ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The laugh typically begins as a normal one — a throaty, hearty “ha ha ha” — but suddenly, as if seized by gravity, it descends into Brett Phillips’s chest, and that’s where it gets trapped. Unable to breathe, Phillips doubles over, his face frozen into an open-mouthed expression that seems closer to distress than hilarity. Finally, after an interminable, silent pause that occasionally prompts a concerned stranger to rush over to perform the Heimlich maneuver, he inhales with a loud, gasping honk.
Then it starts over.
It is a laugh for which your only possible reaction — whether you are in Phillips’s presence or one of the million or so who have viewed the various YouTube videos of him laughing — is laughter of your own.
And until 11:18 p.m. Oct. 24, 2020, when he lined a 92.4-mph cutter from Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen into right-center field — setting off one of the wildest endings to a game in the history of the World Series, then famously airplaning around the outfield at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Tex. — the laugh was the thing Brett Phillips, outfielder for the Tampa Bay Rays, was best known for.
The first time Trey Hillman heard the laugh was in 2015, when he was dragged from the coaches’ office in the Houston Astros’ spring training clubhouse by players who were insisting he come see. Hillman took one look at Phillips, then a 20-year-old Astros farmhand, and thought: “He can’t catch his breath. We’re going to have to resuscitate this young man.”
Hillman’s second thought, after Phillips recovered: “That’s all a show. That can’t be real.” But as Hillman eventually learned, with Phillips, it’s all real.
You wouldn’t think someone could be so effervescent and fun-loving — so “on” — all the time. But he really is. “A blessing and a curse,” Phillips said. “It’s called severe ADHD. It’s hard for me to turn off. I can’t sleep. My mind is always going. Off days are terrible for me. I’m sitting at the house all day, not doing anything, not talking, and then I’ll be up until 2 a.m. with my mind racing.”
You wouldn’t think a career .202 hitter, a part-time outfielder traded three times in five years, could become the most popular player on the best team in the American League. But he really did — partly because of his World Series heroics last fall and partly because of his goofy but earnest personality.
You wouldn’t think he could turn a one-off emergency pitching appearance this season — when he sprinted from the bullpen to the mound as if something were chasing him, fired a first-pitch 94-mph fastball but lobbed everything else at 47 to 50 mph, with such an exaggerated delivery that he dropped the ball once and balked — into a postgame tirade that he should start earning Shohei Ohtani money. But he really did.
Okay, maybe that one was tongue-in-cheek.
“People on Twitter are already calling me the next Shohei,” he deadpanned in a Zoom session with reporters after his mound session. Noting his upcoming salary arbitration case, he added, “I know we’ll definitely be using him as a comparison.”
And, mostly, you wouldn’t think anyone could actually laugh such a violent, breathless, goose-honking laugh — at least if they could help it. But by all accounts, he really does. And by now, to family members and teammates, “locking up him” with a joke is a point of pride — with bonus points for getting it on video.
Not long after meeting Hillman’s daughter, Bri, before a spring training game in 2015, Phillips, showing remarkable self-confidence, petitioned his coach for permission to ask her out. And around the time it started to feel like their relationship might be going somewhere, Phillips, showing remarkable self-awareness, texted her a video with a warning: “Just so you know what you’re getting into.” In the video was Phillips, doubled over and locked up in a spasm of laughter, struggling to breathe, then letting loose that epic goose honk as teammates around him burst into raucous cheers and laughter.
In the moment she thought, “Yeah, this one’s different.” But by now, she’s used to the laugh, and as his spouse, it’s her job to reassure startled onlookers: “He’s fine. Just give him a second. He’s just trying to breathe.”
“People always ask me, ‘Is he the same way all the time?’ ” Bri Phillips said. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ He’s just as high-energy, just as joyful. What you see is what you get.”
Case in point: The night before their wedding, at the rehearsal dinner, Phillips took to the dance floor — and that, as you might have guessed, was the highlight of the night. He breakdanced. He inchwormed. He twerked. And he punctuated it all with a full-on, stick-the-landing backflip of such energy and intensity that he split open the back of his sport coat.
‘This is my city’
On Aug. 27, 2020, when he got the call from Royals General Manager Dayton Moore telling him he had been traded to Tampa Bay, Phillips had to hold the phone away from his face to disguise his overwhelming joy. He had to feign at least a tiny bit of disappointment, lest Moore get offended. Phillips wasn’t just going from a last-place team to a first-place one.
He was going home.
More than 500 players have suited up for the Rays since the franchise’s inception in 1998, and it is safe to say none was ever as excited to be acquired by them as Phillips. He grew up about 20 minutes from Tropicana Field in suburban Seminole, Fla., and he remembers attending the first fan festival of the Devil Rays, as they were known, with his grandmother in 1997, the winter before the team’s inaugural season, and running the bases at the Trop. He was 3.
He rooted for the likes of Quinton McCracken and Ryan Rupe but especially for Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Carlos Pena, his favorite Devil Rays. In 2008, the year Tampa Bay made an out-of-nowhere run to the World Series, Phillips’s travel-ball team, as a fundraiser, sold copies of the St. Petersburg Times outside the Trop before one of the earlier playoff games, which he and his teammates then got to attend.
“This is my city,” said Phillips, who lives just 10 minutes from his childhood home. “I grew up worshiping those Rays players, and now to call myself one? This is a dream inside of a dream.”
Could he really mean it? This year, despite a first-place finish in baseball’s toughest division and a third consecutive playoff appearance, the Rays drew just over 9,000 fans per game — 28th in the majors, ahead of only the stadium-challenged Oakland Athletics and the 95-loss Miami Marlins. The atmosphere at the Trop, even in the midst of a pennant race, is somewhere between lacking and lifeless.
Yes, he really means it. And to show his gratitude, Phillips unfailingly signs autographs and poses for selfies for 20 minutes or so before each home game, the line of fans snaking clear up the aisle between Sections 120 and 122 and around the concourse.
Phillips, whose playing time dipped late this season, was surprisingly left off the Rays’ roster for the division series, though he could be added back if they advance. He is in the midst of the best year of his career, evidenced less by the career highs across the board — including 2.1 wins above replacement (per Baseball-Reference) in just 292 plate appearances — than by his frequent appearances on highlight shows. Earlier this season, he slugged three grand slams in a span of 19 plate appearances, with an inside-the-park homer thrown in for good measure.
But if Phillips is now known as something other than the Guy With the Laugh — a goofy, fringy major leaguer who had fewer than 400 plate appearances across his first four seasons in the majors — it was the life-changing, legacy-building World Series hit last fall that did it.
He had only been with the Rays for two months and hadn’t had a hit in four weeks. He had been left off the team’s roster for the AL Championship Series, only to be added for the World Series because of his defense. In Game 4, he was the last bat on the Rays’ bench when he entered as a pinch runner in the eighth. An inning later, he strode to the plate, for his first plate appearance in 17 days, to face Jansen with two on and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of a one-run game.
His soft liner to right-center should have only tied the score, but the Dodgers butchered the play, allowing the winning run to score from first. Upon seeing his teammates sprinting out of their dugout and toward him, Phillips raised his arms like airplane wings and sprinted around the outfield until they caught him.
“Wow, baseball is fun,” Phillips blurted during a breathless, heaving, on-field interview with Fox’s Ken Rosenthal in the aftermath.
That play made Phillips a legend in the Tampa Bay area, and those words sparked a marketing campaign. Last winter, following the Rays’ loss in six games, Phillips hand-wrote “Baseball Is Fun” on a piece of paper and had it made into T-shirts — with the silhouette of his airplane-armed sprint through the outfield on the back — the first batch of which, made available through his website, sold out in hours.
Before one recent game, as Phillips greeted the line of autograph-seekers at the Trop — some of them wearing “Baseball Is Fun” shirts — it appeared as if he personally knew about a quarter of them, welcoming many with hugs and shouts of, “Oh, my gosh, so great to see you!” Yeah, he confirmed later: Twenty-five percent sounds about right as long as you count friends of friends and season ticket holders he sees all year long.
That particular night, the autograph line included a local judge who is a family friend, his elementary school math teacher, a college kid he gave baseball lessons to several years ago and his sister’s former softball coach.
Later, during the game, a fan in the outfield held up a sign: “Saint Brett Phillips Burg.”
‘I’m basically a 12-year-old kid’
This season, on a team flight, Phillips decided to do something he had seen a veteran on one of his previous teams pull off. At takeoff, Phillips slipped out of his seat and into the aisle, placed two magazines on the floor and, as the plane’s nose tipped skyward, went “skiing” from the front of the plane to the back.
Things were going great until Phillips approached the back of the plane, still at a remarkable rate of speed, with no idea of how to stop. Finally, he threw himself into an armrest — “Crash landing,” he called it — receiving for his troubles a loud ovation from his teammates and a gnarly bruise on his hip.
“People will probably get mad,” he said. “But it looked like fun, and I just wanted to try it. I’m basically a 12-year-old kid. Probably not my best idea. Won’t do it again.”
When it comes to his on-the-field antics, Phillips is guided by one internal litmus test: Would it be okay with Trey Hillman? Phillips’s father-in-law, now the Miami Marlins’ third base coach, is a baseball lifer, with 40-plus years in the game, including managing stints with MLB’s Royals, Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball and the Korea Baseball Organization. He considers himself an old-school/new-school “hybrid” — welcoming of analytics and such — but admits some of the exuberant, on-field antics of today’s players are “difficult for me to stomach.”
Phillips said of Hillman: “His opinion matters most to me. I tell him, ‘If I’m ever crossing the line, you let me know.’ So I have a built-in conscience: ‘If I’m going to do something on the field, am I going to disrespect Trey Hillman?’ ”
Has he ever heard from Hillman that he crossed that line? No, Phillips said.
But that doesn’t mean he always has Hillman’s blessing. It’s complicated. For example, Hillman, 58, saw the replay of Phillips’s walk-off homer against Detroit on Sept. 17, a moment Phillips punctuated with an exaggerated bat flip and an airplane jaunt around the bases, and — well, he never said anything about it to Phillips because Phillips never asked.
“Did he cross the line? The father-in-law answer is yes,” Hillman said. “Am I going to love him any less? No. I love the fact we can talk about it. … I want him to have the freedom to be himself. But more important than what his father-in-law thinks, I want him to always be respectful to the opposing team.”
Even Phillips, upon seeing the replay of his homer against the Tigers, had second thoughts. In the moment, his mind had gone blank. He didn’t remember the bat flip or the airplane around the bases. It was unscripted, spontaneous. Only when he saw the replay did he cringe a little.
“That was probably the first time I’ve ever flipped a bat or pimped a home run,” he said. “But it was my first career walk-off homer. I didn’t know what I was going to do. When I saw it on replay — yeah, maybe it was a little too much.”
Hillman pointed out the Tigers drilled Phillips with a fastball the next day. “In my opinion, as an older baseball man, he got plunked the right way,” Hillman said. “Sometimes the game has to police itself.”
There is a time and a place for everything in baseball — even a wild, hair-on-fire, airplane-armed sprint around the field. Maybe that time is after a walk-off win in the World Series. Or maybe it’s Christmas Day in Texas.
Last Dec. 25, with the family gathered at Trey and Marie Hillman’s ranch in Liberty Hill, Tex., the whole crew, numbering 14 or 15 strong, decided to break in the new video-equipped drone Trey Hillman had received as a Christmas gift in the most spectacular way possible: by assembling on the turf baseball diamond on the compound and re-creating the moment two months earlier when the Rays sprinted to the outfield and chased down World Series hero Brett Phillips.
To make themselves look more like a team, they all put on “Baseball Is Fun” T-shirts that had appeared in everyone’s stockings that morning. And they all went outside — even 86-year-old Royce Hillman, Trey’s father — and took off, Brett with his airplane arms and the rest giving chase.
But eventually everyone figured out it was more fun to be Brett than to be the teammates chasing him, so they all raised their arms, and there they went — airplaning in every direction and goose-laughing along the way, until they finally had to stop to catch their breath.