ST. PETERSBURG — Thankful.
More than anything else, that’s what Brett Phillips will be feeling when he returns to Tropicana Field on Friday, a little more than a week after the Rays designated him for assignment, then traded him to Baltimore.
Thankful for the opportunity to play parts of three seasons for his hometown team. For the love the fans showed him throughout his stay and as he left. And even for how the Rays handled his departure, which he admitted caught him off-guard, by sending him to a comfortable situation with the Orioles.
“Getting traded is always bittersweet, but I totally understood,” Phillips said Wednesday from Baltimore. “You’ve got to produce in this league. It’s the big leagues. And unfortunately, offensively, I couldn’t get things going there.
“But that doesn’t mean my career’s coming to an end. I just understand the business side of things, that’s how things go. And I was totally understanding of the decision. I have zero resentment or anything like that. Because, obviously, I can’t.”
The Rays made the move after acquiring the multi-tooled Jose Siri from Houston on Aug. 1 to take over in centerfield. They needed Phillips to play more with Kevin Kiermaier injured and rookie Josh Lowe inconsistent (then demoted), but he could not hit enough — .147, with a .475 OPS — to balance out his defensive prowess and speed.
Phillips distinguished himself with the energy and positivity he brought to the clubhouse and dugout daily, and the refreshing joy with which he played the game.
While that attitude and approach had some value to his bosses, it wasn’t enough to keep him around when his performance faltered. (The Rays will show a tribute video after the second inning Friday.)
His peers appreciated it.
“He’s a tremendous teammate and a tremendous person as well,” said outfielder Randy Arozarena, via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “He’s a type of teammate, they’ll help make you stay happy and keep everybody loose in the clubhouse.
“I’m glad that he’s still in the big leagues. Sometimes something like that, it’s just part of the business side of everything. He kept everything fun and he showed it here that everyone had a good time.”
Or, as pitcher Ryan Yarbrough said: “It didn’t matter the day, he brought it. He always had energy to spare.”
Phillips also forged a special connection with the fans, which may have made him the most popular .179 hitter in Rays’ franchise history.
He said he took special pride in that since it was his hometown and wanted to do what he could to help grow the fan base since lagging attendance has been an issue. That included signing autographs before each game at the Trop, which he plans to do again this weekend.
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“My time there was all about just appreciating the fan base,” Phillips said. “I did whatever I could to show them that we appreciated them showing up when they did. And I guess they took a liking to that because of the amount of love they poured back into me (via social media) when I left. So it was really cool to see. … They made me leaving 10 times better. So I’m very appreciative of that.”
Phillips did have his memorable moments on the field.
The biggest, of course, was his ninth-inning hit in Game 4 of the 2020 World Series, leading to the tying and winning runs scoring, and giving the Rays one of the wildest walkoff wins ever. That also thrust him into national prominence, with his airplane run through the outfield and breathless TV interview, uttering the phrase “Baseball is fun,” which he then turned into a popular T-shirt line.
Also, his three grand slams in a historic 12-day stretch; his two walkoff hits in 2021, including a three-run homer; his inside-the-park homer in a blazing 14.45 seconds; his acrobatic catches; his entertaining pitching performances in blowouts; his entertaining interviews, and more.
“He definitely left his stamp on Rays baseball,” Yarbrough said.
And on the community.
Phillips’ interaction with Chloe Grimes, an 8-year-old girl battling cancer, was poignant enough when he met her before the April 12 game, and he delivered on a promise to “do something special for her” by homering while she was being interviewed on TV, then he got emotional talking about it post-game.
But he didn’t stop there, staying in touch as she has battled through surgery and treatments. The day after he was dropped by the Rays, and before he found out he was headed to Baltimore, Phillips went over to see Grimes, having heard she was upset that he was leaving. He wanted to deliver a custom glove they designed and he had made by Wilson.
“Of all the things that were going through my mind — where was I headed, having to pack all my things up, what am I going to do — the No. 1 priority for me was making sure Chloe got her glove and that she was okay,” he said.
“In those situations, it’s not about baseball. She’s been on my mind the whole year. I just wanted to get her her glove and put a smile on her face. And let her know that we’ll play a game of catch when I get home in the offseason.”
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