It is a Friday afternoon in Pittsburgh. The Pirates and Reds are preparing for the teams' most anticipated series in more than two decades. Playoff spots are at stake. Brandon Phillips, the Reds' All-Star second baseman, is relaxing at his locker. I am standing beside him. We are talking about swag.
Wait. That description is insufficient. Let's try again: Phillips is delivering a virtuoso performance, even by his voluble standards. Our conversation lasts 30 minutes. He pillories sabermetrics - "all this stat crap," as he calls it - for removing passion from the sport. He praises the stylish and boisterous Dominican team that won this year's World Baseball Classic, hinting that he'd love for his Reds to play more like that. He says the major league product isn't exciting enough. "That's exactly why African-Americans don't play baseball," he tells me. "(There's) no passion in the game. You've got to be like a robot. Look at basketball. Look at football. When you make an exciting play, you can let everybody know. ... If you get hype, get some swag, turn up, your team can feed off that."
Swag, I come to understand, is serious business. It could help a team win next month's World Series. It is essential to the growth of our national pastime, insofar as it makes baseball more appealing to kids. It must be held in check - sometimes. "You can get a little overboard with it," Phillips says. "You can. It's all about how you do it. If you're trying to show up (an opposing) player, then it's totally different. If you hit a home run and you pimp it too much, then it's too much."
Phillips grows more animated with each sentence, and I find myself nodding in agreement. Around the 15-minute mark, I realize this is no mere interview. This is a master class on the state of swag in Major League Baseball.
"Baseball swag, to me, is a guy that goes out there and plays with emotion, plays with the passion of the game, not caring what anybody else thinks of them," Phillips says. "He doesn't play for himself. He plays for the fans. He plays for the city. And when he goes out there and he does his job, he lets everybody know: 'I'm here. I'm doing this for y'all. I'm doing this for this team. I don't care what anybody else thinks.' That's baseball swag to me."
Phillips gives examples: Andrew McCutchen has "professional" swag - understated most of the time, but "he'll let you know" after a big home run or game-saving catch. Yasiel Puig? "Outrageous swag." Adrian Gonzalez? "Undercover swag." In basketball, the dependable Tim Duncan has "no swag" - which, Phillips allows, is a sort of swag unto itself.
Entire teams can have it.
"The way the Red Sox play is swaggalicious," Phillips says. "I love it. Them and the A's - swaggalicious. Ain't nothing but swag on those teams. When everybody has swag, and everybody joins the movement, you become a team. You feed off that energy. Swag brings energy. That's what it does. It brings a lot of energy. All that boring crap, that don't bring energy."
At this point, I ask Phillips to name his All-Swag Team. He doesn't disappoint. He picks a manager (Ron Washington) and designated hitter (David Ortiz) along with this starting nine:
Pitcher: Felix Hernandez, Mariners. "One pitcher with a lot of swag is King Felix," Phillips says. "King Felix has nothing but swag. I love his swag."
Catcher: Yadier Molina, Cardinals. This one caught me off guard. Weren't Phillips and Molina the principal antagonists in that benches-clearing brawl a couple years ago? Turns out, swag transcends rivalries. "Yadi has swag," Phillips insists. "I respect guys. I respect Yadi to the fullest. Great player, man. He has swag. I love it. A lot of swag."
First baseman: Prince Fielder, Tigers. "Prince Fielder has nothing but swag at first base."
Second baseman: Do I even have to ask? "Myself," Phillips says, in a fashion that suggests this is like questioning whether Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer of all time. The answer is self-evident. "Do I think I'm a showboat?" he asks at one point. "No. I'm an entertainer . I play with passion. I play with flair. And the fans love it. My teammates love it."
Third baseman: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers. "King of swag," Phillips calls him.
Shortstop: This is a tough one. "I would say Jimmy (Rollins), but he's starting to play like a different Jimmy," Phillips says, teasing his good friend. "I don't like the way Jimmy's been playing. Jimmy's playing like he's worrying about what people are saying. I like Tulo. Tulo has some swag when he hits a home run and the way he throws the ball to first base - that's a lot of swag. (J.J.) Hardy, that's called 'no swag.' But I love watching him play." For a moment, Phillips is satisfied with the answer of Troy Tulowitzki. Then he changes course. "I'd take Hanley Ramirez's swag over Tulo's swag," he decides. "Hanley's swag is off the chain ."
Left fielder: He doesn't hesitate. It's Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies. " Oooooohhhh ," Phillips says, shaking his head. "He has nothing but swag. Wow! I love his swag."
Center fielder: "Kind of hard," Phillips says, and he's right. He mentions Mike Trout. He's already praised McCutchen at length. But he settles on Orioles star Adam Jones, one of his teammates on Team USA at the World Baseball Classic. "My boy AJ has swag in center field," Phillips says. Although this is only my first class in swag-ology, I'm inclined to agree. Jones is one of my favorite players in the sport, and I'm not afraid to admit it. I contend that the quintessential Jones play involves chasing down a ball in the gap while blowing a bubble with his gum. Phillips agrees. "Tryin' to tell you," he says.
Right fielder: Another difficult one. Phillips scans the team logos affixed to the clubhouse walls, looking for ideas. "J-Hey, no swag," he says of Atlanta's Jason Heyward. "He needs some swag. Torii (Hunter) has swag. When he hits a home run, he throws his bat to the dugout." But Phillips is still thinking.
Of course, Puig's swag is undeniable. Phillips is a fan. "He plays hard, he plays with a lot of passion, but he plays with a lot of extra ... extra ... he plays with a lot of extra ," Phillips says, laughing. "I don't know what he plays with, but I love it. I love watching him play. When I see him play, I just laugh. I think he's funny. He's a funny player to watch." Still, Phillips isn't sure Puig has been around long enough to make the All-Swag Team. (Take note: Tenure is a component of swag.)
Phillips mentions that Miami's Giancarlo Stanton has swag - especially after switching his name from Mike to Giancarlo. But in the end, Phillips' choice is unconventional: San Francisco's Hunter Pence, whose on-deck routine is, in Phillips' words, "the most funked-up stuff I've ever seen."
"I love his swag," Phillips says admiringly. "He has swag. Nobody else plays the game like him. His swag is hustle, hustle, hustle, hustle. ... He's unique. I call him the unicorn, (because) you'll never see another guy swing like him. You'll never see nobody else play like him. David Eckstein used to be one of my favorite players. He was totally different. I like people that are different. Those guys can change a whole game by their teammates feeding off their swag."
Phillips saw that firsthand last October. Pence did more than change a game. He changed an entire postseason , by sparking the Giants' comeback from a 2-0 first-round deficit against Phillips' Reds. Then Pence helped the Giants topple a more talented foe in the World Series - just as Eckstein did for the Angels and Cardinals years ago.
Swag , it seems, is the new market inefficiency.
Phillips and I agree that there is a connection between the postseason we're about to witness and how the year in baseball began - with the Dominican Republic dazzling its way to the WBC title. In some respects, the Dominicans didn't play that differently from the '12 Giants or '11 Cardinals - the sound defense, the airtight bullpen, the skillfully manufactured runs, the visible team unity. Even from across the field, Phillips can tell Ramirez has brought the Dominican bravura into the Dodgers' clubhouse.
"I feel like Hanley learned a lot from the WBC," Phillips says. "The way they play with the Dodgers, it's like he's still playing for Team Dominican. They get so crunk and so amped up and so hype over there, it's the type of player he is. And he has more guys over there who (are) like him. When you're the only guy like that, it's hard to go out and play to your best potential. For him to play with those guys over there - Puig and Carl Crawford and Gonzalez - I love people who play like that."
So there you have it: If you're picking a World Series winner, find the team with the greatest and most numerous practitioners of swag. Phillips believes his Reds can improve in this regard. "We don't have that kind of swag over here," he says. "We only have just me." Then he corrects himself: The Reds also have rookie thunderbolt Billy Hamilton, now 13-for-14 in stolen bases.
"When he gets in the game," Phillips says, eyebrows raised, "we know it's swag time."
Hamilton told me recently that he could tie Usain Bolt in a footrace. If he manages to do it, he will earn global acclaim - and an automatic berth on the 2014 Brandon Phillips All-Swag Team.