .100. But that audacity, that unflinching confidence, is thereason people who know baseball expect him to be a star.When the Indians traded ace Bartolo Colon to Montreal last June, Phillips -- and the hope that he'll lead the Tribe into itsnext golden age -- was what they got in return. It was a heavy dose of reality for a kid, then only 20, who had neverplayed in the big leagues. The pressure intensified when, after the first week of his rookie season, he had just two hitsand zero runs batted in.None of which seemed to bother him. "I like the pressure," he said, flashing a cocky smile. "I like all the things peoplesay about me. It makes me want to live up to my potential."Of course, that's what slumping players are supposed to say. Only the rest don't smile as broadly as Phillips does. Theyaren't itching to take the field on gusty, frigid April afternoons. And they're painfully aware that baseball is a job -- onethey are failing.Phillips, it seems, either doesn't know this or doesn't want to know.Such blind self-assurance is rare; but under the weight of great expectations, it's bound to crack. During a majorleaguer's first few months, the initial thrill of making it to the show gives way to the constant fear of being banished tothe farm.In April, Phillips's instant retort is "I'd rather start slow and finish fast." By June, he is buried beneath an 0-28 slump anda batting average that struggles to stay north of .200. In the big leagues, Phillips has learned, one must walk before hecan swagger.Brandon Phillips comes bounding out of the dugout and into a wind that feels freshly arrived from the Arctic. A traineryells to him from the foul line, something about stretching. Phillips waves him o
, running instead to his station atsecond base.It's April 9, four hours before a game with the White Sox, and there is a sense of order at Jacobs Field. Coaches talk with 
A coach is hitting grounders to Phillips, who fields them by the book: glove down, head following the ball home, righthand coming down to keep it from bouncing. Major leaguers complain about the monotony of practice, but Phillipshandles his chores with the sort of alacrity found only in rookies.Most of the Indians are huddled inside the clubhouse, and who can blame them? Factor in the wind chill, and thetemperature is in the teens. Phillips wears a stocking cap as he conducts his hour of infield practice. "I'll play in thesnow," he beams. "I'm having fun."To veterans, a rookie's naiveté is beautiful -- and tragic."Age 21, that's when I started in the big leagues," says Omar Vizquel, now in his 15th season. "I remember how excited Iwas just to be on the field."But Phillips will have to earn a position, the same way Vizquel once did. He'll also have to earn his way to the top of theorder. The rookie bats in the lowly ninth spot. Tim Laker, who last year hit .227 in the minors, gets to hit eighth.Still, the bottom is a good place for rookies to learn that patience isn't only a virtue. It's a prerequisite. By the end of hisfirst month, Phillips still isn't hitting. The whispers begin: The kid isn't ready. He needs to go back to the minors. Failure,an alien thing, is creeping in.As a child, Brandon Phillips envisioned himself a composite of two Ohio baseball players. "He wanted to run like KennyLofton, and he wanted to play infield like (Cincinnati shortstop) Barry Larkin," says father James Phillips.When scouts saw him play in the Atlanta suburb of Stone Mountain, they started using the phrase "a young Larkin."Phillips knew he was on the right path. James Phillips would spend countless hours with his son in the backyard, hitting o
a tee, perfecting a whip-like swing. James would even drag his own bed outside, tilt it upright, and let Brandon hit baseballs into it.Buddy Fowlkes probably saved James hundreds in mattress bills. He opened a small gym in neighboring Snellville, whichhoused three batting cages. "I gave him a place to hit," says Fowlkes, "and it was like he lived here."Fowlkes also coached Phillips for SportsTech, a team assembled from some of Georgia's best prep talent, which traveledthe Southeast to compete against other all-stars. The starting spots were typically reserved for high school seniorsbeing scouted by colleges or the pros, but Fowlkes couldn't resist playing a sophomore Phillips. He was scrawny, butwhile most hitters depend on both hand-speed and weight-shift for power, Phillips had enough strength in his hands tohit home runs, even when he was o
-balance. "I've seen him fooled on a pitch, out on his front foot, but he keeps hishands back, and the ball still goes 380-400 feet," says Fowlkes.In 1997, the summer after his junior year in high school, Phillips journeyed to Enon, a town of 3,000, 10 minutesoutside of Dayton, to play for the Ohio Warhawks, a summer league team that functions as a sort of baseball boot camp.Phillips, then 16, was to keep his bed made and room clean, do his own laundry and cooking, arrive at the weight roomat 7 a.m., then practice the rest of the day. Partying was forbidden, and there was no time for girlfriends. Loafers weresent home. But survivors might follow the path of Pat Burrell, a Warhawk alum who hit 37 homers for the Phillies lastyear.Phillips took the latter route. "His work ethic was out of this world," says Warhawks manager Ron Slusher. He rememberswalking into Phillips's room to find the teenager sitting with eyes closed, meditating on a game situation where it was upto him to make the play.By the next summer, the University of Georgia would promise Phillips the shortstop position on its baseball team andthe point guard post on its basketball team. The Montreal Expos o
ered him a $707,000 contract, plus the prospect of seven figures when he hit the Bigs. College could wait.
By spring 2001, Phillips was right on track -- and he appeared to know it. There was no younger, brasher playerin the Expos system. Not long after his 20th birthday, he earned a promotion to AA-level Harrisburg,Pennsylvania, where outfielder Terrell Sledge's career was resting. "He wasn't shy," laughs Sledge, who at 26 haslearned to be patient with his major league ambitions.Young players on the fast track are still expected to show deference to their elders. Phillips was one of the fewwho could be flamboyant without making enemies."He has just a perfect attitude, goes out there having fun," says Sledge. "Nothing's on his mind."Phillips and Sledge shared an apartment in Harrisburg, spending their non-baseball hours crouched overPlaystation 2 controls and watching Jamie Foxx movies. The CD player thumped with the sounds of Ludacris andOutkast. Though Phillips was the youngest guy on the team, he would soon have most of the players mimickinghis favorite greeting: "What's up, Shorty?""He always had this big, cheesy grin on," says Sledge. "So people think he brings a cocky attitude. But he's a realcaring person, more mature than people think he is by appearance."Minor leaguers are known for their big-league obsession, but Sledge says it wasn't the case for Phillips. "We neverreally talked about that, especially him. He lives day to day. I don't think he looks into the future too much."Phillips killed the ball during the first two months of the 2002 season, his second in Harrisburg, earning apromotion to the AAA in Edmonton on June 14. Just two weeks later, the Expos pulled the trigger on the deal thatsent Phillips, Grady Sizemore, and Cli
Lee to the Tribe."He was happy," says his mother, Lue Phillips, "but a little overwhelmed."Suddenly, Phillips found himself in Bu
alo, the Indians' AAA a
liate, playing second base. Having spent his careerperfecting the double-play turn from shortstop, he was asked to do the exact opposite as a second baseman."It's real hard," says Vizquel. "Your footwork is backwards. It feels like you're playing cricket."But he was comfortable enough to warrant a promotion to the Indians on September 13. It was a surreal trip. Hisdouble-play partner was Omar. His first baseman was Jim Thome. Until this point, both had been characters in hisvideo games.Few expected Phillips to win the second-base job this spring, especially with journeyman John McDonald around.Few, that is, but Phillips, who after just two weeks in training camp declared to ESPN.com that second should behis: "I feel like I deserve it."So, apparently, did Tribe management. On March 17, Manager Eric Wedge told Phillips he'd be at second base onopening day. With that, he became one of the youngest starters in the majors. It carried with it the curse of expectation.The Indians have what some scouting services consider the best group of young prospects in baseball. Soundsgreat, except that to make room for those prospects, the Tribe has jettisoned the likes of Colon, Jim Thome, andRoberto Alomar. Dumping established stars for players who might be stars seems counterintuitive, but the logicof Indians management, it seems, is that it's far better to suck with cheap players than to suck with expensiveones.All of which leaves disgruntled fans looking for signs of hope -- and that's where the pressure comes in. It flowsfrom the field to the front o
ce."We've tried to set it up so that no one player is absolutely essential for us to achieve what we want to achieve,"says General Manager Mark Shapiro. "Despite that, [Phillips] certainly is one of the potential stars. He is a pivotal

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