PHOENIX — "Just call me gramps," Tony Phillips says and then he laughs. Well, not exactly a hearty, happy belly laugh. It is more a high-pitched cackling sound and two players in the batting cage stop swinging to find where this odd sound is coming from.
Then they see. "Just Tony," one says to the other and the hitting resumes.
Tony Phillips, who will be 40 on April 25, is on the Oakland A's roster this spring. Phillips, who is chewing gum faster than a lawn mower chews up grass, is sitting on a picnic table on the patio outside of the A's clubhouse and explaining why he is playing for his fifth team in the last four years.
First of all, Phillips doesn't even need to make one point. It only takes one look to see that Phillips is in superb shape. Not an ounce of fat, not a hint of flab. Phillips twirls the bat in his hand as if it is a baton.
Phillips can barely stand to walk from locker to field. He wants to run. And then you can see how much he enjoys being in this setting.
His whole being seems to need the slaps on the back, the pats on the butt, the hellos and good mornings that Phillips hears every morning here in the desert.
But most of all, Phillips says, he has come to begin his 18th major league season because "I think I have something I can teach the kids. I think I have something to say to these kids if they want to listen."
After he says this, Phillips stares hard at you. He is waiting for the reaction. He is waiting for you to say what he knows you are thinking. He is waiting for the smart-mouthed response: "What are you gonna teach them, Tony? Where to buy crack?"
"That's what you're thinking, right?" Phillips asks.
There is, in his eyes, both defiance and resignation.
Phillips tries to act as if he doesn't care. He says "it doesn't matter" what people think of him. It doesn't matter if people blame him for the collapse of the 1997 Angels in the aftermath of his arrest for possession of crack cocaine in a low-class motel three blocks from Disneyland in August of that year.
Everybody remembers, don't they? Remembers what the police said, that Phillips was found "with a loaded pipe in one hand and a lighter in the other." How the Angels were a game and a half ahead of Seattle when Phillips was arrested and how the Angels lost 21 of 30 games after Phillips' arrest.
Remembers how Disney chairman Michael Eisner wanted to force Phillips into suspension and rehab and how the baseball players union forced Eisner and Disney to abide by the contract that let Phillips, as a first-time offender, come back to the team and have confidential treatment?
Phillips remembers. He wants you to think it's no big deal.
"A mistake," he says. "But who hasn't made mistakes? You, have you made mistakes? Well, this was a mistake."
And then you ask Phillips what he thinks of the Angels now. You've heard he visited the Anaheim spring training facility and offered smiles and handshakes all around. But when the question comes, Phillips answers first with a hand gesture. A middle finger raised.
"Terry [Collins], Bill [Bavasi], Tim [Mead], they all treated me fairly and with respect," Phillips says of the Angels' manager, general manager and assistant general manager after he puts the finger down. "The players, they treated me fairly.
"But Disney and Michael Eisner . . . " What follows is a tirade, mostly filled with expletives and accusing Eisner of "grandstanding," and of "not living in reality."
"Eisner wanted to scapegoat me," Phillips says, kind of. You need to pull words out of the field of obscenities now. "Eisner wanted to make the world a Disney world and I was reality, man. Reality Eisner couldn't handle."
Through an Angels' spokesman, Eisner declined to respond to Phillips other than to say that "decisions were made to truly try and act in the best interests of all involved."
To which we can imagine Phillips answering with that finger again.
Phillips says he understands his actions were wrong, but he also insists that ending up in a seedy motel room in the middle of a baseball division race was not indicative of a problem. Phillips says he knows how badly he hurt his wife and two daughters.
But then Phillips says that the collapse of the Angels was not his fault. For every moment of contrition, Phillips follows with a moment of defiance, even now.
After turning down a spring offer last year from the Mets for less than a million dollars that Phillips called "disrespectful," Phillips says he had accepted in his mind that he was finished with baseball.
"I became a golfer," Phillips says. He and his family live in Scottsdale and Phillips says he was on the golf course "morning, noon and night."
But when the Toronto Blue Jays called last June, Phillips came back. He warmed up in the minors and then played, first for the Blue Jays, and then for the Mets, who acquired Phillips to be their leadoff man during their own try for a division title.
The Mets didn't make it. But Phillips found that he still could play with the same enthusiasm, fundamental soundness and hard-nosed resilience as always. Phillips hit .250 last season, playing in 65 games, with 59 hits in 236 at-bats and 34 runs scored. "And I hadn't picked up a bat for two months before I went to Toronto," Phillips says.
Now the A's would like him to be their leadoff hitter. And Phillips would like to teach the young players on a rebuilding team what it is to play baseball the right way. And can he teach young players about life, too? Does he want to? Does anybody want him to? "Don't know about that," Phillips says. "Don't care if they do or don't."
Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org