Each year at this time, I look back at those in the sports world who died in the previous year. In 2016, however, it seems there were are larger number of deaths than usual. One sticks out more than the others, because it was someone I knew.
Gone in 2016 were greats in their sport, like – Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer and Gordie Howe. Top-notch coaches who died last year include, Pat Summit, LaVell Edwards, Dennis Green and Buddy Ryan.
The sports world also lost some great broadcasters last year. Joe Garagiola, was a former Major League Baseball player, but might have been best known for the 57 years he spent as a baseball broadcaster and for a long time was one of the hosts on the Today Show. Also, long-time ESPN broadcaster John Saunders, tennis analyst Bud Collins, and NBA sideline reporter Craig Sager, died in 2016.
One of those that died last year was former University of Tulsa football player Dennis Byrd, who died in a car accident in October. Byrd played in the NFL with the New York Jets and experienced a career-ending injury that left him partially paralyzed, but nobody would have ever predicted he would die at the age of 50, in a crash on a rural road near Claremore, Oklahoma.
Although I had interviewed Dennis Byrd a couple times, I certainly didn’t know him very well, but was saddened by his untimely death, like many local football fans.
The one athlete who died last year that I knew was Tony Phillips. I didn’t know the former major leaguer very well, but for a summer during my youth, Tony Phillips could do no wrong.
It was my first year as a batboy for the Jamestown Expos in 1978, when Phillips was signed by Montreal and assigned to the team in my hometown. I always seemed to gravitate toward the smaller players, because I was pretty small for my age. Guys like Phillips, Bryan Little, Joe Pettini, quickly became my favorites because they were only about 5-9 to 5-10 tall and weighed about 150-160 pounds.
His size wasn’t the only reason I became friends with Phillips. He treated me as a friend and was always nice to me. It didn’t matter that I was the batboy, he treated me with respect. If I did something he asked me to do – shine his shoes, make a run to the concession stand, or whatever, he would always give me a good tip.
As he moved up the baseball ranks, Phillips was traded from Montreal organization to the Oakland Athletics. He never got to play with the parent Expos, but I had the opportunity to see him a couple times with other teams in the majors.
The last time I saw Phillips was in 1994 when he was playing with the Detroit Tigers against the Rangers in Arlington, Texas. I reintroduced myself to him in the clubhouse before the game and he seemed very happy to see me. It had been many years, but he remembered me and spoke fondly of his time in Jamestown. Phillips asked me if I could come back after the game so we could catch up; I said, “Sure.”
After the game, we sat on a couch together in the clubhouse for what seemed like an hour, reminiscing, asking each other about our lives, and watching the baseball highlights on the television. One interesting note to that was Cecil Fielder, who had hit a home run in the game, was sitting on a nearby couch watching highlights of himself. It was a bit surreal to be a part of that clubhouse at that point.
Eventually, it came time for me to leave. Phillips and I hugged and said our good-byes.
Phillips played for six MLB teams over 18 seasons, and made the final out of the earthquake-interrupted World Series in 1989, when Oakland swept the San Francisco Giants. His MLB career ended in 1999, although he continued to play with different independent league teams until 2015. Phillips died of an apparent heart attack on February 19, 2016. He was 56.