MARYVALE, Ariz. – Brett Phillips is going to go through life with people trying to make him laugh, which has its pleasures.
He’s a 21-year-old outfielder with the Milwaukee Brewers, drafted four years ago by the Houston Astros out of the same Florida high school as Casey Kotchman and Bobby Wilson. He was traded last summer with three others for Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers. And he’s in his first big-league camp, gaining on the major leagues with the better part of five tools.
That’s not why people are happy to have him happy, at least not the immediate reason.
In his Twitter bio, he mentions as an aside, “4th grade spelling bee finalist!”, the exclamation point his. So of course that means he lost in the finals, and as such the question must be raised.
“Miscellaneous,” he says. “I spelled it with one L instead of two.”
He smiles kind of loopy and before it can be said that miscellaneous is kind of a hard word for a fourth grader, he’s off: “M-I-S-C-E-L-L-A-N-E-O-U-S. Miscellaneous.”
He nods his head, like, “Bam!” Like, a little applause would be cool, only goofing around, which is funny even if he doesn’t laugh, which you’d remember if he did.
Brett seems a nice young man, full of energy and baseball talent. At home they call him Maverick, which is his middle name and serves to avoid any confusion when he’s around his father, whose name is also Brett. He says he’ll probably go by Maverick over the long run, but that it’s a little uncomfortable when he introduces himself as Maverick because people look at him and want to say, “Is that fake?” but are usually too polite.
So, look, Brett is the guy you may have seen on the Internet with the laugh. That laugh. It’s here and here and here. It’s a racket and bearing not generally associated with human noises or bearings, but it’s all joy and people nearby may start out laughing at him but before long they’re laughing with him and, damn, ain’t that a great thing? And we’re getting to that.
But first know that Brett is becoming a pretty good baseball player. That’s what he’s here for. He worked to become stronger and make himself better, and after emerging as one of the Astros’ top prospects — no small deal in a loaded system — is today one of the Brewers’ top prospects. A left-handed hitter, he had zero home runs in his first two minor-league seasons, the summers of 2012 and 2013. He decided he should do something about that, went home after 2013, went to the gym six days a week — many of those with his father — and in the next two seasons hit 33 home runs.
Ask around about Brett and hear much of the same stuff: plays hard, very skilled, needs to clean up those last few areas that will make him a big leaguer. But he’s close. Not long ago Brewers manager Craig Counsell met with Brett and he recalled, “Brett gave some really interesting answers to some of the questions we asked.” He smiled.
“He told us he’s always working to improve [his] base of fundamentals,” Counsell said, and then referenced Brett’s “hair-on-fire-style of play.”
“Which I love,” he said. “As you get more fundamentals into that player, that’s a really interesting player. I think that’s the player that’s coming.”
Brett OPSed .905 across two minor-league levels in 2014 and .901 across three in 2015. He stole 40 bases over those two seasons. He’s a strong center fielder.
He’s been told he won’t make the Brewers out of this camp, so Brett has spent these early days watching the likes of Ryan Braun and Eric Young Jr. chase their routines. He’s learning that the value of a day lies in its precision.
“For me it’s development and learning as much as I can from those guys who’ve already been at the big-league level,” he says. “I’m learning from them.”
This isn’t to say Brett hasn’t made an impact on the clubhouse himself, and this is where we get to the part about people making Brett laugh. Because it’s great when he laughs, soon as it’s understood it is a laugh and the paramedics are waved off.
He has described it himself as, perhaps, the sound of a “Goose, dying donkey, pterodactyl …” and explained, “Like a mystery box I never know what sound is gonna come out.”
Oh if it were simply the esophageal commotion, though. There’s the right eye, which closes. The bend at the waist. The mouth expectantly agape awaiting the rattle. It’s all so glorious and uplifting.
“It’s been there my whole life,” he says. “I’ve laughed like this my whole life. I’m sure you’ve already seen comments [on the Internet] like, ‘Oh I still have videos of him from back in high school or middle school. Oh, I remember that kid’s laugh from class.’
“I’ve tried to keep it hidden as long as possible. They caught wind of it and seem to try and bring it out every day now. Which is out of control.”
He laughs, but not that laugh, though a handful of nearby Brewers glance over in case it goes full-blown.
“Class was probably the biggest issue,” he says. “If I started laughing everyone would be laughing. It would be kind of a couple-minute excursion. And the teacher would be like, ‘All right, Phillips, we need you to take some time out of the classroom.’ Once I start laughing everyone starts laughing and then it kind of changes the mood. Everyone’s out of control and all, so…”
Laugh, and the world laughs with you, right? You know, after sorting through what’s happening. It’s a gift.
“It’s just my laugh,” he says. “I guess if I’m bringing joy to someone then I guess that’s cool too.”