Craig Phillips won his 800th game Tuesday.
Those who have been around him during the journey to get there have at least as many stories — probably more — regarding Phillips, Fort Plain’s legendary baseball coach, who hit yet another milestone when Tuesday’s 17-4 win over Mayfield made the 70-year-old the first New York State Public High School Athletic Association baseball coach to reach 800 wins.
His resume since taking over the Hilltoppers’ dugout in 1974 includes a dozen Section II championships, state titles in 2007 and 2016, and a home field that bears his name. During the Montgomery County lifer’s tenure, the small school in the little village in western Montgomery County has become one of the most successful and respected baseball programs in the state.
And that’s not even to mention all the stories to be told — some hilarious, some heartwarming, some bizarre — that make up the mythos of one of the most notable characters in greater Capital Region high school sports.
“Everybody’s got a million stories they can tell,” said Pat Hanifin, a member of Phillips’ second Section II championship-winning team in 1987.
Phillips is unashamedly outspoken, with an uncanny ability to get in the heads of opposing coaches, umpires, and even his own players. He’s also a gamesman who attended umpire school before starting his coaching career, and he knows every trick in the book and every angle to exploit.
Phillips has stated publicly that 2021 will be his final season as head coach.
Then again . . .
“Since 1990, I’ve heard it,” longtime assistant Bryan Cronkhite said of Phillips’ many declarations of an upcoming retirement. “And there’s probably people that have heard it well before that.”
As Phillips reached his 800th win, The Daily Gazette reached out to a number of Fort Plain players, assistant coaches, coaching rivals, Section II officials and umpires, asking them to share their favorite story about their time spent with NYSPHSAA’s all-time leader in baseball coaching wins.
Here’s what they had to say.
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Bryan Cronkhite, one of Phillips’ most loyal lieutenants, has for years has handled most of the administrative and scorekeeping duties for the Hilltoppers.
Cronkhite recalled a particularly anxious moment as Fort Plain prepared for its state semifinal game against Frewsburg, which was sending St. Bonaventure-bound pitcher Cael Johnson to the mound.
“Coach was always very particular with when he wanted the lineup card, and when to give the opposing team the lineup card,” Cronkhite said. “I try to be on top of things and organized — he should really attend an Organization 101 college class.
“I had everything ready to go, the lineup’s all set. Coach asked to see it, and I can’t find it. He’s yelling, screaming, ‘Where is it?’ and all of a sudden, I turn around and him, Jeff Briggs, Dale Smith and Charlie Smith, they are dying laughing, because coach Phillips is holding the lineup card right in his hand. He’d just happened to take it out of the book and blamed me.”
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As longtime members of the Section II baseball committee, Phillips and Al Roy often found themselves performing off-the-field duties at important playoff games. Roy recalled one of those games, when Phillips made a phone call to an unexpected recipient who happened to be coaching third base at the time.
“Here’s a typical Craig Phillips prank,” said Roy, who is currently serving as the state baseball chairman. “I don’t remember the exact year, but Stillwater was playing a big sectional game at Heritage Park. Butch Lilac was the town supervisor in Stillwater at the time and he was coaching the Stillwater team. He had a special phone in his back pocket in case something was happening, and Craig somehow got his number. He comes up to the press box and calls Butch, and asks him, ‘Why did you steal there?’ Or something like that. ‘Why did you make that move?’
“Butch looks up at the press box, and you should have seen his face. We just all cracked up. I’ll never forget it. He [Lilac] wasn’t too happy about it at the time, but later on he laughed about it.”
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On the field, Phillips has always competed hard when playing Saratoga Central Catholic in a rivalry series that’s spanned several decades. Saints coach Phonsey Lambert recalled the day the Fort Plain mentor played friend instead of foe and offered a Saint a helping hand.
That Saint was Lambert’s veteran assistant, Dale Long Jr., whose dad homered in eight straight games to set a Major League Baseball record that was tied years later by Don Mattingly.
“Dale has a ball signed by his dad and Don Mattingly, and Mattingly‘s name is rubbed off pretty good, “ Lambert began. “So about 10 or 12 years ago, we’re at a clinic and Don Matttingly was talking about hitting. When he’s done, Dale was hoping to get it signed, but they ushered him out pretty quick.
“Craig jumps on the stage and starts yelling, ‘Don, Don, it’s Dale Long’s son, Dale Jr.’ Mattingly is halfway out the door when he comes back and goes to Dale, ‘Your father was one great guy,’ and signs the ball. That was unbelievable.”
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Pat Hanifin’s relationship with Phillips goes back to when Hanifin was in first grade and Phillips — a first-year teacher at the time — was his physical education teacher. Since that time, Hanifin has served as a bat boy, played on Fort Plain’s 1987 Section II championship team, coached with and against Phillips-led teams, umpired games coached by Phillips and had both of his sons play for Phillips.
Hanifin recalled a younger Phillips’ infectious, often rambunctious attitude.
“When I played for him in ’87, he was still in his 30s. Imagine a youthful Craig Phillips,” Hanifin said.
“A bunch of us baseball players worked at the Palatine McDonald’s. It was a snowstorm, so there was no business this one morning. There’s nobody there. All of a sudden this brown station wagon shows up, and it’s Craig going through the drive-thru with his kids, who were really young.
“Rich Bower gets the idea of going out the back door of McDonald’s and sort of lobs a snowball at his car. You know Coach — we’re talking a 30-year-old Coach, who’s very playful — going, ‘OK, we’re going to have a snowball fight? Let’s go.’ Somehow, he lures Bower over to the car, and he just jumps out and he does his best [pro wrestler] impression. He just suplexed Bower into a snowbank. I can still picture that today.”
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Dale Smith was an outsider when he came to the Fort Plain program as a junior varsity coach, but over 16 years on the staff he became Phillips’ right-hand man, serving as both pitching coach and third-base coach.
In 2008, Fort Plain traveled to the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Walt Disney World for a series of scrimmages. Smith recalled Phillips’ craftiness, as the coach tried to run out the clock for the two-hour, 45-minute limit in a meeting with a large-school team from Rochester whose coaches had rankled Phillips’ nerves early in the day.
“We’re at about two hours and 35 minutes, and we’re up by two runs on them with Adam Cutspec pitching,” Smith said. “Coach decides to come up with a scheme. He says, ‘Have Adam throw over a few times.’ Well, a few turned into 12 consecutive times over to first base. By the time we got out of that inning, it was two hours and 46 minutes, something like that.
“We thought the game was over . . . but the umpire looks at Coach and says, ‘There’s no game after you. Why don’t you just finish the game?’ . . . It ended up working in our favor because whenever they got a guy on, he hardly got any lead at all because they thought we were going to throw over.”
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The president of the Schenectady Baseball Umpires Organization, Jimmy Dalton has seen plenty of Phillips’ gamesmanship firsthand since first umpiring a Fort Plain game in 1997, and knows the veteran coach has a penchant to “test” umpires.
Phillips knows every angle, Dalton said, and the long-time umpire said he’s seen Phillips pull more than a few tricks out of his sleeve — especially if he notices an umpire is out of position or has a tendency to look the wrong way.
“If you’re out of position,” Dalton said, “he’ll let you know, and he’ll take advantage of you being out of position.
“He’s got a bunt play that he runs, and he knows that all eyes are going to start moving with the ball on that bunt play. His runner will cut third base short, never touch the bag and kind of get a shortcut home. He’s done that one before.
“He’s a technician. You can’t get anything by him, that’s for sure.”
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Phillips has been pitting his teams against Chris Wyanski’s Duanesburg clubs for 38 years, and Wyanski has seen all the trick plays and a lot of Hilltoppers wins.
“We know about the accolades on the field, but I have one very close to me, that shows he’s a real person,” said Wyanski, who recently reached his own milestone with 350 wins. “Two years ago, my twin brother [Mike] passed away. It was sudden. At the wake, here comes Craig Phillips and a group of guys from Fort Plain . . . and they stayed. He asked if I needed anything. They were great. To come to that meant more than you could imagine.”
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One of the best Fort Plain players of recent vintage, Drew Fureno was the state Class D player of the year in 2016 when, as a junior catcher, he led the Hilltoppers to the program’s second state title.
That season came after a year in which Fureno and his younger brother Brady — an eighth-grader on the state championship team — lost their mother, Shannon Fureno, following a lengthy battle with brain cancer.
It also came as Phillips was dealing with his mother Jean’s declining health, as well as his own hip ailments that eventually required surgery following the season.
“He wouldn’t be around every day,” Drew Fureno said, “just because of his health, and him taking care of his mom. With Brady and I coming from a similar background in terms of caretaking, we completely understood and we knew how much of a toll that took on him mentally.
“Having to take care of himself as well, from a physical standpoint with his hip, it was a very trying time. To see him go through all that and have it pay off and give it back to him as a thank-you to everything he did that year and all the years prior, that was the best reward.”
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There may be nobody who served more time alongside Phillips on a bench than Jeff Briggs, who played on Phillips’ 1987 Section II championship team and later spent 22 years as a Fort Plain assistant baseball coach — along with another decade-plus as an assistant under Phillips with Fort Plain’s varsity boys’ basketball team.
Briggs’ abiding memory comes from one of Phillips’ crowning moments when, in 2007, the Hilltoppers finally reached the pinnacle of high school baseball in the state by beating Keio Academy to win their first NYSPHSAA Class C title.
“The team runs out on the field in celebration, and the assistant coaches, we were like the kids — we were right out there with them,” Briggs said. “Bryan [Cronkhite], myself, Dale Smith, Charlie Smith, we were the assistants at the time, and we’re all out there in the dogpile on the pitcher’s mound.
“I turned around and looked, and coach is standing on the baseline, just taking it all in. I’m thinking, ‘That’s amazing.’ At that point, it’s about 30 years of coaching, 30-plus, here’s the pinnacle of his career as a coach, and he’s watching his kids and coaches celebrate. . . . We could tell a million crazy and funny stories, but that sticks with me. It’s the type of person he is, and I think that’s why the program has been the way it’s been all those years.”