Where in the World Is Anthony Phillips? St. Paul Saints Glad He’s Found Home
They say it can be a long road to reach your dreams. If someone knew the story of St. Paul Saints shortstop Anthony Phillips they would know there is absolute truth in that statement. The club’s shortstop has seen his journey to reach the Major Leagues stretch across five continents to fulfill his hope of becoming a Major League baseball player one day. It’s a remarkable journey that requires an atlas to see how far the 25-year-old has gone to follow his dream.
Anthony Phillips grew up in South Africa, where his father and brother were big stars in the national baseball program. The love of the diamond did not end with the men however, as both his sister and mother were stars in softball making this, as Anthony calls, “A baseball-oriented family.”
Many may not be aware of this, but baseball has developed as a popular sport in the African nation since it was introduced to the country nearly 100 years ago. The sport has grown in popularity in South Africa ever since, and in 2006 and 2009 the nation sent a representative to the World Baseball Classic. They are not a baseball powerhouse yet, but they are establishing credibility on the world stage. A big part of that progress can be placed on one man’s shoulders – Anthony’s father, Alan Phillips.
Alan was already a star athlete in the country long before he decided to pick up a bat and ball. He had been a 27-time national title winner in badminton and had participated in the sport in the 1992 Summer Olympics. In 1998 he moved to his new passion, baseball, and was a member of the South African national team that competed in the Baseball World Cup that year, as well in the 2000 Summer Olympics.
Like his dad, Anthony grew up starring in two sports. He was not only recognized as one of the bright young stars on the diamond, but also was making a name for himself in rugby. His success as a rugby player earned him a spot on the state rugby squad, an honor that would have likely led to scholarships when he graduated. He attained this honor at just 13-years-old.
Baseball was also a passion and a sport he was doing well in. As his play on the pitch was garnering attention for the teenager, so was his play on the diamond. Anthony had participated in the national championships in state baseball when he was 15, and did so well at that tournament that he caught the eye of the New York Yankees. Yankees scout Pat Kelly approached Anthony following the tournament letting him know that the club was interested in taking a closer look at him. Anthony was thrilled; his mother was not.
Gussie Phillips had already been through the “we’d like to take a look at you” speech with Anthony’s older brother Jonathan. The older Phillips’ son had heard how clubs were interested, but no one ever took much action beyond that. This was not happening to the younger brother.
“We had actually already gone through this with my brother where scouts come up and say that they are interested, but they don’t actually put pen to paper right away. So my mom jumped in and said ‘Well if you are interested, let’s put pen to paper instead of talking about it,’ because you know sometimes they just talk about it but don’t do much about it.”
Kelly stepped away and the family wondered if this was going to be like the many situations they had encountered before. Little did they know at the time that all their lives were about to change.
“It wasn’t five minutes later that my scout was talking to his boss and he came back and said, ‘OK, this is what we are going to do. If you’re interested we are going to send you the Major League Baseball academy in Australia.’”
This was the opportunity of a lifetime for Anthony, but one that no one should think was an easy one to make. It was not like he was going from Seattle to Arizona. Phillips was moving over 6000 miles away (roughly twice the distance from New York to Los Angeles), and there was a gigantic ocean separating where his family was and where he would be playing. There was not going to be a long family road trip to see him play in games.
One must also consider that he was still just 15-years-old, and a star on the pitch. The scales were about to come out to measure what would be his best option.
“I was excited, but at the same time I was trying out for state rugby, because I had made the state team a couple of years before, and rugby is a big thing in South Africa. So if I could make the state team again it would be a really big deal for me, because you can get scholarships and really have a chance for great success. It came down to whether I wanted to play state rugby again and finish high school at home, or was I going to play professional baseball. I found that I loved the game so much that I had to choose baseball.”
He was excited to go, but this was still a tough call. He was leaving his family, and knew that this would be tough on them as well.
“They were happy and at the same point a little sad. I am the baby of the family. This is their last child going off and experiencing the world, but they were all happy for me at that point because they knew it was one of my dreams to play professional baseball. Being a baseball family I think they were all excited for me.”
The 6,300 mile journey began with him packing his bags and heading for the Land Down Under. He had great success there, so much success that by 16 he was already with a new organization – the Seattle Mariners.
At 16-years-old he was headed to Arizona to begin his professional career in America. His first Spring Training was an amazing experience for Anthony, but it also had some classic moments that he still laughs about today.
“I was 16-years-old and was 5-9, 150 pounds; I felt really underweight. In one of the first days we were doing this fitness test where we had to do a 300-yard shuffle. Brad Nelson, who was a big first baseman, turned to me and asked me if I was a coach’s son. I told him I was a player, but he didn’t believe me. After we ran it I came in first and he turned to me and said, ‘OK, I believe you now.’”
It wasn’t just that he had to earn the respect of his teammates. American baseball was a lot different than what he had played in South Africa, or even in Australia for that matter, and so he had to spend some time learning how to play in the States if he was going to succeed.
“Baseball in South Africa is a lot more crafty because guys cannot throw as hard. You see guys throwing 80 to 85 and so there is a lot more off-speed pitches thrown. In the States you have guys at 18 throwing 95 mph. The first three weeks of Spring Training I was just trying to play catchup just on seeing pitches.”
Adjustments were exactly what he was making. At just 17, Anthony was already playing for the Mariners rookie league team. He hit a solid .279 in 45 games that year, while only making five errors. His defense was quickly making him a name in the organization, and in 2008 he began in rookie ball, but moved to Low-A Everett and onto Advanced-A High Desert before the year ended. He struggled at the plate, but his defense remained his calling card.
In 2009 he returned to Everett to work on his swing, and success followed. He raised his average over 60 points from the previous season, and continued to flash a solid glove. In 2010 he started at Everett, but was moved to AAA-Tacoma for a brief stint, proving the organization trusted that he could play big when called upon to do so.
The 2011 season was truly the craziest of seasons for Phillips. With no permanent position at any level for him, the organization decided it was best to move him up and down to fill in needs they had, no matter what the level was. The trip from South Africa to Australia may have been a long one, but he was about to make an equal sized journey over the summer.
“In 2011 I moved 11 times. I was in extended spring training, then went to AAA, then back to extended, then back to AAA, then went to short season, then went back to AAA to help out. I was never in a permanent position, so they moved me around a lot where I could help out for a game or two.”
Anthony earned two more years in the Seattle organization, but in 2014 he was traded to Philadelphia. After one season, his new club released him and he was forced to seek new employment. He had reached out to several clubs but was, surprisingly, finding no takers.
In February of this year he decided to come back from South Africa to the U.S.A. to see if he could latch on to a new club. He found that the New Jersey Jackals of the Can-Am League were interested, and the club quickly signed him to a deal. It looked like he would remain out east this summer.
Like all amazing journeys, there had to be a hitch along the way somewhere and Anthony had one of those as well. He was in the United States on a visiting visa and so, after signing, he needed to get a sports visa to play baseball and earn money. Of course the wheels of bureaucracy spin slowly, and the Jackals found that they could not wait any longer for him to be cleared.
The St. Paul Saints were in need of some infield help, particularly at shortstop, and made a deal to bring the 25-year-old to St. Paul. He still had the visa issue, but the Saints were in a greater position to ride that out until he had the paperwork he needed to be able to play. Five days before the American Association season began, in what Phillips calls “a miracle,” the visa was ready and he was on the field for the Saints opening contest at CHS Field.
It was a miraculous moment that made it so that he was eligible to play, but he always knew that when he could play he would be on the field. St. Paul Saints manager George Tsamis made it clear to Phillips that he was his guy.
“George told me the job was mine. In fact he told me to just play hard and don’t do anything stupid to mess it up,” he remembers with a laugh. “He gave me the chance to play and I am glad he showed confidence in me.”
That confidence has been well rewarded this season. In 85 games this season he has hit .276 with 2 home runs and 32 RBI, plus he has scored 42 runs. Anthony has also been an absolute whiz at short for the Saints, making just 10 errors and has arguably been the best shortstop in the American Association this season. He has been a key piece for this club, and is enjoying his first season in independent baseball.
“This has been such an incredible season this year. One of the most enjoyable ones I have had as a player. Definitely in my top four in most special moments in my career. The locker room is incredible, the guys on this team all play hard, and this has just been so special that it is beyond anything I imagined when I came here. Plus we get to play in this beautiful ballpark each night. This is just amazing.”
It has been a magical season that has found its way into his short list of great moments in his career. Among those he includes are his first home run, signing his first professional contract, and the excitement of representing his country in the World Baseball Classic. That may be his most special moment of all for some very obvious reasons.
“Playing with my brother was such an honor to me because he taught me most of the things I know today. Playing in the World Baseball Classic with my dad as the pitching coach, my brother being my third baseman, and playing with people I grew up with at home on a world stage was pretty amazing.”
What has been amazing is that playing for South Africa gave him the opportunity to increase the list of nations where he has found himself on the diamond. That list now includes Taiwan, Cuba, and Mexico among others. Don’t be surprised to see him representing his country in 2017, nor should anyone be astounded if father Alan and brother Jonathan are out there in some capacity as well.
Anthony Phillips has been a real difference maker for the St. Paul Saints this season. He has solidified the team’s infield defense and been a key bat at the bottom of the order. His play has been recognized by his manager and teammates as a key reason why the Saints have been playing at such a high level all season long. It is likely that some Major League clubs have seen that as well, so keep a look out folks. Next spring you may be asking yourself “Where in the World is Anthony Phillips Now?”
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA