It was a small moment in the course of a game, a microdot of a moment in the course of a season, but it was one of the biggest moments of Denis Phipps‘ 27 years. After seven years in the minors, after being shuttled all around the country to various outposts, the back-up Cincinnati Reds outfielder made his Major League debut Monday.
You can’t blame Phipps for wondering if it would ever happen. With each passing season, with each passing month on the calendar, it became less and less likely that the aging minor leaguer would survive long enough to ever experience the joy Phipps felt when he was inserted into the Cincinnati Reds-Philadelphia Phillies game as a pinch-hitter.
It was a rainy and overcast afternoon, swirling gray clouds overhead, but even though the Reds lost the game, 4-2, even though Phipps didn’t become one of those rare major leaguers to smash a home run in his first at-bat, it might as well have been a sunny day at the beach because neither climate nor defeat could dampen Phipps’ happiness.
In the bottom of the eighth inning at Great American Ball Park, Reds manager Dusty Baker called upon Phipps to take a turn in the battter’s box as a substitute for relief pitcher J.J. Hoover. On the mound for the Phillies was right-handed thrower Justin De Fratus. Phipps, a righty swinger, stepped in with one out and no one on base. He coaxed a walk out of De Fratus and although it was not an official at-bat, and he didn’t come around to score or anything even remotely that dramatic, it earned Phipps a place in the box score and in baseball record books. He was a big-leaguer.
“I have waited a long time,” Phipps said after the game. “Finally, I made it.”
He isn’t kidding or exaggerating. Phipps was born in San Pedro de Marcoris, that hotbed of baseball in the Dominican Republic which produces Major League baseball stars off the assembly line the way a Ford factory manufactures cars. This was the home of Sammy Sosa, Rico Carty, George Bell, Julian Javier, Johnny Cueto and Robinson Cano, among others.
At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Phipps has good size and that might be why he was a basketball player before turning to baseball full-time. That is an unusual path in the Dominican where baseballs are passed out to male babies in their cribs and basketball players are as common as bobsledders in the United States.
Because of his basketball detour, Phipps said of baseball, “It took me a long time to understand the game.” Since he was 18, Phipps has moved around more frequently than a disgruntled college back-up transfer. He has played in Billings, Dayton, Sarasota, Carolina, Lynchburg and Louisville since 2006 and that was after two years in the Dominican Summer League. Phipps was kept around even though he did not always produce magical stats and he is 27, ancient by prospect standards. Hitting .346 combined for two teams in 2011 likely kept him with the franchise. This year he got a September call-up despite hitting just .221 in 92 games at Louisville. Go figure.
Phipps was actually at his family’s home when the phone rang last weekend giving him the news that he should report to the Reds. There was a lot of jumping around and hugging.
“They (relatives) grabbed me and said, ‘Congratulations,’” Phipps said. “I was so happy.”
He was in Cincinnati less than 24 hours before suiting up to wear No. 23 for the Phillies game. As the game wore on and manager Dusty Baker planned ahead, he gave Phipps a heads-up about an inning in advance that he was going to be his pinch-hitter of choice when Hoover was due up at the plate.
Baker said he wanted to get Phipps into a game as soon as possible.
“I didn’t want to wait too long,” Baker said. “I’m going to use everyone on the team.”
The advance warning allowed Phipps to think about how to approach his inaugural at-bat.
“I’m just going to see the ball,” he told himself.
Phipps didn’t take reckless swings. He didn’t get fooled. He showed a good eye and took the base on balls. He did not make an out. That was the most important thing. So his on-base percentage was 1.000.
In the clubhouse, still not showered and changed a good 45 minutes after game’s end, Phipps had not yet phoned home. But home had phoned him. Incoming text messages piled up. What did they say?
“You looked good,” Phipps said.
And he smiled broadly. He felt even better than he looked.
No idea what comes next, how often Baker might play Phipps during the final weeks of the regular-season as the Reds seek to clinch the National League Central Division title, and he’s not eligible for the playoff roster. This might be the beginning for Phipps in the majors, or this may be all that there is. But as long as he lives he will remember Monday because he can always say he did it–he was a major leaguer.