CINCINNATI -- The self-proclaimed best second baseman in baseball sits in front of his locker in the Reds' clubhouse, bat in hand and smile in place. Brandon Phillips is smiling because he knows how people will perceive such an outrageous proclamation. And he readily offers that, as far as piddly little things like statistics and career accomplishments are concerned, Chase Utley and Robinson Cano are probably the best second basemen in their respective leagues. But Phillips also knows that if he didn't believe he is better than both of them, he'd have no business being in the big leagues.
"You have to look at things that motivate you," he says. "Some people look at money. Some people look at other players and say, 'I can be better than that.' Some guys are just stuck on themselves. I'm not stuck on myself. I just feel like I have so much potential and believe in myself that I can go out there and do anything I put my mind to. God blessed me with this talent that I don't really know what I have, because I haven't been in that situation to know what I have." At last, that situation has presented itself. For the first time in his career, Phillips is on a playoff-bound club, and he'll have the opportunity to back up his belief that he can outplay the Utleys and Canos of the world. "Those guys have proved it," he says. "They proved it, proved it, proved it. But do I feel like I can be like them? Yes, I do." Yet as the Reds, who have locked up their first NL Central title in 15 years, prepare for the postseason, they have serious concerns over whether the hand injury Phillips suffered a month ago will allow him to prove much of anything. In the time since a pitch by the Giants' Santiago Casilla smacked him in the right hand on Aug. 25, Phillips' numbers have spiraled downward. He was batting .290/.343/.458 at the time and has put up a slash line of .163/.252/.239 since. Manager Dusty Baker had no choice but to bump Phillips down from the leadoff spot to the lineup's lower half last week. X-rays on the hand revealed no damage, though Phillips has expressed belief that another round of tests might reveal some kind of crack. Those tests will have to wait until season's end, though, because he is adamant about playing through the pain. "The hand has affected me a lot, man," Phillips says. "The type of person I am, I can't be like many players who can just sit in the clubhouse and not play hurt. I'm the type of person who believes you only have one career, and I just love playing. I just feel there's so many people out there who would love to switch positions with me. So let me go out and play and have my presence out there. I can win games without my bat. I can use my baserunning and my defense. If I only cared about my numbers, I would have sat out. But it was more than that, man. We were winning, and I had a job to do. I'm here to be a winner and make that happen." Displaced, then miscast Phillips wants to be the guy who makes things happen. But until late June, when Baker moved him to the leadoff spot, he was miscast as a middle-of-the-order hitter. Yes, Phillips drove in 94 runs in '07 and 98 in '09, but he never felt truly comfortable in the role as a cleanup bat. He says he felt himself focusing too heavily on run-production and not enough on doing the little things to ignite an offense. "The Reds didn't really know what type of player I could be, because I didn't have the chance to show them until this year," he says. "I showed them that I can hit at the top of the order when they need me to. There's a lot of people out there who don't know how versatile I am." And a lot of people who don't quite know what to make of Phillips' flamboyance. The Indians certainly weren't fans of it, which is why they parted ways with Phillips for a mere player to be named (who turned out to be Minor League reliever Jeff Stevens) at the start of the '06 season. They had watched Phillips struggle with his limited opportunities at the Major League level, sulk in the Minors and scoff at organizational directives about the way to approach the game. "I'm a flashy player," he says. "I love to smile, love to have a good time. Because this is baseball. This is your dream. You get paid a lot of money to do something you love, and I love this game. But when I was over there, man, I couldn't be myself. I couldn't be me. I was always in the office, I was always doing early work. When you're 20 or 21 years old coming into the league and someone says, 'You have to follow this rule, you have to play the game like this, you can't be fancy, you have to run the bases, we're going to fine you if you miss a call, we're going to sit you on the bench.' Man, that's like the military to me. That's why I didn't join the military. I mean, left-right, left-right. That ain't me. "This game is supposed to be fun. This ain't a job. This is your career. And you have to love your career." Playing his way Phillips, now 29, expresses nothing but love for his time with the Reds. When he arrived in '06, former manager Jerry Narron and former GM Wayne Krivsky immediately informed him he was free to play the game the way he wants. "They said, 'If you can't get the job done, you're going to do it our way,'" he says. "That's all I had to hear. When you tell a player straight-up how it's going to go, what you need to do and what type of player they want you to be, that's all a young player has to hear." Still, it would be misleading to suggest that Phillips' time here has been totally tranquil. He has had a couple dust-ups with Dusty, a man he views as a father figure. At times, Phillips has been a wayward son, called out by Baker for a lack of hustle last year, and, this year, lectured on the merits of keeping his mouth shut. Phillips gave the Cardinals ample bulletin board material in the midst of a pennant race last month, when the Dayton Daily News quoted his diatribe on his hatred of the Cards and what he deemed to be their "whining" ways. When the two teams met the next night, Phillips tapped his bat against the shin pads of Cards catcher Yadier Molina when he came to the plate in the bottom of the first, and a seven-minute fracas erupted. "I respect the Cardinals, I do," Phillips says now. "They're a great franchise, a great organization, they have a great tradition. I have many friends over there on that team. But, you know, what I said is what I said. I won't take it back. I said those things, and it got out. I wish it didn't, but it did, so I can't take it back. It wasn't supposed to be in the paper. Their team wasn't supposed to hear that." They did hear it, and then they went out and swept the Reds in a three-game set at Great American Ball Park. Phillips went a woeful 2-for-14 in the series. And yet, from that point on, it was the Reds, not the Cards, who ran away with the Central. As a result, Phillips is able to look at the controversy he caused as a blessing in disguise. "I feel what I said just showed everybody that we're here to stay," he says. "We all came together after that. My team knew what happened and the situation about how it got out, and they had my back. It's a beautiful thing to have a team have your back like that." The belief among the Reds is that Phillips has matured, and he is clearly appreciative of his surroundings. Alas, not all of Phillips' relationships are quite so sunny. He has not been on speaking terms with two beat reporters assigned to covering the Reds, and he makes no apologies for giving them the stone-wall treatment. "You show me respect, and I'll respect you," he says. "If you respect me, I'll talk to you every day. But if you want to bad-mouth me and then come into my face and talk to me like I'm your friend, you have no chance to talk to me. My mama raised me like that. She was like, 'If somebody don't have nothing good to say to you, then don't say nothing to them. Don't even talk to them.' That's why I am the way I am. It's my mama and my daddy's fault." Such a matter-of-fact mindset is what makes Phillips a divisive player. Some think he's a hot dog, while others appreciate his flash. His opinion of himself is secure. Phillips believes he can be the best second baseman in baseball, and it's that belief that has pushed him to improve over the years. "I've always felt like I'm the star that I am, but y'all just didn't know about me," he says. "There was never a time or place for me to let it out, because I was never in that spotlight." Cue the spotlight, because October is coming for Phillips and the Reds.