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Adolfo Phillips: Potential unfulfilled

6/11/2002

June 11, 1967: Cubs center fielder Adolfo Phillips hits four home runs in a doubleheader against the Mets, with three of them coming in the second game.

It was a day to remember for Phillips, probably the day to remember. In addition to the four homers, Phillips rapped out two other hits and also made a couple of diving catches in center field.

But when people remember Adolfo Phillips, they usually remember his potential rather than his performance. Coming up through the Phillies' farm system, Phillips posted the following stats:

Age Level Games Avg HR SB
1961 19 A 72 .192 7 4
1962 20 A 112 .330 33 46
1963 21 AA 121 .306 13 15
1964 22 AAA 136 .304 29 21
1965 23 AAA 82 .285 14 24

Remember, this was the 1960s, when 30 home runs meant something. Throw in Phillips' batting average and his speed, and -- oh yeah, he was also a brilliant defensive center fielder, in the same class as Curt Flood and Willie Davis.

Ferguson Jenkins later wrote of Phillips, "He had great talent and did things easily, without struggling or strenuous effort. He had a strong arm, he could run, and he hit for both power and average. One-handed, he could hit the ball out of the ballpark ... "

Jenkins would have known. In 1964 and '65, he and Phillips were teammates with the Arkansas Travelers in the Pacific Coast League. And on April 21, 1966, the Phillies made one of the worst trades in franchise history, sending Jenkins, Phillips and first baseman John Herrnstein to the Cubs for pitchers Bob Buhl and Larry Jackson.

Buhl was 35 and would win only six more games in the majors. Jackson wasn't a kid, either, but he could still pitch and won 41 games for the Phils, over three seasons, before retiring of his own volition after a solid 1968 campaign.

Jenkins, who had pitched only 15 innings for the Phillies, would finish his career with 284 wins and gain entry into the Hall of Fame.

Upon joining the Cubs, Phillips was almost immediately installed by manager Leo Durocher as the club's everyday center fielder. He responded with 16 home runs, 32 stolen bases and a .348 on-base percentage.

And for the first part of the 1967 season, Phillips played like a star, leading Durocher to compare him to a young Willie Mays. Including that memorable doubleheader against the Mets, Phillips entered July with 13 homers, a .319 batting average and 48 RBI (with the latter two marks both team highs). But then Phillips, as did most of his teammates in the lineup, fell apart. From July 1 through the end of the season, Phillips batted .223 with four homers and 22 RBI.

Phillips' production continued to decline in '68, and then in 1969 things went from bad to worse. The bad came in spring training, when he got hit in the hand by a pitched ball. By early May, Durocher -- never one to take pity on an injured player -- publicly suggested that Phillips was jaking it.

Phillips was a sensitive guy, and Durocher -- who had been so good with Mays in 1951 -- had no idea how to handle the young Panamanian. And the worse came on June 11. With Phillips having batted .224 with one home run (and a bushel of walks, not that anybody noticed) in 28 games, the Cubs traded him to the expansion Expos for infielder Paul Popovich.

History suggests that it wasn't a terrible trade; the problem was that Durocher didn't really have anybody else who could play center field. Here's what the Cubs' four center fielders did in 1969:

G HR RBI OBP Slug
Don Young 101 6 27 .343 .371
Oscar Gamble 24 1 5 .321 .310
Ad. Phillips 28 0 1 .424 .327
Jim Qualls 43 0 9 .266 .342
Totals 7 42 .333 .352

Young, who never played in the majors again, will forever be remembered for a couple of plays that he didn't make in a July 8 loss to the Mets. And he was the best of the lot.

That said, it's silly to blame the Cubs' collapse on any one player or any one position, because they wound up eight games behind the Mets, who won 100 games.

But the center fielders certainly didn't help much. Based on the statistics and what we know about the defensive skills of the players involved, Durocher would have been better off keeping Phillips. But Phillips, who did play terribly for the Expos, certainly couldn't have made an eight-game difference.

As it turned out, there were good reasons why Phillips never became a star. Jenkins later wrote, "People did not find out what was the matter with Adolfo until after he had been traded from the Cubs to Montreal in 1969. The following year he had to undergo an operation for a stomach tumor. He also had an ulcer caused by worry, pressure that had been put on him by his teammates and Durocher. Adolfo was extremely sensitive. He had to take tranquilizers to settle his nerves."

Phillips actually played fairly well for the Expos in 1970, but spent 1971 recuperating and playing in the minors (and playing pretty well). His last major-league action came with the Indians in 1972: a dozen games, seven at-bats, and no hits. He was 30 years old.