Yesterday afternoon the news came down that former infielder Tony Phillips died of a heart attack in Arizona at age 56. He had a long career primarily with the Detroit Tigers and Oakland A’s, though he spent 52 games in a Mets uniform as well when he was at the tail end of his playing days. I didn’t really have much memory of him as having distinguished himself much while in Queens, yet the announcement about his death touched me nonetheless. I’m 55 turning 56 later this year and it made me remember something my father had said to me about the process of growing older.
When I was growing up there were many times my father and I were barely on speaking terms yet baseball was always one channel through which we could push aside our differences on politics, lifestyle, school, curfews and household chores to enjoy (or sometimes endure) the 3 hours or so it took to play nine innings of baseball. During the games the conversations were almost always about the game itself, though sometimes he would share insights about players he observed while growing up a NY Giants fan living in Astoria.
One day he deviated slightly from the normal discourse to get a bit philosophical on me within the context of baseball. He said the first time he ever sensed he was growing older was during a baseball game in 1957 when he learned that his hometown Giants had reacquired former slugger Bobby Thomson from the Milwaukee Braves to try to help them catapult their way out of the lower tier of the 8-team National League into contention. It was not to be, however, and Thomson looked every bit past his prime at age 33. He did rebound for a good season with the Cubbies in 1958 but it was quickly downhill for 1959 and 1960 when he finally retired.
What my father said in cursing Thomson’s diminished abilities is that he was washed up and unable to perform the way he once had in his prime. He said it was a sobering moment to realize that the person he was deriding for his advanced age and his curtailed abilities was only one year older than he was! What had he accomplished in his lifetime? What was his “shot heard ‘round the world?” that people would remember forever? What had he done with his life? He suddenly excused himself and left the room and I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I am guessing now that he was probably on the verge of crying when this somewhat negative epiphany occurred.
That memory came back to me when I read about Mr. Phillips. After all, here was a man who trained every day as a professional athlete and suddenly his life ended, just a year older than I am right now. While I can’t say it impacted me as much as Bobby Thomson did my father, it still made me pause and get introspective for awhile, evaluating some of the decisions I’ve made in my life and wondering if I’d accomplished as much as I’d hoped to do by the middle of my sixth decade.
I also remember harboring similar thoughts when I heard about the passing of Kirby Puckett. Here was a man who was born the very same year I was and made 10 straight All Star Game appearances during his illustrious career, made it to the Hall of Fame yet died at just age 45. I know a lot was made of the negative aspects of his personal life after baseball, so perhaps it tempered my empathy somewhat.
Tony Gwynn was another 1960 baby who spent his entire career with the San Diego Padres, earning Hall of Fame honors as a result of his career batting average of .338 (who even bats that high for a single season anymore?). He too passed away two years ago at just age 54. I think I rationalized that one away as his tobacco chewing habit leading to his early demise.
Why then did the passing of Tony Phillips, a solid if unspectacular player, impact me more? Was it that he played for the Mets, albeit briefly? Probably not...the murder of Darryl Hamilton didn't hit me as hard.
Or was it that although he was larger-than-life being a professional athlete, he was not in that otherworldly stratosphere reserved for Hall of Famers? Or was it that having spent more time with doctors and in hospitals in the past few years than I’d ever expected that I’ve just become more aware of my own mortality?
Let’s all vow to enjoy what time we do have and in the words of the immortal Ernie Banks, “Let’s play two.”