Rhys Hoskins – Brewers' new slugger – never got Philly goodbye after 'heartbreaking' injury

PHOENIX — Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Rhys Hoskins knows the day is approaching, just three weeks from this weekend on March 23, and the reminders will be painful.

It will be the one-year anniversary of the worst day of his professional career.

It’s the day Hoskins ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament, dramatically altering his fate, as well as the Philadelphia Phillies’ season.

It was just a routine bouncer from Austin Meadows in the second inning of a spring training game against the Detroit Tigers. Hoskins back-pedalled. The ball caromed off his glove. Hoskins collapsed, grabbing his left knee. He rolled over twice. And was carted off the field.

He underwent season-ending knee surgery one week later.

“That was absolutely heartbreaking," says Texas Rangers outfielder Travis Jankowski, Hoskins’ former teammate with Philadelphia. “He’s such a great dude. One of my all-time teammates.

“You know, it’s never a good time for that to happen, but going into your free agency, man, that’s tough.

“If not for that injury, I thought he’d be a Phillie for life."

It was the end of Hoskins’ career in Philadelphia.

Hoskins tried to come back, desperately trying to be ready if the Phillies reached the World Series. Instead, he was left sitting in the Phillies’ clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park, hanging out late into the night with his teammates for a final time after their stunning, 4-2 loss in Game 7 to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLCS, reflecting on the season.

“You know, that was the first Game 7 I’ve ever been part of," Hoskins tells USA TODAY Sports, “and I didn’t even get to be a part of it. There was some reality. I knew it could be the last time I’m in this stadium as a home player. It was intense, and emotional, just the unknown of what was to come with my future."

Rhys Hoskins celebrates his three-run homer in Game 3 of the 2022 NLDS against Atlanta.
Rhys Hoskins celebrates his three-run homer in Game 3 of the 2022 NLDS against Atlanta.

Hoskins, a beloved teammate and fan favorite who had been with the Phillies longer than any other position player, was about to become a free agent for the first time. He didn’t know what the Phillies had in mind, but he was also realistic.

He popped into Citizens Bank Park several times in the next 10 days, let his dog run around the outfield, savoring all of the beautiful memories, before heading home to Sacramento for the winter.

A week later, Dave Dombrowski, Phillies president of baseball operations, telephoned Hoskins two days before qualifying offers for free agents were due.

Dombrowski thanked him for everything he did for the organization, but informed him that he was no longer needed. They were giving his first-base job to Bryce Harper, who learned to play position the final three months of the season after recovering from Tommy John surgery.

“He was transparent with me," Hoskins says, “which I really appreciated at the time, wondering what was going to happen. I knew it could go either way. ... It gave me a chance to move on. It gave me a chance to focus on whatever was coming next.

“I was kind of ready embrace whatever free agency was going to bring."

Finding his way to Milwaukee

Hoskins, 30, who was a candidate to get a long-term contract extension before the 2023 season, now was just trying to get a job, hoping teams would look past the injury. He had averaged 30 homers and 83 RBI with an .846 OPS in his last four full seasons. Hoskins ranked 12th in homers (148) and ranked among the top 10% in on-base percentage (.353), slugging percentage (.492) and OPS.

Now, he was damaged goods and looking for work, wanting to prove that he can still be a premier slugger.

The Brewers, badly in need of a power-hitting first baseman, proved to be the perfect match. They came with the ideal contract to protect both sides. The Brewers guaranteed $34 million over two years, providing Hoskins an opt-out after the season if he believes he’s worth more than the $18 million guaranteed in 2025, along with an $18 million mutual option in 2026.

Hoskins refuses to worry about the future, or dwell on the past, ready to start a new chapter with a team that’s thrilled to have him.

“A chance to win and getting to the playoffs was first and foremost for me," Hoskins says. “I got a taste of that in 2022 with the Phils, really for the first time. It’s why you play the game. It’s just different playing in the playoffs and getting to experience that.

“Also, I’m just excited to have some sort of new adventure. That was enticing to me. It’s a great group here. You can tell some of these guys have played together for a long time just by the way they’re interacting in here. That’s pretty easy to be part of. It’s really been awesome."

The Brewers have had a revolving door at first base ever since Prince Fielder departed as a free agent after the 2011 season. They’ve tried everyone and anyone: Corey Hart, Yuniesky Betancourt, Mark Reynolds, Chris Carter, Eric Thames, Jesus Aguilar, Justin Smoak, Daniel Vogelbach, Keston Hiura and Rowdy Tellez.

Now, it’s Hoskins’ turn.

“We just haven't had a solid reliable first base option," Brewers GM Matt Arnold says. “For a while, we've tried a lot of different parts there. Some of them have shown flashes, but to be able to access somebody like Rhys Hoskins was really exciting for us. We’ve been trying to get someone like this in the middle of our lineup for quite awhile.

“So, to have the chance to access a player like that, his kind of pedigree, what he's done in the game, all of those big moments, the character, the makeup, and all those things you want to see in a winning player, we thought he was the right player and right person for us."

Rhys Hoskins poses for a portrait at Brewers photo day.
Rhys Hoskins poses for a portrait at Brewers photo day.

Brotherly love with the city

This is a guy who was the heart and soul of the Phillies, and really the Philadelphia community. He and his wife, Jayme, lived in Philadelphia during the past four winters. They were deeply involved with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, volunteers with different charities, and embraced the vibrancy and passion of Philadelphia.

“We love Philadelphia and wanted to be part of that community," Hoskins says. “The biggest thing for me is that we have such a platform and a forum to have conversations to make a difference. The city rallied around us so much at the stadium, I think it's only right that we try to make some sort of impact in the community that's supporting us.

“That's how relationships form, and I think that's why I was able to have good relationships with the fans in that city, and with the people in the organization there."

The affair skyrocketed the night of Oct. 14, 2022, in Game 3 of the National League Division Series. Hoskins, who was badly struggling, sent Atlanta ace Spencer Strider’s fastball into orbit for a three-run homer. He took a few steps, spiked the bat into the dirt, and danced around the bases as fans screamed into the night.

“I don’t know if people will ever let me forget that one," Hoskins says, breaking into a grin. “That type of moment is what the postseason is all about. There’s a ton of raw emotion there, obviously from me, and also from the dugout, people in the stands.

“I think those types of reactions are what makes sports really cool. I don’t think you get that type of reaction in a lot of other industries. But those are the kinds of moments and memories that will always stand out."

If truth be told, Hoskins says his favorite memory of that series was his 424-foot, 3-run home run off Padres ace Yu Darvish in the 2022 NLCS in Game 5, clinching the Phillies’ first World Series appearance since 2009. He wound up hitting six home runs with 12 RBI in the postseason, including four in the NLCS.

“This guy’s a gangsta," says Los Angeles Angels manager Ron Washington, who was Atlanta’s bench coach throughout Hoskins’ stay in Philadelphia. “I mean, this guy will supply leadership. He will supply fight. He grinds, and he’s got that winning attitude.

“I’m telling you man, he’s dangerous when he walked up to the plate, and the past couple of years, he’s worked awfully hard on his defense.’’

Hoskins’ prized work ethic nearly had him pulling off a sequel to teammate Kyle Schwarber’s 2016 comeback with the Cubs when he missed the entire season with his torn ACL, and returned in time to help them win their first World Series since 1908. Hoskins worked out in the Florida instructional league and says he had about 50 or 60 at-bats.

“It was probably against some of my better judgement," Hoskins says, “but I was going to try to give it a go. I think my thought was this is my free-agent year, and it could be the last chance to get to play with some of these guys. Besides, you never know how many World Series you’re going to get a chance to play in.

“I didn't have to make a decision, but the competitor in me says I probably would have made it. It was always my goal."

Really, anyone that knows Hoskins believes he definitely would have been on that World Series roster.

A belated goodbye in Philly

His new crew in Milwaukee knows him as “Pee Wee."

Yes, a nickname courtesy of Brewers manager Pat Murphy.

“Pee Wee Rhys, get it?" Murphy says.

Reese, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Hall of Fame shortstop, was 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds.

“He’s anything but Pee Wee," Jankowski says in disbelief. “He goes from the 'Big Fella' in Philly to 'Pee Wee’ in Milwaukee. Come on."

Hoskins laughs, hoping that his bond with the Phillies’ fans means he won't hear “Pee Wee" chants when the Brewers visit June 3-5 at Citizens Bank Park.

The reality is that Hoskins meant everything to that organization and city, and when he steps to the plate for the first time, he can expect an ovation that could bring him to tears.

“It’s a special place," Hoskins says. “There were a lot of frustrating years in there, and now what you’re seeing is a lot of pent-up emotion from those fans cheering on their team. They’re pretty easy to root for with the type of players they have on their team. That’s why the city has rallied around them like they have.

“I accomplished a lot of life things there, so it will be different when I go back, but it’s going to be great, too."

It will finally be a chance for Hoskins to say good-bye and thank one of the most passionate fanbases in all of sports.

“I think it will really be special for him," says Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman, who had a tearful return to his first trip to Atlanta. “He’s so well respected in that city and in that clubhouse. He did so much for that organization.

“He’s really going to enjoy going back, reminding people how good he is."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Brewers' Rhys Hoskins starts anew without getting Philly goodbye