Brandon Phillips is a member of the Lexington Legends.
Ordinarily, this would sound absurd, and perhaps it still does. What set of circumstances would lead a 39-year-old Cincinnati Reds icon with more than 2,000 hits at the Major League level to come out of retirement to play for the Legends,
Brandon Phillips is a member of the Lexington Legends.
Ordinarily, this would sound absurd, and perhaps it still does. What set of circumstances would lead a 39-year-old Cincinnati Reds icon with more than 2,000 hits at the Major League level to come out of retirement to play for the Legends, who usually operate as the Class A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals? The circumstances, broadly speaking, are that in 2020 everything is weird, so ... why not? More specifically, Phillips and his fellow Legends are playing in the Battle of the Bourbon Trail, a four-team "only in 2020" league resulting from a unique partnership between the Legends and another professional team in the region, the Florence Y'alls.
The Legends are normally a member of the South Atlantic League. The Y'alls, located some 70 miles (and several bourbon distilleries) to the north, operate in the independent Frontier League. COVID-19 caused the cancellation of both teams' regularly scheduled seasons, which led to the formation of the Battle of the Bourbon Trail. The two organizations created two "home" teams apiece, recruiting players from a wide variety of professional and non-professional backgrounds. Lexington's Whitaker Bank Ballpark is home to the Legends and Las Leyendas, the latter an identity originally created for Minor League Baseball's Copa de la Diversión program. Florence's UC Health Field hosts the Y'alls and the Freedom. The former, a reference to the city's famous "Florence, Y'all" water tower, was unveiled as the Frontier League team's new name in January. Freedom, meanwhile, was the previous name of the franchise.
The Battle of the Bourbon Trail was announced on July 1, the day after the official cancellation of the Minor League Baseball season. It began on July 31, with games taking place every Wednesday through Sunday in both Lexington and Florence. The regular season concludes Sunday, but the action continues next week with a Legends-Leyendas home run derby and exhibition game (Sept. 16-17), followed by a best-of-3 championship series featuring "all-stars" from both Lexington and Florence teams. Games are played in front of socially distanced crowds, well below 50 percent of each ballpark's normal capacity. Masks are required for entry, as are temperature checks. Upon admission, fans are treated to what may be the highest level of baseball that can be witnessed in person in the United States.
The Legends are overseen by team president Andy Shea, while the Y'alls are headed by president/CEO David DelBello. The two men first spoke in March, during what Shea described as the "beginning of quarantine." Initial conversations were dedicated to sharing information about state health restrictions and the feasibility of staging ballpark events such as high school tournaments. From there, the brainstorming began.
"We started seeing the writing on the wall. You could see it from a long way away. The Minor League Baseball [season] was going to be canceled and the Frontier League season was being cancelled as well," Shea said. "But eventually, we got favorable news from the state in terms of hosting live baseball at ballparks. We came up with [Battle of the Bourbon Trail]. Like, 'Let’s go! Let’s do it!'"
For independent league teams such as the Y'alls, assembling a team is an essential part of doing business. Shea and the Legends had had no such experience, however, as those who work for Minor League teams generally have no control over the on-field product. Minor League players are provided by the Major League parent club, which makes all attendant personnel decisions.
"I spent countless hours on Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, looking for guys who might have an interest in doing this," Shea said. "I reached out to friends of mine, scouts, coaches, former Legends players, everybody. The biggest compliment, really, is that a lot of the guys began reaching out to their players and their friends. 'This is legit. A lot of fun.' Players talking to other players and getting them to come on board."
The resulting accumulation is a Kentucky-centric amalgam of collegiate players, former and current Minor Leaguers and former Major League players. Personal connections abound. Pitcher Robbie Ross and outfielder Ben Revere, both big league veterans, are good friends who grew up and attended high school in Lexington. Other players with Major League backgrounds include outfielder Eric Young Jr. and infielder Ivan De Jesus Jr. The latter's father, Ivan Sr., managed the Legends in 2004 and again in 2012.
Three players -- Lincoln Henzman, Devin Hairston, and Drew Ellis -- played together at the University of Louisville and five others were University of Kentucky teammates. Members of that quintet -- Kole Cottam, Luke Becker, Luke Heyer, Chris Machamer and Zach Logue -- all were drafted by Major League organizations.
It adds up to a tight-knit group, even if the players must distance themselves from one another.
"Because Florence is only an hour away, we were able to eliminate team buses and team hotels," Shea said. "In a COVID-19 world, that's pretty much essential. It would have been impossible to do in a safe manner. The other thing is that we're not using the clubhouses. It's just been exciting seeing all these different guys play, and we always have a home game, whether it's the Legends or Leyendas or both."
The most accomplished player to compete in the Battle of the Bourbon Trail is Phillips, who joined the Legends last month. The team is by Phillips' younger brother, P.J., who played in the Minors and independent leagues from 2005-17. Brandon, two years removed from his last Major League game, is hitting .386 over 47 plate appearance. Seven of his 17 hits have been home runs.
"We're only an hour and a half from Cincinnati, from Reds country, so we've had fans making the trip because they want to see Brandon Phillips again," Shea said. "It's great to see him that close, with such access and intimacy. And not to mention he's been ripping the cover off the ball and has been a heck of a lot of fun to watch play second base."
There won't be much more time to watch Phillips and his Battle for the Bourbon Trail cohorts. It's been a unique experience and it's reached the homestretch.
"This has helped us in keeping people employed and improved the health of our company. That was really the main goal in all of this," Shea said. "It's been one of the most special things I've been involved with in the game of baseball. Something like has never happened before, and it's hard to imagine something like it ever happening again."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.