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PHILLIPS EMERGES AS YOUNG LEADER

If there's one thing everyone in this community can agree on, it's that we're desperate for young leaders, fresh voices to prod and inspire us. The 23-year-old shortstop for our minor-league baseball team seems up for the challenge.

"I want to be the king of Buffalo," Brandon Phillips said after arriving in town for the new Bisons season.

Two years ago, Phillips was a different sort of royalty -- a royal pain in the butt. Having failed in his first big-league opportunity with the parent Indians, he came to Buffalo and essentially pouted for the final month of the season. Management of the big club was not amused. They told him to grow and be more accountable as a pro.

He got the message. Last year, Phillips was a new man. He was a star, a two-way force on the field and a spokesman in the locker room. He reached base in 51 straight games and made a dazzling defensive play that turned the postseason around and launched the Bisons to the International League title.

Phillips went to Indians camp to compete with former teammate Jhonny Peralta for the starting shortstop job. It was no contest. Phillips pressed at the plate and in the field. He hit .128. Peralta won the big-league job. Phillips was sent back to Buffalo so he could play every day.

He has handled it like a pro. Phillips faced the Cleveland media and conceded, "The best man won." He didn't like the demotion, but he accepted it. Now he's back in Buffalo and determined to make the most of it.

"I'm going to act like this is my city," he said. "I've been here. I've won a championship here, and next thing I'll try to do is win another one right here, right now."

Right here, right now? He even talks like Marv Levy! Phillips, a Georgia native, knows he can hit big-league pitching. Baseball is a humbling game. At some point, every hitter has to deal with repeated failure. It's the ability to come back from failure that matters most.

"When I struggled in 2003, it hurt," said Phillips, who hit .208 in 112 games for Cleveland that year. "I had never struggled in all of my life. It showed me how it feels to be on the bottom. But I rebounded. Sometimes you have to learn how to lose before you learn how to win. If that hadn't happened, I never would have done what I did last year."

He says the experience also prepared him for what happened this spring. He says Peralta went in with an edge after winning the IL MVP award for Buffalo. So he's determined to win an MVP here, too. A year ago, he hit .308 for the Bisons with 34 doubles, eight homers and 50 RBIs.

"I'm playing for the Buffalo Bisons," Phillips said, "and I'm going to give my best and try to have a better year than I did last year -- which would be kind of hard, to tell you the truth. Last year, I put my name back on the map. Now I think I have my name in people's minds."

Next year, the Indians can't option Phillips between Cleveland and Buffalo without exposing him to waivers. They keep him in the majors or lose him. He won't be lacking for suitors. Several teams, including the Red Sox, showed interest in him at last year's trade deadline.

He proved himself as a winner and a team player. Late in the '03 season, you couldn't get a word out of the guy. Last season, you couldn't shut him up. On the night the Bisons won the championship, he was running around like a little kid, the most exuberant guy in the park.

Phillips has finally discovered that baseball rewards those who find the right balance between humility and pride. Certainly, he is not lacking for ego.

"No, I'm not," Phillips said. "I'm still going to be the confident person that I am. A lot of people say I'm cocky, but they can say what they want. I'm real confident. I'm happy to have a job here. Of course, it's my dream to be up in Cleveland and have a long career. But I'm not worried about it.

"But once I get up there," he said, "I will not see another minor-league team again. I'll tell you that."
e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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