CLEVELAND -- Before he could launch one of the best Twitter accounts in baseball, Brandon Phillips needed a handle. And who better to come up with one than the person who knows him best, his little sister Porsha? "You should just go with 'DatDude,'" said Porsha, a Georgia basketball standout about to embark upon a WNBA career. "What you mean, 'DatDude'?" Brandon responded.
"Because," Porsha explained, "every time somebody looks at you, they're like, 'Dang, dat dude's crazy!'" That's how @DatDudeBP came to be earlier this year. And it was that aforementioned craziness that had the Cincinnati Reds' higher-ups petrified that the always talkative Phillips was about to create a public-relations nightmare. This was, after all, the same guy who started a veritable riot with the Cardinals last year. The Reds' brass braced itself for some terrifying tweets. "You say certain things," said manager Dusty Baker, "and you can set yourself up for one or two slips. Then everything you've done [to build up your reputation] is gone." In the months since, however, the 29-year-old Phillips has used his account in the best way imaginable. Sure, he's still kind of crazy, but in this format, it's an endearing craziness. Amid tweets about his team and his favorite places to eat on the road, he routinely engages in playful back-and-forth banter with his fans, with Cardinals fans, with whomever. But that's not what makes Phillips' one of the best Twitter accounts in baseball. No, for proof of that, we turn to a Little League field in West Chester, Ohio, on a Thursday afternoon earlier this month. A 14-year-old named Connor Echols had tweeted Phillips on the Reds' day off and told him he should come watch his team, the Cincy Flames. Phillips tweeted back, asking for the address, but the kid didn't think an appearance was really possible until he saw Phillips strolling over to the field. "Brandon!" Connor yelled from the dugout. "It was me! I'm the one who tweeted you!" Phillips took in the entire game, in which Connor went 3-for-5 in a 13-2 win. He met all of Connor's teammates and their parents, watched the kids grab their postgame oranges and turkey sandwiches and felt like a kid himself again. "I got a lot of requests [on the day off]," Phillips said. "For some reason, that one right there stood out more than all the others that I got. A lot of people wanted me to go bowling or to the movies. Some girls wanted me to go with them to this club or party or somewhere. I just wanted to do something low-key. I saw his tweet and thought, 'This would be nice to do.' "And to tell you the truth, I think it was the best thing that could have happened to me, going to that game. The look on his face just showed me how important we are to the young community." That was, however, merely one of many instances in which Phillips has used Twitter to give a little (or big) something back. He often holds trivia contests in which he doles out prizes such as tickets or autographs or memorabilia. But Phillips got particularly ambitious one day in Spring Training, when he asked his followers to name his all-time favorite drink. A Covington, Ky., woman named Rachel Zahniser was the first to respond with the correct answer: milk. Phillips arranged for her and her husband, Dave, to fly out to the Reds' Spring Training camp in Goodyear, Ariz., with all expenses, including meals and accommodations, paid. We want our star athletes to be responsive, to take the extra few minutes after batting practice to stop and sign autographs for the kids. What Phillips does, through a newer medium, goes above and beyond all of that. And what he does flies in the face of the reputation that was partially earned and partially unfairly thrust upon him in the earlier days of his professional career. Phillips, rightly or wrongly, became typecast as an overly flashy, overly cocky, overly moody kid when he first came up with the Indians. We met at the time, and I can attest that he was not always a joy to deal with. But it wasn't until he finally found professional happiness in his role with the Reds that he began to let the more engaging side of his personality seep to the surface with regularity. "If I could say one word to describe me," he said, "it's 'misunderstood.'" Phillips' flamboyance has managed to ruffle some feathers along the way, no question. Last summer's off-color comments about the Cardinals didn't win him any friends in St. Louis. It's funny, then, how a Twitter account everybody feared has become the best possible outlet for the public at large to get to know the real "dude." "A lot of people were nervous when I got on Twitter," Phillips said. "My parents were nervous, Dusty was nervous, [general manager] Walt Jocketty was nervous, my teammates were nervous. But I wasn't nervous, because I knew how I was going to use it. I wasn't going to disrespect my team or other players. "Now they love that I'm on there. They see the way I use it, and they say, 'Wow!' I'm bringing more fans to the game, and I'm getting more fans in other cities." Of course, none of what Phillips tweets to his nearly 40,000 followers (and counting) would carry much weight if he wasn't building on his All-Star and Gold Glove credentials. He's been a force in Baker's lineup this year, batting .317 with five homers and 27 RBIs and currently manning the cleanup spot for the National League Central contender. He's also made the highlight reel his home with his theatrics in the field. "What I love is people are starting to recognize defense now," he said. "If you just hit home runs, you're a one-dimensional player. So if you don't hit a home run, then you didn't do your job. But if you can play defense and do a decent job swinging the bat? Then you're one of the best players in the game." His critics would hate to admit it, but Phillips is just that. And he happens to be one of the best tweeters in the game, too. "To tell you the truth, I don't really see myself as a Major League Baseball player," Phillips said. "I'm just me. When I'm in uniform, then I feel like I'm a Major League player. But when I'm on Twitter, I'm just a normal dude." Yes, "dat dude" is crazy. And that's not a bad thing.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.