LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – After watching rookie shortstop Dansby Swanson play some last season from the other dugout and observing him Friday from a few feet away, veteran second baseman Brandon Phillips made a prediction now that they are Braves teammates and double-play partners.
“We’re going to have a lot of fun. We’re going to make a lot of plays,” Phillips said, with a smile of contentment after his first workout with the Braves. “Lot of Web Gems coming to the theatres near you in Atlanta.”
Phillips, 35, is not the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award winner he once was, but the Stone Mountain native is still a productive player — he hit .291 with 34 doubles, 11 homers and a .320 OBP in 2016 — and an going energetic sort who says he’s thrilled to finally play for the hometown team after coming from the Reds last weekend in a trade that cost the Braves just two minor league pitchers and a $1 million commitment.
The Redan High School graduate has never been modest about his own impressive skills and accomplishments, and Phillips is eager to impart any wisdom he can on young Swanson, 22, who impressed with both his glove and bat during his first 2 1/2 months in the major leagues last season.
In Phillips and Swanson, a former Marietta High School standout, the Braves have an all-ATL double-play duo.
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“He’s going to be great (to work with),” Phillips said. “He’s got a nice little swing. Saw him play last year. He’s going to be good for a long time, and hopefully I can help him out a little bit and we can work together. It’s going to be fun.”
Fifteen minutes later, Phillips and Swanson were seated on stools at their adjacent lockers, turned toward each other and chatting, with no one else around and Rick James’ “Super Freak” playing on the clubhouse stereo system.
“He’s a Georgia boy, went to Redan,” Swanson said. “Yeah, he’s special. His talent and his care level and what he does on a daily basis is pretty awesome. Just to be able to learn from that, pick his brain, play with him, whatever it is, it’ll be pretty special being around him.”
The Reds, who are rebuilding and had tried for at least a year to trade Phillips so they could play younger players, finally found a suitor and a deal he wouldn’t veto. Cincinnati is paying $13 million of his $14 million salary in 2017, the final season of his six-year, $72.5 million contract. The Braves agreed to throw in another $500,000 if they trade him.
“I think the last time I put on a Braves jersey, I was 16, 17 years old when we had a workout at Turner Field,” Phillips said, referring to a pre-draft workout in 1999, just before he was selected out of Redan by the Montreal Expos in the second round of the June draft. “I had the (Braves) jersey on and I was like, ‘Wow, one day it would be nice to put on this jersey.’ And look what happened? I’m in the jersey now.
“It’s a blessing in disguise. I’m happy to be here and everybody’s nice. I feel like home.”
He remembers going to plenty of games at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium during the Braves’ 1990s glory days. (He also served as a bat boy for Team USA at the 1996 Olympics, a team that included R.A. Dickey, now 42 and another recent Braves addition.)
“I remember my first game I went to, I saw Barry Larkin at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium,” Phillips said. “And just being at the games at Fulton County, they had the little tomahawks and everybody going crazy. David Justice was there — and Hallie Berry was there, too. It was crazy, man.
“Andre Rison doing the Dirty Bird, Deion Sanders playing baseball and football. I remember all that stuff, man. I was a fan of the Braves and Falcons. Obviously, I still am. Now I’m on the Braves. It’s going to be fun, man. I’m really looking forward to this.”
A 15-year veteran who spent 11 seasons with Cincinnati, Phillips kept a home in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. His mother still lives in Stone Mountain, as do so many friends that he doesn’t know what he’ll do to handle all the inevitable ticket requests for the Braves’ coming season at new SunTrust Park. “I might have to get a suite,” he said, laughing.
But it’s a hassle he won’t mind dealing with, since he’ll be playing in the city he’s proud to call home.
Phillips believes there was also some intervention involved from his late Redan classmate Jarvis Johnson, who died last year from cancer.
“I’m glad I can live this dream, and I wish my boy Jarvis was still alive because he always said it would be nice for me to play for the Braves,” he said. “He passed away last year, and I really feel like he made that happen, he’s watching over me right now. Hopefully I can make him proud in a Braves uniform. He was my best friend. Ya know, Stone Mountain boy, ATLien – that’s my boy. He’s watching over me.”
It looked like Phillips might be headed to the Braves in November. Phillips said reports that he vetoed a proposed trade to Atlanta were erroneous.
“I didn’t say no to no trade; I didn’t know what was going on,” said Phillips, adding that he only heard it was a possibility at the time. “I didn’t know anything. So when I (later) heard about it, I was like, for real, that’s what happened? Dang, man, why didn’t y’all make that happen?
“That’s why I didn’t want to say anything or call anybody out because I was just like, what is going on? I never said I didn’t want to play for the Braves.”
Braves general manager John Coppolella said this week that Phillips didn’t veto the November deal and was still considering it when the Braves decided to move on and sign versatile veteran Sean Rodriguez.
When Rodriguez injured his shoulder in a Jan. 28 car crash and the Braves found out last week that he’d need rotator-cuff surgery, they went back to the Reds and trade talks were revived. This time, Phillips agreed to the deal with the $500,000 “assignment” clause thrown in.
Phillips was at home in Buckhead when he agreed to the deal at some point Saturday. He then traveled to Arizona, where he spent years of spring training with the Reds, and retrieved some belongings from an apartment there before heading to Florida to join his new team.
“I’m here now, and I’m very happy,” he said. “I miss Cincinnati; that’s always home. But Atlanta’s my home home. I’m just happy to be here and glad that the Braves and my agency made it happen.”