Starry eyed young men and women flock from small towns across America to pursue the dream of one day performing on the world's most illustrious stage: Broadway. Most have honed their craft in school plays, regional theaters or theme parks before summoning enough courage to test the bright lights of the big city. The first foray into show business might be as a member of the road production which travels from city to city across America until finally word comes--promotion to the Broadway cast.
For young baseball players, the dream follows a slightly different road. They perfect their skills on small-town sandlots and youth leagues. Only the very best make it to the minor leagues, the ballplayer's version of regional theater. Night after night, they perform in front of small crowds in relative obscurity, hoping for the call from the big leagues.
For former University of Alabama baseball player Andy Phillips, the call came June 19 when the New York Yankees brought him up from Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Since then, Phillips, 30, has been auditioning as the New York Yankees first baseman with hopes of being a permanent cast member of the Bronx Bombers.
While his batting average has hovered around a very respectable .300, the numbers don't tell the entire story. Phillips has solidified a problem position for the Yankees, with timely hits and game changing RBIs as the team continues to gradually gain ground in the American League playoff chase. He is popular among teammates and has earned the respect of fans. Phillips even has his own theme song – the Yankee Stadium PA system plays "Sweet Home Alabama" each time he comes to the plate.
As the Number 4 subway passed nearby and the reverberations rumbled overhead in the Yankees clubhouse, we sat down with Phillips as he spoke about playing for the most storied professional team in sports history in the stadium that Babe Ruth immortalized.
Born in Tuscaloosa, but raised in the small town of Demopolis (pop. 7,540), Phillips favored the Chicago Cub second baseman, Ryne Sandberg, growing up. "I was a big Ryne Sandberg fan and certainly tried to emulate him as much as I could. I was able to watch the Cubs on television all the time and I just loved the way he played the game. He was good on both sides of the ball. He could hit and play defense. There was something about him and the way he played that drew me to him."
After a stellar career at Alabama where he finished as the all time leader in home runs (61), RBIs(226) and total hits (322), Phillips' professional journey began when he was selected by the New York Yankees in the seventh round of the 1999 draft.
According to his high school football and baseball coach at Demopolis Academy, Sid Atkins, Phillips had dreams of playing for two teams. "Andy has always been an Alabama and a Yankees fan. He always wanted to wear the pinstripes."
Phillips chose to describe his affinity for his present team by saying, "I had a great respect for the Yankees and their history. It's no big secret. The Yankees are a team it seems where you either love them or hate them. I certainly wasn't on the hate side by any means."
While living the dream of playing major league baseball, personal nightmares have interrupted the euphoric rise to New York. After seven years working his way through the system, Phillips finally made the big club for the entire 2006 season but not without heartache. His wife Bethany was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer (gestational trophoblastic disease) related to her pregnancy before spring training. While Bethany underwent chemotherapy in Alabama; Phillips flew home to be with her on off-days. Phillips chose to disclose the illness to only Manager Joe Torre and a few close confidants so as not to be a distraction to the team. Phillips is not one to make excuses, but it would certainly be understandable if the turmoil in his personal life contributed to his sub-par .240 batting average in 110 games.
Just as Phillips was recovering from the emotional trauma of last season, he was plagued by another family hardship on Feb. 28 during spring training when his mother Linda was seriously injured in n automobile accident involving a tractor trailer. Phillips rushed to her side in a Birmingham Hospital where he stayed a week praying for her recovery. As soon as her condition stabilized, Phillips returned to Florida to compete for a roster spot. The days lost proved insurmountable as Joe Torre informed him that he would be assigned to the Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre affiliate. Phillips first thanked the Yankees manager for the opportunity. Then, with characteristic class, he asked if Josh Phelps, who had beaten him out for the backup first baseman's position had been informed because he wanted to congratulate him on making the team.
Phillips set aside his disappointment and concentrated on earning his way back to the Bronx by hitting .301 with 11 home runs and 36 RBIs through 65 games. His efforts were rewarded as he got the call to return to the major league club on June 19. Substituting for the injured duo of Jason Giambi and Doug Mientkiewicz at first base, Phillips has charmed the New York fans, media, teammates and coaching staff with his defensive prowess and hitting displays.
Phillips has always been diligent in his pursuit of becoming a good hitter as Coach Atkins recalled. "I can remember he used to bring black eyed peas before practice and toss them in the air to hit. It's a wonder we didn't have a garden out there on the practice field. Andy is very competitive." Atkins remembers Phillips as being a good Christian athlete and role model for others. "Andy was the type of kid that you would just roll out the ball and he knew what to do with it. He never tried to change his batting stance. He was easy to coach. I would leave him alone but I would holler at him just to prevent any repercussions from the other players."
Phillips played quarterback in high school and threw 26 touchdown passes his last two years. One incident involving Phillips's desire to assist his team created a dilemma that Atkins firmly resolved. "Andy got mad at me because I wouldn't let him play linebacker. He asked me to play linebacker and I said, I'll tell you right now, absolutely no."
During the last three years Phillips has developed the mandatory repertoire of skills to play first base after beginning his professional career as a third baseman. Asked about the transition to first base, Phillips said, "It's been good to be able to learn some other positions. Certainly playing second, third and short has helped me to make that transition to first. It's like trying to learn how to ride a bike. You get on it and sometimes you fall off. You have to keep doing things repetitiously until things start to slow down for you."
Whether it's his mastery of the leg stretching extension to nullify a runner's speed trying to beat the throw or the agility to come off the first base bag to tag runners after an errant throw by infielders, Phillips has changed the outcome of games with his defense. His range as an infielder has also enabled him to stab line drives and field grounders, cutting potential rallies short. During the latter innings of games when the Yankees have a significant lead, Phillips's versatility provides an option to rest Alex Rodriguez at third base.
Phillips has taken a more simple approach at the plate this year, cutting down on his swing with runners in scoring position, which has spurred his production. "I've definitely tried to slow the game down," Phillips said. "You can't play this game when you're trying to go a hundred miles an hour."
The catastrophic events confronted by Phillips off the field clarified his perspective of baseball. "Having gone through some stuff with my wife and my mom, now playing the game is a lot of fun." Phillips, a spiritual person and a man of faith, drew upon God during the fragile and vulnerable periods. "I don't know if I learned a whole lot about myself as much as I did about the sovereignty and the goodness of God in this whole thing. The way he was able to sustain me through it. I think I learned more about his character and who he is probably more than I learned about myself."
Phillips' workmanlike dependability has been appreciated by his superstar teammates. "He's been doing a tremendous job for us ever since he's been called up. He's been swinging the bat well. He's been playing great defense," New York Yankee shortstop and captain Derek Jeter said.
Third baseman and MVP candidate Alex Rodriguez echoed Jeter's sentiments. "His contributions have been very obvious to us because ever since he has gotten here, we've started to play winning baseball. He's been a big part of it (winning trend). He's gotten numerous big hits for us."
Pitcher Andy Pettitte, Phillips long-time friend and first-year teammate, said he's fit in easily in the Yankees star-studded clubhouse. "Sometimes you get overshadowed up here by so many high profile guys. I have heard a lot from the guys who played with him here. I've never played in the big leagues with Andy until this year. A lot of the guys have said great things about him from last year. They loved the way he went about his business and thought that he was a guy you could count on in big situations at times. He's proven that since he's been up here so far playing first base. I've been able to see that first hand."
New York Yankees Senior Vice President and General Manager Brian Cashman has also recognized Phillips value. "He's been productive on both the offensive and defensive side," Cashman said. "He's been a contributing factor in our recent winning spurt."
But this is the big leagues and these are the Yankees, an organization with a maniacal passion for excellence. So although Phillips' offensive production has been instrumental in the recent surge of wins, it hasn't stopped persistent rumors and talks of the team trading for an established first baseman. Perhaps that reflects Phillips's inability to match his minor league power, as he hit 30 home runs to rank second among New York Yankees minor leaguers in 2004 and third in 2005 with 22 despite playing in only 75 games.
Currently second in the league in runs scored as a team, the New York Yankees management must decide if Phillips's overall contributions are sufficient to pursue the team goal of a world championship.
Addressing the pending trade deadline and the extra motivation to produce, Phillips concentrates on going about his business. He said, "Until somebody mentioned something about the trade deadline yesterday, I had forgotten all about it. My deal is the same as it was the first day I walked in the clubhouse. I'm excited to be up here and I'm excited to try to contribute. I am going to do everything I can and give it everything I can to stick around."
Asked about possible moves to acquire another first baseman, Cashman said, "We are always looking to improve any aspect of our club. It doesn't matter what position it is. I'm not going to overpay anybody. It allows me to sit back and relax right now with Andy doing the job he is doing. I can't predict the future. It could be Andy for a long time or it could be someone else. We'll just have to wait and see but we're certainly happy with what he is doing."
Amidst the glare of lights, cameras and microphones, Phillips patiently and courteously obliges the New York media horde as they gather around his locker after games to question him about his exploits on the field, trade rumors and off the field family situations. Phillips characterized his relationship with the New York media by saying, "It's been good. You try to be the same. You try to deal with the media by trying to treat people the way you would like to be treated."
His New York Yankees teammates admire his clubhouse demeanor and work ethic. Jeter said, "He's a good guy to be around. He's a nice guy. That's the biggest thing. He's easy to get along with and he works hard. He's an overall good person."
When asked why he is so well liked Phillips replied, "I don't know. I take a lot of pride in trying to develop relationships with people. You want to be somebody that is dependable and people can look at and trust."
Pettitte who met Phillips in spring training years ago before his stint with the Houston Astros remains one of his closest friends. He shared his reasons for their friendship. "Andy is a good man and a good friend of mine. We're both from the South. We both have a pretty strong faith in the Lord and that draws us closer to one another. We talk about our families a lot and other things besides baseball. Andy's got a great outlook on life. He understands what life is about. God's given him a great talent to play this game of baseball and he's done a great job with it. He's just a good team player. You don't get too caught up in yourself. He's pulling for everybody else. People know and can see that he is genuinely pulling for other people. When you are able to do that, you are able to be a good influence on people and Andy's been a good positive influence on this team. That's for sure."
When asked why he is so liked in the clubhouse, Cashman, a 21 year veteran employee of the New York Yankees replied, "He's a quality individual. He's just a great person. It's hard not to like a guy like him. He's just very genuine, sincere and he works hard. All those different things. His work ethic. He's a quality person."
The constant media attention and fan adoration received as a member of the New York Yankees is akin to being an Alabama football player in many respects. "Yes, I would say it's similar. Not having the experience to know what it's like to be an Alabama football player. I would have to say definitely that the excitement and the importance people put on it is certainly similar."
As a participant in the intrastate conflict between Alabama and Auburn, Phillips is now part of the historic Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. Asked to compare the two Phillips replied, "It's similar except we play 19 times a year instead of one. It's intense as I've ever seen anything."
Phillips's derives pleasure from a lifelong passion, singing. "My whole family was raised around music. My mom (Linda), dad (Larry) and sister (Erin) sing. It is something that I appreciate and I enjoy. I've been doing it all of my life."
In November 2006, he sang the national anthem at the Mississippi State-Alabama football game. He once sang the national anthem while a member of the Staten Island Yankees when the original singer was unable to attend.
He reluctantly conceded that he plays an instrument. "I try to play guitar but I don't know if what I do you could consider actual playing or not."
The off-season is a time for Phillips and his wife, a contemporary Christian music singer, to share their religion and faith. "I'm really involved with Baseball Country (in the Tuscaloosa County community of Ralph), which is a ministry that we are using in the realm of baseball and to do clinics. We try to share the gospel with kids. We travel and do some mission work. And also I'm busy traveling around doing music and speaking engagements at different churches. It's something I have a passion to do and I enjoy it." He has also been to the Dominican Republic spreading the word.
When Alabama Baseball Coach Jim Wells announced his retirement, and then had a change of heart after close consultation with family and friends, Phillips was among those that Coach Wells sought out before returning to The Capstone. Phillips appreciated the gesture by his former coach but chose not to elaborate when asked about the specifics of the conversation. "The stuff that he and I talked about I would like to keep personal. I was glad that he felt strong enough to talk to me about what he was going through and his thought process. I'll just say I am extremely excited that he is coming back because there is not a better man for the job."
Phillips also voiced his approval of the two new hires for Alabama's baseball team, assistant coach and recruiting coordinator, Mitch Gaspard and former University of Alabama teammate and now the volunteer assistant coach, Dax Norris. "Those guys know how to win. They add a tremendous amount of loyalty to Coach Wells. Dax will bring an infectious enthusiasm that rubs off on people. That staff with those two guys and with B. J. (Green) working along with Coach Wells will bring back some exciting times for the baseball program."
Phillips addressed the health issues of his wife and mother. "They both are extremely blessed. They are both healthy. My wife is cancer free and my mom is now working again. Life is back to normal. We've been really blessed." Celebratory news for the Phillips family is that Bethany is able to have children.
Challenged by adversity, Phillips has courageously forged through circumstances that might cause others to surrender. He has not only endured but thrived when given an opportunity to start at first base. And even though he is a contributing member on baseball's biggest stage as a New York Yankee, Phillips remains the humble, deferential athlete from small town Alabama.
Maybe the supreme compliment comes from Rodriguez. "When it comes down to his personality in the clubhouse, Andy is the kind of guy that if you have a daughter, you want your daughter to marry a guy like Andy Phillips. He's the ultimate teammate. He's awesome. We love him around here."
And the fans that bear witness to his nightly audition at Yankee Stadium love him too.
Editor's Note: A.P. Steadham provides special features coverage for 'BAMA Magazine and BamaMag.com