March 28, 2008
Everyone has a reason for following the players they do. Maybe you just like the position they play. Maybe you played against him in high school. Or maybe you've just followed his career from the start and feel an emotional investment.
Nick Friedell falls into that last category with his affinity for Cincinnati 2B Brandon Phillips. An occasional BLS contributor from Florida, Friedell was just a youngster in college when he first crossed paths with Phillips, who was trying to make his own way through the minors. The following is an interesting account of watching Brandon Phillips earn his way from the subject of college heckling to the four-year, $27 million contract he signed in the offseason ...
Fall of 2002 / It was my first weekend at Syracuse, I was a freshman, and all of the kids on my floor were looking for something to do. A sign in our dorm said that there was a baseball game at PNC Stadium — the Buffalo Bisons versus the Syracuse SkyChiefs. With nothing else to do, we decided to check it out
We arrived a few minutes before the first pitch, just in time to hear who the Taco Bell “K-Man of the Night” was going to be. If the selected player from the opposing team struck out during the game, everybody in the stands got a free taco. Considering that we had recently discovered that there was an on-campus Taco Bell, this seemed like the greatest thing in the world to us. Free tacos!
So who was this K-Man? It was Brandon Phillips, the Reds' current second baseman and owner of a new four-year, $27 million contract. At the time, though, he was playing for Buffalo and I didn't know that much about him, except that I recognized his name from the Bartolo Colon trade between the Expos and Indians. (Colon was sent from the Indians to the Expos in exchange for Phillips, Grady Sizemore, and Cliff Lee ... at the time Phillips was thought to be the top prospect of the three)
As soon as Phillips’ name was announced, we started to let loose. "TACOOOOOO," I bellowed. "You're striking out tonight, we need some food!"
When we first started heckling him, we were sitting down the line, so I am not even sure if he heard us. Either way, he didn't get a hit, but he also didn't strike out, which meant that the heckling would continue. We figured that if we could get into his head a little bit, he would definitely strike out at least once. However, we had no idea who we were dealing with. And as the game wore on, we figured out two things really quickly about our new buddy “Taco.”
1) He was good, I mean really, really good. He made a couple plays in the field that only a few players in all of baseball could make.
2) It was going to take a miracle for him to strike out. In his next couple of at bats, the pitcher would inevitably get two strikes on him, and then Phillips would foul off several balls before making an out or taking a walk.
Neither of which got us any closer to a free taco.
By about the sixth inning, all of us had moved closer to the Bisons' dugout, putting us that much closer to Phillips. The game ended up going into extra innings, and it looked as if Buffalo was on the way to a win. It also appeared that Taco would not cooperate and just strike out, despite our constant chants of "Taco! Taco! Taco!" every time he stepped in the batter's box, or did something in the field. But Syracuse rallied back to score a few runs in the bottom half of one of the other extra frames to push the game a little longer, giving us more time to heckle Taco.
At this point, there was barely a few hundred people left in the stands, and it was clear that we had finally started to wear on Taco a little bit. During one of his at bats in extra innings, he grounded out, but before heading back to the dugout he ran by us down the line
“Y’all ain't getting no tacos tonight!" he yelled.
We cracked up, and we also realized that he was probably right. By about the 15th inning, we had all come to Taco's side; he had won us over.
Buffalo ended up winning the game in like 17 innings, and I still remember that Taco caught a pop fly to make the final out. We started chanting "Taco, Taco" again, but this time we meant it in a good way. We all agreed that it would only be a matter of time before we saw him on 'Baseball Tonight.'
2003-Present / From that day on, I made it a point to check and see how Taco was doing everyday. Sure enough, about a month later I turned on 'Baseball Tonight' and there he was make a great defensive play that put him on Web Gems.
Fast forward a few months — it's now March of 2003 — and I had gone home to Florida for spring break. My dad has season tickets to the Astros spring training games, so I checked to see who was playing the week I got home. As luck would have it, the first game I saw was between the Astros and Indians.
I was going to see Taco again.
As I drove to the game, I wondered if he would even remember me, but I got my answer pretty quickly. I walked down to our seats (which are behind the visitor's dugout), and screamed "TACOOOOOO!"
He was standing right in front of the dugout. "TACOOOOOOOOO!" I kept screaming. At this point, the guy standing next to him turned around and looked up at me like I was crazy, I realized a few seconds later that the guy standing next to him was Coco Crisp. Everyone, including Crisp, thought I was yelling "COCOOOOO."
"Why are you yelling?" Crisp asked me.
Before I could say anything else, Phillips turned around, and a smile crept onto his face. I looked at him and asked, "You remember me?"
"Yeah, I remember," he said. "You didn't get any tacos that night, did you?"
I proceeded to tell him about how we had all become big fans of his after that night and I had him sign a ball for me at the end of the game.
The year went by and he struggled to hit consistently at the major league level. He still made a lot of great plays defensively, but he was not the same hitter. During the next two years, he spent most of his time back in Buffalo, struggling to find the stroke that had made him one of the top prospects in baseball.
In the spring of '05 the Bisons were scheduled to come back to Syracuse, which meant that Taco was going to be back in town. I never thought he would be back playing in Syracuse. Nonetheless, I knew I had to get over to the game to see him.
When the game in Syracuse finally arrived, I went down to the field and talked to him for a couple of minutes. Every time he came up to bat I started yelling "Taco, Taco" again, just like old times. I think he may have gotten a hit, but I also remember that he still did not strike out.
By the spring of '06 the Indians had pretty much decided that they did not want him anymore. He ended up on the Reds, and he hasn't stopped hitting.
I hadn't seen Taco since that game in 2005 back in Syracuse, but last Saturday my dad and I went back out to Kissimmee to see the Astros play the Reds. About a year ago, I bought a big picture of Phillips that I was hoping to have him sign, so I could hang it up in the restaurant I want to build one day. I brought it along with me, hoping that he would still remember me from those games back in Syracuse.
As the Reds warmed up, he started signing autographs down the right field line. Since I was stuck behind the dugout, I didn't want to leave and be caught in the mosh pit that was waiting for him to sign
stuff. When he finally got back near the dugout, I realized the game was about to start and I screamed "TACOOOOO," hoping he would look up and sign the picture. He saw me in the seats and kind of smiled and told me he would sign it at the end of the game.
Sure enough, right before the he left for the bus, he looked up and motioned for me to come next to the dugout. He took the picture and signed it. As I watched him sign it, there was a part of me that was still convinced that he was going to put, "You still didn't get your taco," or something like that. But when he gave it back to me I realized that it was much cooler than that.
"To Nick," he wrote. “Thank You 4 all the support and I wish you all the best! Your main man, Brandon Phillips, ‘Taco.’"
It is probably one of the coolest things I have and I will hang it up in the Brandon "Taco" Phillips room in my restaurant, whenever it opens.
I asked him if I could get a picture with him and he said sure. The cool thing was that he got all the people that had crowded around him waiting for an autograph, to move, so that my dad could snap the picture.
As my dad was waiting to get the picture, I just said "Brandon ... congratulations, man."
"Thanks," he said, as he flashed the same smile that he had when he was in Syracuse and I was just a loud college kid looking for a free taco.
After the picture I shook Taco's hand and wished him luck. As my dad and I walked up the steps towards the exit, a little kid looked up at me and said, "Do you know him?"
I turned around and looked at the little kid for a second. I stood there and thought about his question.
"Yeah," I said, almost not believing it myself. "I do."
A big BLS head nod goes to Nick Friedell for his story. If you have a tale of following an athlete from the start, send it to 'Duk at firstname.lastname@example.org.