LARGO — The laugh. The gasping, guttural guffaw that he can’t really control once he gets started. That’s what Brett Phillips has mostly been known for during his baseball career.
The videos are pretty good, too. His recreated scenes from Wayne’s World and The Sandlot with former Brewers teammates, his “visit” to the laugh coach, the interviews that quickly become standup routines, all popular YouTube views.
And don’t forget the dance-offs, old stories about former Seminole neighbor Randy “Macho Man” Savage or the clever dugout whiteboard messages he crafted during the Rays’ postseason run.
All of that was before the hit.
In Game 4 of the World Series, Phillips came to the plate in the ninth inning with the Rays down by a run to the Dodgers, two on with two outs. And, quickly, he had two strikes.
The ball Phillips lined to shallow centerfield didn’t go very far or very hard. But after Kevin Kiermaier’s tying run and after Randy Arozarena — with help from Los Angeles misplays and in spite of his own misstep coming around third — scored the winning run, it propelled Phillips to a whole new level: World Series legend.
Only twice before had a Series game been won on the final pitch by the team that was trailing and down to its final out. Never before had it happened by someone with Phillips’ resume: a part-time player who hadn’t had a hit in a month or even an at-bat in at least 2½ weeks, whose reputation was built other places than on the field.
“I’m glad that I’m actually known for something in baseball now, like a walkoff hit in the World Series,” Phillips said. “For the longest time I was the guy with the crazy laugh, right? That always gets brought up. I’ve had that laugh since childhood. People know me as the dancer. As the movie star. Now it’s cool to be known for being an actual baseball player.”
And because it’s Phillips, he’s not known only for the hit.
‘Airplane Man’ is born
As if there wasn’t enough drama leading up to Arozarena safely pounding on home plate, Phillips took off on a mad dash to the outfield, spreading his arms like airplane wings as he’d seen Kiermaier and teammate Ji-Man Choi do in videos. He ran and screamed so much amid the celebrating that he nearly passed out, needing rest in a dark room and an IV before doing interviews.
After the Dodgers won the Series and he arrived back home, Phillips immediately noticed something new about how he was getting noticed. When he and wife Bri went out for food around their Largo home. When he made a photo op appearance for the Rays at the St. Pete Pier. When he traversed the Tampa Bay area making charitable donations and other stops.
“Sometimes they don’t even say anything, they just airplane by me,” Phillips said of fans. “At the St. Pete event, everyone wanted to do the airplane photo. So I don’t even know that they know my name. They’re just like, ‘That’s the Airplane Man right there.’ ”
Not that Phillips, 26, is complaining.
“It’s all for the fun of things,” he said while sitting only kind of still at his dining room table. “At the end of the day — I think the way I want to say it — it’s like there’s this thing with professional athletes in general who feel the need to put up this different persona to the public as opposed to who they actually are. A wall.
“Maybe that’s just years of ‘that’s how it’s always been done,’ but for me, what you see is what you get. Right? Like, I’m not going to change for nobody.
“Obviously, I’ll never disrespect anyone,” Phillips continued. “I know when the time is to have fun and when the time is to be serious. But at the same time, fans love to know who they’re rooting for, more so on a personal level.”
The energetic, naturally happy-go-lucky Phillips can be a little much at times, and he seems to know that. But he also insists he’s aware of when to turn it down a notch. His credo is to always be a good teammate, and to do what he can — however wacky it may seem — to help the ballclub in some way.
That was how the whiteboard became a thing.
Taken off the active roster for the American League Championship Series, Phillips wanted to find some way to help. The first game he charted pitches and tried to offer actual advice, then realized that wasn’t right. “I was like, ‘I got way too analytical.’ I’m the ‘keep it simple coach,’ ” he said. “The next day I was just like, ‘Hit ball hard.’”
He had fun with Arozarena, playing off his first name with a “Rakes All Night Day Year” creation that ended up all over the internet and on T-shirts.
“It was just bringing the energy that I would if I was playing on a daily basis,” Phillips said. “That goes a long way for myself, and obviously for the team.”
Phillips has always relished the chance to play, to have an impact and to be an inspiration in his hometown.
From Seminole High, Phillips navigated the low minors with the Astros (who made him a sixth-round pick in 2012) and worked through trades in July 2015 to the Brewers, in July 2018 to the Royals and last August to the Rays.
A measure of the relationships he has built along the way came from the many messages he got from other players, among the more than 800 overall that popped up on his phone after his star turn.
Besides the close and long-time friends like Astros pitcher and Tampa native Lance McCullers Jr., Phillips heard from big names such as Ryan Braun (the Brewers star he played with briefly) and Adam Wainwright (the Cardinals pitcher he knew only from a mission trip). Former Royals teammate Danny Duffy sent a home security video of the wife-waking ruckus he caused watching Phillips’ hit on TV. Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, his first pro ball roommate, left a screaming voicemail.
“I think that was the best part of it, just hearing from guys that I don’t necessarily think knew me that well,” Phillips said. “Regardless of what I did on the field when I was with them, just knowing that I was a good person and they respected me to just text me and be genuinely happy for me means a lot.”
He got cool stuff, too.
A large framed jersey, bat and photos of the big moment — from Dave McCarthy of the Tropicana Field-based Ted Williams Museum — hang prominently in Phillips’ second-floor game room. A pricey bottle of Dom Perignon etched with details of the game and a silhouette of his airplane form came courtesy of his Tampa-based agent, Tom O’Connell.
He received a trophy from Budweiser for the play being chosen the season’s Legendary Moment; electronics gear from Sports Illustrated for Game of the Year honors; and two batting practice baseballs engraved with tweets about his play from Twitter execs, who noted he “crushed the timeline” and that “your airplane across the field was a vibe for all of us.”
About a month after the Series, after getting past the disappointment of the Rays losing, Phillips watched the ending of Game 4. He recalled how unusually confident he felt going to the plate. He joked that the most remarkable aspect was “me making contact?” He acknowledged the craziest part was Dodgers centerfielder Chris Taylor inexplicably booting the ball, “almost like an Angels in the Outfield situation.”
Phillips is eager to see what’s next, primarily hoping that with his defense-first profile and a .202 career average on a roster that’s heavy with lefty hitters and outfielders — and with no minor-league options remaining — he gets to stick around.
But he’ll always have the experience of his World Series success.
“I’m accepting those awards on behalf of the team, but it’s still just very surreal,” he said. “That was my ninth professional season. And, like, no one knew Brett Phillips really that much but for his weird laugh, his dance moves. I’ve been just a below-average hitter, obviously, in the big leagues, just kind of finding my way, and putting myself in a position to succeed.
“So it’s been such a blessing for not only myself, but my family. The people that have known me around this area. And the people who don’t know me, just to have something cool for this area.
“And to say, ‘Hey, if he can do it, kids, your dreams, they are achievable. It doesn’t matter how long, like if it’s a year from now or 10. If you believe in something, go work for it. And be a good person.’ Now to have that platform, to be able to say that and them actually listen, that’s the best part about it.”