Baseball has taken Steve Phillips all over this country through the years. But this is special.
The 1986 Fairfield High School graduate has been a resident of Sioux Falls, S.D., for nearly 20 years, and he’s here at Grand Park Sports Campus because his son, Marcus, is playing in the Little League Midwest Regional.
“Just the atmosphere in that stadium is awesome,” Phillips said. “It just fills you with pride that your kid has an opportunity to be in that environment. There’s so many people back in Sioux Falls watching games on their phones, on TV, at restaurants that are streaming them. It’s something you know they’ll have with them for the rest of their lives.”
Sioux Falls is a first-year Little League program and has already advanced to the Midwest championship game Saturday against Webb City, Mo. Marcus — who has a 75 mile-an-hour fastball — will be the starting pitcher.
At stake will be a trip to South Williamsport, Pa., for the World Series.
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“It’s been a fun experience, but it’s nerve-wracking,” said Phillips, 49. “You’re on the edge of your seat every pitch. I’m typically calmer than most because I’ve been in the dugout and can’t let my emotions go one way or the other.
“I usually sit away from everybody else because I don’t want to hear all the different chitter-chatter, but we have a really good parent base. I’ve sat off to the side just because I like watching from a certain angle. Of course, then I’ve had people that I don’t know chirping in my ear.”
He knows a few things about succeeding in sports. Phillips was a basketball, football and baseball standout at Fairfield, played football and baseball at the University of Kentucky, and spent five years as a player in the New York Yankees organization.
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The first question is obvious: How does a Southwest Ohio guy end up in South Dakota?
“I know it’s a long way from Fairfield,” Phillips said. “I got released from the Yankees and played a couple years of independent ball. The first day in town in Aberdeen, S.D., I met my wife, and the rest is history. I ended up spending a lot of time there. Once we were in a position to have our oldest start school, we decided that was the best place to settle down and be near her family.”
At Fairfield, Phillips played for three of the most respected coaches in FHS history: Ben Hubbard (football), Ron Chasteen (basketball) and Gary Yeatts (baseball).
“I feel very fortunate to have had all of those coaches and their supporting casts,” Phillips said. “We were blessed to have really good coaching. As a coach now myself, I feel like I follow along the same lines as far as being disciplined and fundamentally sound, and it started with those early days.”
He was a junior when the Indians won the Class AAA state baseball title in 1985. Ironically, Phillips had chosen not to play baseball that season, though he did play as a senior.
His senior football season ended with a 28-12 loss to Moeller in the Division I playoffs. It was the first postseason game in Fairfield history, and Phillips was the first Indian to score points on a 26-yard touchdown pass from John Curtis.
“That was a crossing pattern,” said Phillips, a tight end who sometimes split out as a wide receiver. “I beat my guy, which was a linebacker, on that play. And because the other guys were running crossing routes going in the other direction, there was no safety. He had already bit on a guy going across the opposite direction, and it was just beating one guy.”
Asked about his ultra-clear memory of the play, he laughed.
“Probably because I’ve watched the video a few times,” Phillips said. “I remember a couple other plays where they were kind of jump balls that I couldn’t come down with. I also remember how strong those (Moeller) guys were and how many guys they had on the sideline. It seemed like they had two teams over there.”
He was a corner outfielder in baseball and mostly played down low in basketball.
“We had good teams in basketball and played good defense,” Phillips said. “We boxed out. That was Chasteen’s big deal. Everything starts on the defensive end. You had to be able to box out if you wanted to be on the court, so I did that.”
College-wise, he opted to play football at Kentucky and started his last two years with the Wildcats. Once his final football season ended, Phillips decided to give UK baseball a try.
“I went 4 1/2 years without picking up a bat. I didn’t play any summer ball, nothing,” he said. “When I went and talked to the (UK) baseball coach, he said, ‘You know, tryouts for walk-ons are in the fall. But come back after practice and we’ll have you hit in the cage with the hitting coach and we’ll see.’
“I went in there for like three different sessions. After the fourth one, they gave me a uniform and said, ‘You’re good to go.’ By the time we started our first (Southeastern Conference) weekend against Georgia, I was in the starting lineup. I’m pretty sure the lifting from football was a huge help because I was strong and could hit the ball a long way.”
Phillips said a big weekend against Vanderbilt was viewed by a Yankees scout. He eventually signed with New York as a free agent and reached the Double-A level in Norwich, Conn., hitting .265 with 32 home runs and 197 RBIs in the Yankees system.
In three seasons of independent ball, Phillips had a .286 batting average and 45 homers and 192 RBIs. He finished his playing career in Allentown, Pa., in 1997.
But he certainly wasn’t done with baseball.
Coaching became his next passion. It took him to multiple positions within the Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins organizations. He was a Class-A manager for five years (2000-04) in the Gulf Coast, Midwest and South Atlantic leagues.
But he eventually got back to what he really enjoys doing — teaching hitting. In 2009, his last year as a pro coach, Phillips got a different kind of call-up.
After completing his season as hitting coach with the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs, Phillips joined the Marlins’ coaching staff for two weeks.
“I can say I put on a uniform in the big leagues,” he said. “Every year they bring up the Triple-A manager at the end of the minor-league season, and instead of him going up, they brought me up. And when I joined the team, they were playing in Cincinnati, which was even better.
“Tony Perez was a special assistant to the GM for the Marlins, as was Andre Dawson. They were on the trip. Perez was my sister’s favorite player with the Reds. It’s her birthday, so they get her down on the field and we take pictures with Perez and Dawson and me in my Marlins uniform. It was pretty special.”
That winter, Phillips turned his focus to coaching kids. He’s now the program director for a local travel program, the Sioux Falls Cyclones, and is also involved with the Sanford POWER Baseball Academy.
The Cyclones have grown from four to 13 teams in ages 1oU through high school. Phillips, who coaches the high schoolers in the summer, said the number of teams likely will increase.
“To this day, I still miss pro ball,” he said. “I miss seeing baseball at that level, the great stadiums, the different cities. But I also missed a lot when I was gone. All those summers, and now I have two kids in college. It just goes by too fast.
“Sioux Falls is a great place to raise a family. The schools are good. There’s a lot of activity, and it’s very diverse. You don’t have an NFL team or an MLB team in close proximity, but there’s a lot of other things to do.”
Phillips is not officially a coach for the Sioux Falls Little League all-stars, though he does do some hitting instruction at practice.
Ten players on that team play with the Cyclones. Phillips believes serious Little League players need to play travel ball as well.
“I have a hard time believing these kids that we see tearing it up in these regions are just playing two Little League games a week and they’re done,” Phillips said. “They’re playing travel ball somewhere.
“We had 44 kids show up for Little League tryouts this year. After this, regardless of how it ends, it wouldn’t surprise me if a hundred kids show up for tryouts next year. Kids are going to want to play Little League. From my side, it doesn’t keep them from playing travel ball. We practice during the day during the summer, and those kids still went out and either practiced with their Little League team or played their Little League games during the week. On the weekends, they go play in a tournament. So to us, there was not a conflict.”
Marcus Phillips, who just turned 13 a couple weeks ago, plays first base for Sioux Falls. He also plays third base in travel ball.
Steve’s other kids are Christopher (21) and Mackenzie (18). Melissa is his wife.
Phillips had to drive about 12 hours to reach the Midwest Regional. The Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa, was a stop along the way.
As a Butler County native, Phillips is rooting for the Hamilton West Side team that’s playing in the Great Lakes Regional in Westfield. His brother Scott is a football and girls basketball coach in the Hamilton district.
“He brought me a Hamilton Big Blue pullover, so I’ve had that on sitting outside at night with the parents,” Steve said. “We’re on the same floor in the hotel with a lot of the Hamilton people, which is awesome. My sister and mom live in Hamilton, both my parents grew up and went to high school in Hamilton, so to me that’s a great connection.
“Hamilton’s blue, our team’s blue … I don’t mind wearing blue. Even though I was a Fairfield guy, I’m still supporting Hamilton. I’d like to see all of us get to the World Series.”