CINCINNATI — There is no debate, not even room for a whisper of a discussion, that Joe Morgan is the best second baseman ever to slip into a Cincinnati Reds baseball uniform. And maybe he might be the best to pull on a major league uniform.
He was that good. Better than good. He was that great as the best all-around player on The Big Red Machine.
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Ever so quietly, though — as quiet as the flashy Brandon Phillips can be — Phillips is slipping into Joe Morgan’s domain.
Morgan played seven years for the Cincinnati Reds and Phillips is in his seventh year with the Reds. And so many of their statistics are dead-on similar that it is eerie.
Consider: Joe Morgan hit 152 home runs and Phillips has 150. Joe Morgan had 612 RBI and Phillips has 605. Brandon Phillips has 221 doubles and Morgan had 220. Brandon Phillips has 1,214 hits and Morgan had 1,155.
In the irony of ironies, Morgan is an executive with the Reds and sometimes dresses into his retired uniform No. 8 and roams the field. And his locker in the clubhouse is right next to Phillips.
“I don’t think about me catching Morgan’s records, but everybody keeps bringing it up and so I address it,” said Phillips. “I just play the game. But I do look up to him and he is my locker partner and he helps me in many things. I do pick his brain because he was the best second baseman ever to play this game and I would be stupid not to pick his brain.”
Phillips flashed his sunshine bright smile and said, “For me to be approaching his records means I’ve been here too long or I’m too good.”
It was pointed out that Morgan played seven years in Cincinnati and Phillips is in his seventh year and he said, “There it is. Whatever that is. I’m not really trying to break his records.
“We’ve talked and he always told me, ‘Hey, don’t try to be just like me. Be better than me.’ And I said, ‘Well, trying to be better than you is pretty hard, but I’ll try my best.”
Morgan wears two World Championship rings from 1975 and 1976, the same years he was National League Most Valuable player, and Phillips said, “That’s what it is all about. It’s all about the rings. There are a lot of personal things I’ve done in this game that I love and cherish, but I want to get a ring. That’s why I say that Dustin Pedroia (Red Sox), Robinson Cano (Yankees) and Chase Utley (Phillies) are all second basemen that have something I don’t have. A ring. I say those guys are ahead me because they have a ring and I don’t. That’s the only reason.”
Phillips likes to kid Morgan about how the old players always talk about how great it was back in the day and tells Morgan, “Man, I never saw you play. I don’t know how good you are. You weren’t that good. I don’t see any proof. Always messing with him. I know he was a great player.”
Morgan was known for using the smallest glove in the game, a couple of pieces of leather slapped together that barely covered his hand. He brought in one day and Phillips said, “That looks like my practice glove. Get out of here with that thing. But you know what. He always told me my defense is better than his was and I said, ‘Ah, thanks. I appreciate that.’ It’s nice to hear him say that.”
But there was a caveat. Morgan told Phillips that he was faster and had more power.
“He said I have a lot better tools than him in a lot of respects, but that his team made him better,” Phillips added. “It was so nice to hear him talk about me like that.”
Reds manager Dusty Baker played against Morgan and The Big Red Machine, in 1975 with the Atlanta Braves and in 1976 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. And now he manages Phillips.
“They’re different,” said Baker. “Morgan was less flashy, more conventional. Joe had more speed and equal power. When Joe came up stealing bases was Joe’s thing. He has a ways to go to catch Joe.”
When he was mentioned that Morgan had two MVPs, Baker smiled and said, “Brandon is working on that.”
Baker agrees that Phillips is better defensively than Morgan was, but Morgan had the edge offensively.
“That’s a true assessment,” said Baker.
Morgan played for manager Sparky Anderson, a man with whom Baker often chatted and Anderson described Morgan perfectly.
“Sparky told me that Joe Morgan could change a game around by himself in many ways and there aren’t too many people who could do that. He could walk and steal second. Beat you with a home run, beat you with a hit. Beat you with the glove. Late in the game he said he wanted Joe Morgan up there to do something.
“And you know what? Brandon is approaching that,” Baker added. “The other day he got a squib hit down the first base line to help us win a game. Then he hits a home run in another game and gets a base hit up the middle for two runs. He makes so many great defensive plays you just take it for granted.”