CINCINNATI — Brandon Phillips owns an everyday smile that would light up Broadway, but it broadened wide enough to illuminate Manhattan when he was asked how it felt to be considered a hot dog by many opponents of the Cincinnati Reds.
“Just put some mustard on me,” he said, then emphasized it with a giggle.
Phillips said the extra pizazz and flashiness is part of his persona — always has been and always will be — and he steals a line from Sammy Davis Jr., “I gotta be me.”
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It is as natural to see Phillips adding impromptu gestures and motion to his game as the way he pounds his bat once on home plate before every pitch.
“Me and Jonny Gomes bring so much excitement to this team and to the game,” said Phillips. “A lot of people think we’re just crazy, that’s it wrong, that we’re not respecting the game. But we respect this team and the things we do are to get the crowd into the game and to build our team up. As long as it is working, I don’t really care what they think.”
Phillips, a first-time All-Star last season and a second time Gold Glover, is off to a massive start — .339 with a home run, six RBI and two stolen bases through Wednesday.
It wasn’t a “call home to tell mom” type of night for Phillips on Wednesday as the Reds dropped a 3-1 decision to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Phillips was fitted for a tight 0-for-4 collar, but he showed his spunkiness in the eighth inning. With one out and the Reds down two runs, he battled pitcher David Hernandez for 10 pitches, working the count to 3-and-2. He nearly started something by then hitting a line drive toward right field, but second baseman Kelly Johnson stole a hit with a leaping snag.
When Phillips played the first 12 games, the team was 8-4 and comfortably in first place. Then he missed four games because of a groin pull and the Reds lost three of four to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“I hated it, sitting watching my team lose and I thought I could help them,” said Phillips. “But we’ve lost two straight since I came back. I’m glad to be back but sad that we lost both games.”
Phillips, a second-round draft pick by Montreal in 1999, arrived in Cincinnati in the first week of the 2006 season, a giveaway by the Cleveland Indians.
They accepted a pitcher named Jeff Stevens, just to get rid of Phillips, who had been plastered with a reputation of being a difficult character by both the Expos and the Tribe.
He has been nothing but an A-plus factor for the Reds.
Asked if he has had a better start than this year, Phillips said: “My best start was when I first came here in ’06. That year, I had to show people that I deserved a chance and needed to be in the majors.”
And to wipe away his trashy image.
“I came off the bench at beginning, and it gave me an opportunity to settle in, not try to do too much,” he said. “Manager Jerry Narron put me in a great position to be successful, hitting me first or second. I thank him for that because he made it much easier on me.”
So what is the 29-year-old Phillips trying to prove this year and why does it appear he is hustling more and having even more fun than usual?
“I’m not trying to prove anything” he said. “I just learned a lot from last year about what type of player I should be and what I’m capable of doing from hitting leadoff and a little bit at second.
For a couple of years — 2008, 2009 — Phillips batted clean-up out of necessity and it didn’t suit his style or his demeanor.
“It was hard for me to hit fourth because I couldn’t concentrate on other things other than producing RBIs,” he said. “Now I’m back in the No. 2 hole the same position I was in in ’07. I can go up there be myself, and not worry about too many things. I just try to make things happen and positive things are happening. So I thank (manager) Dusty Baker for putting me in the position where I can be myself and not worry about RBIs.”
How about the added hustle and intensity?
“We’re winning, man,” he said. “My team is very supportive of me. They love me, man. They say I’m like the trend-setter For them to say that to me made me work even harder and makes me try to be the player I need to be to give this team a boost.”
He is back in the lineup now, but the team needs more than a boost. More like a lift. And Phillips is ready to be a human forklift.