Rookie Card

Brandon Phillips must learn to walk before he can swagger.

Gravy Train, with User and Kroch Grog Shop, 1765 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights 9 p.m. Tuesday, June 24, $8, 216-321-5588.
The first time Brandon Phillips laid eyes on a Scene, he didn't like what he saw. "How come I'm not on the cover?" he said, frowning.

Phillips, at that moment, sported a batting average of exactly .100. But that audacity, that unflinching confidence, is the reason 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 its next golden age -- was what they got in return. It was a heavy dose of reality for a kid, then only 20, who had never played in the big leagues. The pressure intensified when, after the first week of his rookie season, he had just two hits and 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 people say 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. They aren't itching to take the field on gusty, frigid April afternoons. And they're painfully aware that baseball is a job -- one they 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 major leaguer's first few months, the initial thrill of making it to the show gives way to the constant fear of being banished to the 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 and a batting average that struggles to stay north of .200. In the big leagues, Phillips has learned, one must walk before he can swagger.

Brandon Phillips comes bounding out of the dugout and into a wind that feels freshly arrived from the Arctic. A trainer yells to him from the foul line, something about stretching. Phillips waves him off, running instead to his station at second 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 other coaches, sportswriters with other sportswriters. Ushers in identical windbreakers are polishing the box seats.

A coach is hitting grounders to Phillips, who fields them by the book: glove down, head following the ball home, right hand coming down to keep it from bouncing. Major leaguers complain about the monotony of practice, but Phillips handles 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 the temperature is in the teens. Phillips wears a stocking cap as he conducts his hour of infield practice. "I'll play in the snow," 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 I was 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 the order. 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 his first 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 Kenny Lofton, 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 off 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, which housed 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 traveled the Southeast to compete against other all-stars. The starting spots were typically reserved for high school seniors being scouted by colleges or the pros, but Fowlkes couldn't resist playing a sophomore Phillips. He was scrawny, but while most hitters depend on both hand-speed and weight-shift for power, Phillips had enough strength in his hands to hit home runs, even when he was off-balance. "I've seen him fooled on a pitch, out on his front foot, but he keeps his hands 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 minutes outside 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 room at 7 a.m., then practice the rest of the day. Partying was forbidden, and there was no time for girlfriends. Loafers were sent home. But survivors might follow the path of Pat Burrell, a Warhawk alum who hit 37 homers for the Phillies last year.

Phillips took the latter route. "His work ethic was out of this world," says Warhawks manager Ron Slusher. He remembers walking into Phillips's room to find the teenager sitting with eyes closed, meditating on a game situation where it was up to him to make the play.

By the next summer, the University of Georgia would promise Phillips the shortstop position on its baseball team and the point guard post on its basketball team. The Montreal Expos offered 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 player in 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 has learned 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 few who 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 over Playstation 2 controls and watching Jamie Foxx movies. The CD player thumped with the sounds of Ludacris and Outkast. Though Phillips was the youngest guy on the team, he would soon have most of the players mimicking his 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 real caring 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 never really 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 a promotion to the AAA in Edmonton on June 14. Just two weeks later, the Expos pulled the trigger on the deal that sent Phillips, Grady Sizemore, and Cliff Lee to the Tribe.

"He was happy," says his mother, Lue Phillips, "but a little overwhelmed."

Suddenly, Phillips found himself in Buffalo, the Indians' AAA affiliate, playing second base. Having spent his career perfecting 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. His double-play partner was Omar. His first baseman was Jim Thome. Until this point, both had been characters in his video 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 that second should be his: "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 on opening 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. Sounds great, except that to make room for those prospects, the Tribe has jettisoned the likes of Colon, Jim Thome, and Roberto Alomar. Dumping established stars for players who might be stars seems counterintuitive, but the logic of Indians management, it seems, is that it's far better to suck with cheap players than to suck with expensive ones.

All of which leaves disgruntled fans looking for signs of hope -- and that's where the pressure comes in. It flows from the field to the front office.

"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 guy."

In 2002, Baseball America, a magazine regarded for its minor-league coverage, ranked Phillips as the Expos' top prospect and the 20th best in the league.

Before he made the deal for Phillips, Shapiro had six Indian scouts check him out. The reviews were glowing. Shapiro lists them with evident pleasure: "Off-the-charts athleticism and body control; above-average arm strength; good speed, with some explosive bursts; a quick bat that, as it matures, will hit with some power."

In scout-speak, these are referred to as "tools." Few players possess all five: Good arm, good fielding, hitting for average, hitting for power, and speed. Finding a player who's got all five is hard enough. Finding a middle infielder who's got all five is exceedingly rare: Alex Rodriguez has them -- and a $252 million contract. Derek Jeter of the Yankees and Nomar Garciaparra of the Red Sox are close.

"That's the ultimate premium," says Shapiro. "We want guys up the middle who are athletic, good defenders, but also can provide us the premium of being run producers."

Phillips's slow start did nothing to dispel the "young Barry Larkin" billing. "I think that's a fair assessment," says Wedge.

But the decision to give Phillips a shot this year had less to do with tools than mental makeup. To expose a young player to the world's best pitchers is to risk shattering his psyche."Brandon was a guy who had the rare self-confidence and positivity for surviving those sort of challenges," says Shapiro. "I don't think his ultimate belief in himself will ever waver. That's what separates him."

Just two weeks into the season, Phillips is the picture of wavering. In batting practice, his swing seems flat. His most solidly hit balls are routine fly-outs. The rest are weak grounders and infield pop-ups. When the pitcher announces he's finished, Phillips hurls his bat to the ground.

The team is back from a road trip, during which Phillips collected his second home run, but little else. He's in no mood to see the positive. Asked whether he's pleased, he scowls: "No, man! I've got two home runs, but I'm hitting .150. Come on!"

Later, as he practices his swing off a tee, a reporter points out that some of his most sharply hit balls have been caught for outs. Maybe he's just going through a bad-luck streak. "You believe in luck?" he snaps. "The only thing I believe in is the Lord -- and steroids, because I need some more home runs."

The steroids part is a joke. But Phillips's usual grin has hardened into a clenched jaw. His gaze has turned sullen.

"If he's not smiling," says mother Lue Phillips, "something ain't right."

Every prospect struggles; but not every one of them comes back. Josh Hamilton was the Devil Rays' first pick in 1999; he and Phillips were in the same draft. Two years later, Baseball America named him the game's top prospect.

Injuries took him off the field, but the real problems were in his head. Hamilton began missing workouts. He seemed bizarrely fascinated with tattoos and totally uninterested in baseball. He disappeared altogether in March, returned in early May, played for a week, then announced that he was taking the rest of the season off to treat depression. Hamilton is 21.

Rick Ankiel's is the ultimate cautionary tale. He, too, was 21 when he arrived in St. Louis as a big, overpowering left-hander. He had a seemingly minor problem with control, but he looked outstanding during his rookie season.

The pressure ratchets up in the playoffs, however, and that's where Ankiel went haywire. Suddenly, he couldn't throw a strike. By the next spring, Ankiel was throwing over batters' heads -- even over the backstop. He forgot how to do the thing he seemed born to do: pitch. His career, by most accounts, is over.

In mid-April, there are signs that the pressure has gotten to Phillips. The player who adores the media has begun to hide from reporters -- he won't even make eye contact. One day, he delays an interview to toy with the clubhouse CD player, only to dart out for infield practice before the questions start.

The new guy finds little support among teammates -- on a losing team, everyone has his own problems. One of Phillips's closest friends, Milton Bradley, becomes a brooding presence after catching flak from teammates over disparaging remarks he made about the Royals. Asked what advice he'd give to a struggling Phillips, Bradley responds, "Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open."

Phillips's mailbox is stuffed to the top, probably with notes from well-wishers -- more reminders of how much is riding on his success. There are coaches and friends and family, who all have ideas about what he's doing wrong.

Even the fourth graders at William Cullen Bryant School have demands. There for a publicity appearance, Phillips is asked what his batting average is and how much he's being paid. Phillips cringes and blushes. That's his pewter-colored Hummer, filling two spots in the school parking lot; he knows he has to hit to maintain it.

The Baltimore Orioles are in town. For Phillips, it's a study in rookie frustration.

In the top of the second, he makes a diving stop and throws out the runner. It's a play few second basemen can make. But in the bottom of the inning, with two Indians runners on base and his team trailing, Phillips pops out to second.

The Tribe is down by a run in the seventh. Phillips leads off with a line-drive single to center. The crowd buzzes for a rally. As Oriole pitcher Rick Helling sets himself to pitch, Phillips is twitching, leaning toward second. He moves a half step early. Helling slings the ball to first. Phillips is tagged out. A cascade of boos pours down from the stands. The Indians lose by one.

The knock on Phillips was that he could make spectacular plays in the field -- the diving stop, the behind-the-back throw to second -- but that he might boot the slow grounder hit right to him. He was supposed to earn his pay at the plate. After the first six weeks of his rookie season, however, Phillips sports the best fielding percentage among second basemen in the league. But he still isn't hitting.

There is growing suspicion that the Indians' front office is losing patience with its struggling cast of rookies -- Phillips included. His attitude toward the minor leagues is "I'm through with that," but his youth and low batting average make him a candidate. Then Phillips collects a cluster of hits during the second week of May. On May 15, his average is .250, the highest point of the year.

Suddenly, he has rediscovered that wide smile. If Phillips ever doubted himself, there is no sign of it now.

Asked about his rocky start, Phillips says, "I was maybe too serious. I wasn't having as much fun." The key, he decided, was to play with the same jauntiness and flair that he did in the minors.

Seems like a great idea. But this epiphany only brings another slide -- the most vicious of Phillips' career. From May 22 to June 7, he goes 2 for 48. His average plunges to .195.

Wedge and Shapiro acknowledge that Phillips might be ticketed for Buffalo. There is concern that the slump might do permanent damage to his psyche.

But a knee injury to Vizquel means that McDonald -- who would have assumed the second-base job -- must play shortstop. So Phillips remains on the roster, though it's clear that he needs to get hot before Vizquel comes back.

With batting and fielding practice canceled by rain, the prospect is seated at a clubhouse table, a six-inch-high stack of envelopes beside him. Most contain rookie cards, mailed to him by fans. He signs them, then puts them into the stamped envelopes.

Currently, his 2000 Topps Traded Autograph Card is worth $50, according to the Beckett Baseball Card Monthly. If he goes down to the minors and never comes back, it'll be nearly worthless.

Eight weeks earlier, Phillips was sure that baseball was a game, that it should be fun. It seems that he's changed his mind. "It always feels like a job -- when you're doing good, when you're doing bad."

He hits safely in five of his next six games. But this time, there's no sense of having found the panacea. Phillips has learned to deal with his success skeptically. He still smiles, but there's a humility that wasn't there before.

"Baseball," he says with a sigh. "It'll make a man out of you."

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