Gene Twardzik/For The Recorder Fort Plain baseball coach Craig Phillips, right, talks to pitcher Eric Orologio (18) during Monday's game against Schoharie in Fort Plain. Assistant coach John Fureno, center, is also pictured.
Gene Twardzik/For The Recorder A sign is unveiled Monday at Phillips Field commemorating Fort Plain baseball coach Craig Phillips' 700 career wins.
By ADAM SHINDER
FORT PLAIN -- The sign hanging on the right field fence had been covered up by a silver tarp all afternoon, just waiting to be unveiled. For a while, it looked like it would stay under wraps for at least another day.
But, when the hoopla subsided after Kiernan Briggs' walk-off RBI single in the bottom of the ninth inning Monday gave the Fort Plain Hilltoppers a 6-5 win over Schoharie, the cover finally came off, and the sign proclaimed it to the world -- Fort Plain baseball coach Craig Phillips had his 700th career win.
But, for Phillips, the old war horse of Section II baseball in his 39th season commanding the Hilltoppers, the thoughts went to the three signs hanging on the fence in left field, honoring the memories of three members of the Fort Plain baseball program who have already passed -- players Rich Bower and Bo Baker and longtime coaching colleague Charlie Smith.
Baker, who was killed in a January 2013 car accident at just 21 years old and who, to Phillips, embodied so many of the ideals he's tried to instill in four decades of coaching, was particularly on his mind.
"He never complained. ... He was a typical Hilltopper baseball player," Phillips said. "That's the thing that makes me most happy is the fact that he's looking down up there with the shinguards on, looking down on us. That's one of the worst things you can do, is bury one of your players."
Those signs were in Phillips' heart. His players wanted to make sure the sign in right got to see the light of day Monday -- even if it wasn't unveiled until the sun had nearly set over Phillips Field.
"I knew it was underneath there, and we've had things planned," Briggs said. "That would've killed me, to not be able to give Coach this moment on his home field. That wouldn't be as good, doing it on the road."
For Phillips, No. 700 was a chance to reflect on what has been a long road in coaching and a lifelong love affair with America's favorite pastime.
"I knew I loved baseball from the very first day when Coach McCarthy from Cobleskill taught me in T-ball. I've loved it ever since," Phillips said.
It's why, nearing 40 years in coaching, Phillips is still willing to put up with the nagging little things that come along with his position, or his problems with current athletes and a perceived lack of commitment toward baseball once the season arrives.
"That's my bone of contention, guys doing rodeo and guys doing AAU basketball -- it shouldn't be going on during baseball season," he said. "That's my bone of contention with our athletes today. Do what you want in the summer, go with any team you want, but in the springtime, it's baseball and you've got to play it."
But, as he started to lose count of the number of his former players who ringed the field Monday afternoon and talked about former assistant coaches like Jeff Briggs and Dale Smith who were on hand for his heart-pounding historic win, Phillips could overlook those qualms.
"The relationship I have with the former players is the most important," he said.
For Phillips, that makes everything else that comes between those golden moments on the diamond well worth the annoyance.
"A lot of bus rides, a lot of fundraising, a lot of car washes, a lot of $20 raffles," he said. "Fighting people over senior trips and proms and all this other (stuff). ... It's just that sound of the ball hitting the bat. It's fun."