GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It's a Friday afternoon in late March, and Rachel and Dave Zahniser sit nervously in a hotel lobby, their eyes darting, looking to the door constantly. Is this real -- will their host show? And how are they supposed to act if he does?
Rachel clasps her hands as Dave shakes his head, thinking about how, in the early-morning rush to the airport, he forgot his cellphone in Kentucky. "Stupid," he says. Rachel and Dave, huge Cincinnati Reds fans, are waiting for second baseman Brandon Phillips to walk through that lobby door.
Phillips paid for the couple to fly from Covington, Ky., put them up at the hotel and got them game tickets after Rachel won a trivia contest Phillips hosted on his Twitter page. The tweeted question: "What's my favorite drink?" Rachel, knowing Phillips doesn't drink alcohol, guessed correctly first: milk. #Winner.
A few hours later, @DatDudeBP began following her on Twitter, and they began sending direct messages to one another. Phillips promised game tickets and that he would hang out with the couple off the field. Rachel, 38, and husband Dave, 46, flew in on this Friday morning, went straight to the spring training game and found their seats behind the Reds' dugout.
Phillips won't play in the game, and the couple will not even see him at the ballpark. But a few hours later, Phillips calls Rachel and tells her to meet him in the hotel lobby. Just after 6 p.m., Phillips, alone, walks through the sliding doors and greets both of them with an enormous smile.
"Y'all hungry?" he says as he embraces them.
Meet Brandon Phillips: a two-time Gold Glove winner and All-Star for the Reds who, in baseball circles, has carried questions about his dedication to the game and questions about whether he's a good teammate because of how he plays and what he says.
Meet @DatDudeBP: a two-time Gold Glove winner and All-Star for the Reds who tells it like it is and has engaged fans like no other ballplayer through Twitter this season, a move that initially had his general manager, manager and some teammates wary about what they might have to clean up.
Yet it seems as though @DatDudeBP just might be helping Phillips erase a public perception that has been askew, allowing him to open more of a window into his true personality. It has some teammates wondering whether the social networking has actually helped him play better.
"I'm just being myself," he says, "having a good time doing it and giving back to fans supporting me all these years."
Unlike with many pro athletes, the tweets are written by him, not a publicist, an agent or the team. He arranged the Zahniser contest without any help -- asking for the couple's Social Security numbers for some measure of security but nothing else.
His name in the game
When teammates are asked whether they're aware how players around the league feel about Phillips, many nod their heads. "Oh, other guys hate him," Reds left fielder Jonny Gomes says.
Demure, Phillips is not. "He just says some stupid s---," says former teammate Adam Dunn, now with the White Sox. "Brandon's not a bad guy at all."
But Phillips might be thought of that way by some because of the insular world in which he works -- a sport in which tradition and unwritten rules are sacrosanct. When Phillips bumps his fist, claps his hands or acts demonstratively when he gets a hit, people in baseball wince. His behavior is code for showing up the pitcher. But it's not just Phillips' mannerisms that offend; it's also his words.
This past August marked the crescendo, after Phillips told veteran Reds reporter Hal McCoy that he hated the division-rival St. Louis Cardinals and that they were "little b----es," among other things. An all-out brawl occurred when the two teams next played. Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto kicked then-Cardinals catcher Jason LaRue so hard in the head that it gave him a concussion and ended his career. Cueto also left scratches that still remain on pitcher Chris Carpenter's back.
Behind that backdrop, Phillips this winter joined Twitter, a potential DEFCON-1 situation inside the Reds organization. Walt Jocketty, the team's general manager and not an ardent embracer of the technology, admits to having concerns, as does manager Dusty Baker. Their message: Don't ever discuss in-house business.
The spark for Phillips getting on Twitter was a chat with Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco this past winter. Ochocinco has found great success with the medium and is perhaps its most engaged athlete. He tweets contests, and treats fans to movies, dinners and shopping sprees. And when tragedy happens, he finds a way to connect on a deeper and more meaningful level.
Ochocinco told Phillips he had to do a better job of letting people hear his true voice and get to know him better.
"I want to be the Ochocinco of baseball," Phillips said in March.
He's up to 50,000-plus followers, just a sliver of Ochocinco's 2 million. But it's how he actually engages with those who follow him that is resonating.
"I really think this allowed him to get closer to his fan base, makes him play harder," Gomes says. "I really do. I think he now knows the love his fans have for him, and he [doesn't] want to let them down."
Sincerity through social media
Phillips was drafted by the Montreal Expos in 1999, quickly established himself as a top prospect and, after being traded to Cleveland along with Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore, was later sent to Cincinnati in 2006. A year later, he became one of what at the time was only two second basemen with a 30-homer, 30-steal season. Phillips immediately stood out, not just because of his play or because he was celebratory on the field but also because he was smiling and laughing constantly.
"He's a cheerful guy, a guy who is very emotional," Jocketty says. "It may rub people the wrong way, but I don't think he's trying to show anybody up. That's just the way he is."
His words have put teammates in the crosshairs, and, with his hustle having been questioned, it's fair to wonder whether Phillips as a showman is a distraction. His manager and his teammates say he is not. Gomes says he would take Phillips over any other second baseman in the major leagues.
Some teammates believe Twitter might even have refocused Phillips' energy and effort.
"There's been some articles of him not running to first [in the past], and there's nothing remotely close to that this year," Gomes says. "And all because of his Twitter account? Doubt it. But maybe, really, maybe. I guess when you know you have 50,000 people follow every step, you're going to give it your all."
On the cusp of his 30th birthday and in his seventh full big league season, Phillips is having perhaps his finest one offensively and defensively.
Baker, who in the past has vented privately and publicly about Phillips' lapses, says he has seen a change.
"I think he's opened up; I think he's matured a lot since I've been here," Baker says. "He's interacting better with the guys on the team. I think his mood swings are more consistent; that's kind of what you like in a teammate."
Phillips doesn't dispute that Twitter has helped him this year: "If my teammates said it, it must be true. They know me as good as my family because I'm with them all the time. They know what type of person I am. I stay focused about baseball, about life. I'm just trying to be a role model."
Although most agree his demeanor and play have improved this year, there still are the occasional reminders of the past. In a May game against the Phillies, with J.C. Romero struggling on the mound in the 11th inning and a 3-0 count to teammate Scott Rolen, Phillips was picked off second base after chatting with shortstop Jimmy Rollins.
Phillips represented the winning run. Instead, the Phillies got out of the inning and went on to win in the 19th. Phillips immediately apologized to coaches, players on the bench and the media, and later that night tweeted: "I want 2 apologize 2 all the #Reds fans 4 my mistake tonite. It was my fault 4 the loss, but I will keep my head up and get ready 4 the next game!"
His sincerity was not limited to that night. A few weeks before, on one of the team's few off days, Phillips was scanning Twitter when he noticed a tweet from 14-year-old Conor Echols, asking him to come to his little league game.
Phillips had just finished eating and didn't have much else to do, so he drove to the field in West Chester, Ohio, and watched Echols' game, by himself, posing for photos with people and signing autographs. Phillips tweeted photos from the field.
The gesture was genuine, and it resonated with teammates, coaches and fans.
"I'm glad I went to the game because it showed me why I play this game and why I love this game, why I support this game," Phillips said while sitting in the visiting dugout in San Francisco this past weekend. "I think a lot of ballplayers in the big leagues should go to a little kids' game, and they can find out why they're playing. It brings back the memories it's the most beautiful thing ever. I had so much fun."
'He's goofy, funny and just a normal person'
As Gomes points out, most big leaguers have the money to fly fans in for a weekend, but their free time, so limited during the season, is of most value.
The second night Rachel and Dave were in Glendale, Phillips wanted to take them go-kart racing, but with Rachel pregnant, they went bowling instead. Phillips, who says bowling helps him relieve stress, showed off his skills, reminding everyone that he has bowled three perfect games. He spent three nights with Rachel and Dave, dining with them or entertaining them.
At dinner the first night, Phillips asked about the couple's lives, listened intently and moved through the conversation easily, covering:
• Dating: "I love women who wear nice shoes. Happiness is a very important trait in a relationship."
• His idols: "Deion Sanders; I wanted to be just like him and Barry Larkin, wow, I wanted to be No. 11."
• His future in Cincinnati: "It's going to be hard to keep me here." Then Rachel asked whether he would be willing to take a pay cut to stay: "I'm not trying to break the bank. I'm just trying to be fair. I don't want Jayson Werth money or CC Sabathia money."
• His family: "Me and my sister, we're real close. That's my world."
• His slang: "'Shawty' is a form of speech; it doesn't mean you're short. 'Keep it 100' means I keep it real all the time."
Once the regular season started, Phillips continued his creative Twitter ways, even roping in teammate Drew Stubbs one night when he asked Stubbs to see a movie. Stubbs, who isn't on Twitter, didn't know Phillips had tweeted that the first 10 fans who showed up would get in with him for free.
"I was like, 'Oh, nice to know, Brandon,'" Stubbs says. "I was caught off guard a little, but it turned out fine."
Phillips affectionately calls Stubbs not just "White Chocolate" but also his "editor" on Twitter. And he sometimes asks teammates or team officials whether he worded a tweet the right way before publishing.
He has hosted two more contests with fans this season: a group of four in Chicago who kept a running blog of their weekend with Phillips; and then recently, in San Francisco, when he flew out two 18-year-olds, Ryan Bardach and Paul Pescovitz, for the weekend, taking them out for meals, shopping and bringing them into the clubhouse to meet the team.
As for his methodology, Phillips doesn't discriminate: The first person who correctly answers the question wins. If for some reason the conversation Phillips has on the phone with the winner gives him pause, he said, he will retreat. So far, that hasn't happened. As for the winning answer that got Bardach an all-expenses-paid trip to the West Coast? He correctly guessed the number Phillips wore in football: 22.
"His image might be portrayed one way," Bardach says. "But he's one of the most down-to-earth guys. He's goofy, funny and just a normal person. We had so much fun; there's not a bad thing I can say about Brandon Phillips."
It's no act, and his teammates recognize that. So do Baker and Jocketty. It's an important year for Phillips, who has a $12 million team option. In a small market, it's unclear whether the Reds will be able to pick up the option, let alone sign him to an extension. Jocketty said he hasn't had any discussions about a deal either internally or with Phillips' agents.
So for now, Phillips plays, he tweets and he says he hopes he's able to remain in Cincinnati. He plans to do at least a few more contests the rest of the season. He still keeps in touch with Rachel and Dave, still follows them on Twitter. Whenever they go to games, they tweet him. Usually, they get a response, and the second baseman will find his friends and say hello. Then, it's back to the field for Phillips and back to work. Until, of course, he tweets again.