MAYFIELD — Fort Plain baseball coach Craig Phillips said his arm felt just fine after waving home a bunch of runners in Tuesday’s Western Athletic Conference game at Mayfield.
It had been years since Phillips opted to direct traffic on the bases and send his players signals from the third-base box rather than stay on the bench and talk hitting with his players.
“The coaches would say [I] did it because I wanted to get on TV,” said Phillips, with a sheepish grin. “They were right.”
The man known for his jokes and quips is also an excellent baseball man, and quite adept at doing all of the things it takes to win games. Tuesday’s 17-4 victory at Mayfield Elementary School was the 800th in the four-decade-plus career of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association’s baseball coaching wins leader.
“I found him this afternoon, sat him down and said, ‘You are going to coach third base. This is your day.’ There was no negotiating,” Fort Plain assistant, and regular third-base coach, P.J. Brown said. “He said, ‘I’ll do it until I screw up.'”
That never happened as the Hilltoppers rolled to a special win they were hoping to get a year ago, before the 2020 spring season was called off because of concerns related to the novel coronavirus pandemic. That 2020 edition would have included nine seniors back from the 2019 Section II title-winning team, and would have been favored for a championship repeat.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Brown said of the 800th win. “Now we can relax and get back to just playing baseball.”
Fort Plain has been playing winning baseball under Phillips for a long, long time.
“It’s an amazing accomplishment,” said Saratoga Central Catholic coach, and rival-turned-friend Phonsey Lambert. “All of the schools they [Fort Plain] play are the same size. The underlying factor is Craig Phillips. He doesn’t have the best athletes every year. When the season is over, he starts preparing for the next season. Summer ball. Hitting clinics. He’ll drive kids anywhere. He’s vested. No one has outworked him in season or out of season.”
Phillips shared credit for his grand success, as he always had before.
“Who would have thought back in 1975 when Fort Plain gave me a chance that I’d get 1,000 wins in baseball and basketball,” the 70-year-old Phillips said. “It’s because of the coaches and the kids, and all of the support from the school and the community. It’s been a great career.”
Fort Plain improved to 6-0 with another win that was in hand early, after the Hilltoppers scored seven runs in the first inning and eight more in the second in Tuesday’s matchup that was called after five frames. On Monday, Fort Plain turned aside Berne-Knox-Westerlo 9-3 for Phillips’ 799th triumph.
“We wanted to put them away early,” Fort Plain senior Troy Butler said after collecting three hits, including a home run. “That helped keep us relaxed and helped keep him relaxed.”
Griffin McGinnis, Stephen Gray and Evan Crouse had two hits apiece in Tuesday’s affair, which was nothing like win No. 700 during the 2014 campaign when the Hilltoppers outlasted Schoharie in nine innings 6-5. Win No. 600 was a combined no-hitter by Mark Hanifin and Dan Wiecek when Fort Plain beat St. Johnsville 15-1 in 2009.
“In 1975, we were 13-4,” Phillips said. “We’ve had some great battles. Some great games in the sectional finals, regionals and state championships.”
Tuesday was just the latest significant accomplishment for a program that under Phillips’ direction has earned 25 league championships (in the Tri-Valley League and Western Athletic Conference), 12 Section II titles, six regional titles and state crowns in 2007 (Class C) and 2016 (Class D).
“It feels great,” Butler said. “I’ve been here with him for a long time, and it’s amazing to celebrate something like this with him. He’s a huge part of our community and it’s nice to see.”
After Tuesday’s game, Phillips alluded to this being his final season with the Hilltoppers, though the Capital District Baseball Hall of Fame member had made mention of that in previous years.
“It’s going to be tough to stay away from it,” said Phillips, whose wife has Alzheimer’s. “I think you all understand why. Sometimes you have to make decisions that are best for your family.”
If this is his last go-round, Phillips wants to go out playing for an area championship.
And, who knows, that might lead to one more appearance in the third-base coaching box.
“I love to compete in the sectionals. It’s a blast,” he said. “That’s the best time of the year, playing in the sectionals.”
Fort Plain 780 11X X — 17 14 3
Mayfield 000 22X X — 4 3 6