Brandon Phillips and LeBron James have something in common other than a fondness for hoops and a past association with the city of Cleveland.
Before each opening tip with the Cavaliers, James applied rosin to his hands for a firmer grip, then threw his arms skyward to create a cloud of dust. Phillips, a Major League Baseball player with NBA sensibilities, adheres to a similar ritual with the Cincinnati Reds. As he leaves the dugout on his way to second base, he'll grab a handful of dirt and toss it in the air, for luck or comfort or maybe just the pure enjoyment of the act.
If this were Phillips' only eccentricity, he might be known for his sterling all-around game rather than a reputation as a "hot dog." But it's only one item in the Brandon Phillips fun pack.
"He'll smile in a situation where people want him to be mad," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. Or maybe he'll stand and admire a well-hit ball a moment too long, or punctuate a tag play with exaggerated body language, or show emotion in a circumstance when protocol requires stoicism.
In a sport in which "panache" is a four-letter word, a man has only so much latitude to be a showman. Phillips has given the matter considerable thought, and he wonders why that's the case.
Some kids grow up wanting to be pro athletes, and others aspire to careers as entertainers. As a youth in suburban Atlanta, Phillips developed an appreciation for sports and for the sports arena as theater. He loved Reds shortstop Barry Larkin's off-balance throws and sense of joy in the game and embraced Deion Sanders as his favorite professional athlete. If Phillips chooses to incorporate a little "Prime Time" into his routine, is that so wrong?
"Yes, I'm flashy," Phillips said. "I just feel like it makes me have fun if I put a little flair to it. Do I feel like I'm arrogant? No. Do I feel like I'm confident? Hell yes, I do. I feel like I'm the best all-around second baseman in baseball. If you don't think you're the best, why go out and play this game?
"Chase Utley is the best-hitting second baseman. Do I think I'm better than him all-around? Yes, I do. That's just my opinion. That's not me being cocky. It's about me being confident and believing in myself. You have to believe in yourself to play this game, because this game will kill you."
At 29 years old, while playing for his third professional organization, Phillips has learned that what doesn't kill you will make you an All-Star.
Phillips is going through a rugged July, with only 13 hits in 68 at-bats. But with the exception of the Yankees' Robinson Cano and the Braves' Martin Prado, he might be having the most profound impact of any second baseman in the game this season. He ranks first in the majors at his position in runs scored (69) and doubles (25), sports an .823 OPS and is second to Utley among National League second basemen in the Fielding Bible's defensive plus-minus rankings.
In 2007, Phillips joined Alfonso Soriano as one of two second basemen to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in a season. (They've since been joined by Ian Kinsler of the Rangers.) That power-speed combination allows him to move seamlessly around a lineup card; this year Phillips has amassed 104 at-bats at leadoff, 162 in the No. 2 hole, 30 in the third spot and 88 at cleanup.
Joey Votto is a Triple Crown threat and MVP candidate, and Scott Rolen is Cincinnati's resident leader by example, but Phillips is the Reds' most versatile player and a lot more selfless than he's portrayed.
"There aren't many guys who can bat anywhere in the lineup and anywhere I ask them," Baker said. "Most guys, if they drove in 90 runs and then you ask them to bat leadoff and they have 30 RBIs, you're messing up their year."
In his fifth season with Cincinnati, Phillips is starting to attract notice for things other than his flair. Three Sundays ago, he received the news that he had been chosen as a National League All-Star reserve. When the Reds passed through Philadelphia later that week, he sought out Phillies manager Charlie Manuel to express his gratitude.
Yes, I'm flashy. I just feel like it makes me have fun if I put a little flair to it. Do I feel like I'm arrogant? No. Do I feel like I'm confident? Hell yes, I do. I feel like I'm the best all-around second baseman in baseball. If you don't think you're the best, why go out and play this game?
”-- Brandon Phillips
"Thank you for picking me," Phillips told Manuel. "It's an honor to play for you at the All-Star Game."
"Thank you for playing the way you play," Manuel told Phillips. "You keep on doing what you do."
Phillips flashes an effervescent smile when he recalls the exchange. If he were a bit less brash, he might have more than one All-Star Game appearance and a single Gold Glove in his collection. So it warms his heart when a hard-core baseball person recognizes his contributions.
"[Cubs manager] Lou Piniella says the same thing," Phillips said. "He loves me. It's the same with a lot of coaches -- either they love me or they hate me. That lets me know I'm doing something they don't like. I'm busting their asses and getting hits and showing them I'm here."
What Phillips lacks in diplomacy, he makes up for in athletic ability. He was a three-sport star at Redan High School in Stone Mountain, Ga., and considered trying to pull off a baseball-basketball double at the University of Georgia. His older brother, Jamil, played pro baseball in the Texas Rangers system, little sister Porsha plays hoops at Georgia, and younger brother P.J. is an outfielder in the Los Angeles Angels chain. After P.J. suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in spring training, Brandon inscribed his brother's initials beneath the bill of his Reds cap in a show of support.
Oh yeah: Brandon Phillips is also an ace bowler, with an average in the low 200s and three perfect games to his credit.
Montreal chose Phillips in the second round of the 1999 draft, and he quickly established himself as the Expos' top prospect. Baseball America's 2002 Prospect Handbook ranked Phillips No. 1, outfielder Grady Sizemore at No. 3 and a promising lefty pitcher named Cliff Lee at No. 11 among the Expos' top 30.
Indians general manager Mark Shapiro acquired all three players in a stunning trade for Bartolo Colon, but it was never going to happen for Phillips in Cleveland. He spent parts of four seasons bouncing back and forth between the big club and Triple-A Buffalo, and it became readily apparent that he was going to have difficulty coexisting with manager Eric Wedge.
Former Reds GM Wayne Krivsky sprung into action when the Indians made Phillips available, and four years later, Phillips and Bronson Arroyo are Krivsky's gifts that keep on giving to the Cincinnati fandom.
Although Phillips has finally achieved a sense of peace about his Cleveland experience, he admits the Indians were in his crosshairs for a while.
"At first when we played Cleveland I told them, 'Every time I play against you, I'm going to bust you up,'" Phillips said. "I had to show them what they were missing."
Of Wedge, who was fired by the Indians in 2009, Phillips said: "We bumped heads. Now I'm still playing, and he's at home. I don't hold any grudges. I wish him the best. I forgive him, but I won't forget."
In truth, Phillips' tenure in Cincinnati hasn't been wall-to-wall serenity, either. He has a frosty relationship with Reds beat reporters, and he occasionally has to be summoned to Principal Dusty's office for a remedial course in baseball conduct. Last year Phillips ignored a take sign on a 3-0 count against Kansas City, ended a Reds rally with a fly out and earned a seat in the dugout. Baker wasn't happy last July, either, when Phillips failed to run hard out of the box against the Dodgers and was thrown out at second base on a ball that should have been a double.
Baker notes that Phillips' lapses are occurring less often, which is the ultimate sign that he's matured.
"Sometimes he gets moody," Baker said, "but show me a key racehorse or a key athlete who's not moody sometimes. I've had to get on him a few times. But it's happening less and less, and to me, that's progress. He told me that in Montreal and Cleveland, there were some things he was wrong about. That's step one, when you can look at yourself that way. Saying 'Maybe I was wrong' is good enough sometimes."
The Reds did themselves and Phillips a favor in February when they signed shortstop Orlando Cabrera to a one-year deal. Cabrera was a regular in Montreal when Phillips broke in with the Expos organization, so he's comfortable enough to take the initiative when Phillips reverts to his immature ways. Cabrera makes his points forcefully enough for Phillips to listen and subtly enough not to put a dent in Phillips' self-confidence. Although Phillips can go overboard at times, the Reds know he's a better player when he's got his swagger.
"I care what's said about him," Cabrera said. "I know his father and his mother, and his father always told me, 'Get him straight,' and I'm gonna get him straight. That's the way it is."
Phillips' .317 career on-base percentage needs some work, and he's been successful on only 69 percent of his stolen-base attempts (59-for-86) since 2008. One AL executive said Phillips is about "85 percent of the player he could be" if he ironed out the remaining rough edges.
#4 Second Baseman
But for all the talk of Phillips' showmanship, he's a baseball rat and a self-improvement buff at heart. Phillips works constantly with coach Chris Speier on barehanding balls, making difficult infield flips and chasing down pop flies in the outfield. During his 30-30 season, Phillips grounded into 26 double plays. Now he's more adept at using the entire field and doing whatever is necessary with runners on base. He has only nine GIDPs this season.
"He rarely gives up an at-bat, especially now that he's hitting first," Cabrera said. "It doesn't matter how bad he looks on the first couple of pitches. He'll go back and regroup and be another hitter, and all of a sudden he's walking. I'm really impressed with that."
If opponents, the media and even Phillips' teammates have trouble deciphering his personality at times, Cincinnati fans have no such issues. Phillips is active in charity work and popular in the community, and has a charisma that resonates with the populace. He's likable and intelligent, with or without the bravado.
"J" Harrison, a special assistant to Reds general manager Walt Jocketty, was giving his parents a tour of the Reds' complex in Goodyear, Ariz., this spring, and they ran into Phillips working out after the other players had departed. Harrison's folks were so smitten by Phillips that they practically wanted to adopt him.
"I watched Brandon spend time with my parents, just smiling nonstop, and he showed the side that I wish everybody had a chance to see," Harrison said. "One of the most overused phrases you hear is 'misunderstood,' but I really think Brandon has been misunderstood. I know people have questioned his work ethic and his attitude or 'flair.' But I've never been around a more special person."
Maybe Phillips just picked the wrong stage. He sees African-American athletes in basketball and football routinely show more emotion than he displays on the baseball diamond. Is there a racial component at play in the way he's perceived? Phillips answers the question with the requisite care.
"If you look on TV, you'll see LeBron James or [LaDainian Tomlinson] or Terrell Owens celebrate when they do something good," Phillips said. "Younger African-Americans, we love that kind of stuff. We love the excitement and the celebrations. That's why a lot of African-Americans don't play baseball, because there's not a lot of excitement. I'm a baseball player who acts like he plays football and basketball. I celebrate."
He celebrates fervently and with no apologies, and who knows what's left to come? The Reds, who haven't made the playoffs since 1995, are right in the thick of the NL Central and wild-card races. Phillips and his teammates would like nothing better than to make that celebration a citywide affair.