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Tony Phillips, fiery leadoff hitter for Angels in 1995, dies of apparent heart attack at age 56

Tony Phillips, the feisty leadoff hitter and utility player who helped push the Angels to within one game of the 1995 playoffs, died Wednesday in Scottsdale, Ariz., of an apparent heart attack. He was 56.

The Oakland Athletics, for whom Phillips played eight big-league seasons (1982-89) to start his career, confirmed the news in a statement, saying the club “lost another member of our family this week with the unexpected passing of Tony Phillips.”

Phillips played 18 major-league seasons, accumulating 2,023 hits and 1,300 runs while finishing with a career average of .266 and an on-base percentage of .374. After helping the A’s win the 1989 World Series, he was traded to Detroit, where he hit .281 with a .395 OBP in five seasons.

He was traded to the Angels in the spring of 1995 and provided the top-of-the-order spark the team needed, hitting .261 with a .394 OBP and 119 runs.

The Angels built an 11-game lead in the American League West in early August but suffered one of baseball’s greatest collapses, eventually losing to the Seattle Mariners in a one-game playoff to determine the division champion.

Though small in stature — Phillips was 5-foot-10, 175 pounds — he infused the Angels with intensity, challenging teammates, often with stern, profanity-laced lectures, to play through pain and to put the team ahead of themselves.

“Just sadness,” Angels first-base coach Gary DiSarcina, the club's former shortstop, said upon hearing the news. “He was a great dad and one of the best teammates I’ve ever had. He was in your corner and would cheer you on.

“I always hit ninth and he hit first, so my first at-bat, I could always hear him screaming encouragement no matter what. And he would get on you and let you know to pull your head out of your rear end.”

Phillips, who grew up in Roswell, Ga., and spoke with a high-pitched voice that often resembled a cackle, would say of opposing pitchers, “He’s not trying to get me out. He’s trying to take my cake! He’s trying to take food from my kids!”

That attitude, that toughness, rubbed off on his teammates. DiSarcina recalled one particular tongue-lashing he received from Phillips on a brutally hot day in old Tiger Stadium in July 1995.

Detroit was in the middle of a Midwest heat wave, and in the second game of a doubleheader, DiSarcina, who was having a rough day at the plate, took a called third strike, argued with the umpire and threw his bat and helmet toward the dugout.

“The ballpark was kind of quiet … but I kept hearing this little chirping, cuss words coming out,” DiSarcina said. “I thought it was somebody in the stands. I turned around and looked and it was Tony, marching right at me from the on-deck circle, screaming and yelling at me to ‘go home! If you’re going to be a baby, go home.’ With some choice words.”

“I turned around and said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘We’re winning this game, and it’s not about you. If you want to complain and cry and be a baby, go home; we don’t want you here.’ He walked out to second base, I walked out to shortstop, and he screamed and yelled at me the whole way to be a man, to grow up. He taught me a lesson, that it’s a grown man’s game.”

Phillips signed with the Chicago White Sox as a free agent before the 1996 season and was traded back to the Angels in May 1997. But his second stint with the Angels fizzled after Phillips was arrested in an Anaheim motel on felony possession of cocaine charges on Aug. 10, 1997.

Phillips was cleared by Major League Baseball to return a week later but was held out of action pending further review by the Angels and the Walt Disney Co., which owned the team at the time.

When Phillips refused the Angels’ request to enter an inpatient drug-treatment center, the team suspended him without pay indefinitely on Aug. 18. But two days later, an arbitrator overturned the team’s suspension of Phillips, determining that it was a clear violation of baseball’s drug policy.

Phillips played the 1998-99 seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays, New York Mets and A’s. He played seven games in Mexico in 2002 and played independent-league ball in 2011 and 2012.

Phillips was in such good physical condition that he even attempted a major league comeback in 2013 at age 53, trying out for several teams in Arizona during spring training. He was not signed, but he did play eight games of independent-league ball in 2015.

“He had so much energy. He was so feisty, full of piss and vinegar — nothing fazed him,” former A’s Manager Tony LaRussa, now Arizona’s chief baseball officer, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “And you could play him anywhere. He was still in great shape. He was down there at our camp three or four days a week. I’m just in shock.”

That Phillips once sparked a bench-clearing brawl by wrestling former Boston catcher Mike Macfarlane to the ground in June 1996 and challenged then-Red Sox batting coach Jim Rice, who is about twice his size, to a fight, came as no surprise to his mother, Mary Jane Phillips.

“He was playing basketball in high school and got into it with some 6-5 guy,” Mary Jane told The Times. “He thought Tony was going to back off, but he didn’t. He never backs down. I always told my boys, you don’t start fights, you finish them.”

Times staff writer Pedro Moura, reporting from Tempe, Ariz., contributed to this report.

Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter: @MikeDiGiovanna

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