EVERETT — Quick, make a list of the things South Africa is best known for.
Nelson Mandela and his fight against apartheid. The Cape of Good Hope. Gold mines.
And baseball? If considered at all it would fall far down the list, probably somewhere in the vicinity of snowstorms and samurai.
South Africa is anything but a baseball Mecca. As sports go, baseball is well behind the likes of rugby, soccer and cricket in the national consciousness, and South Africa has never produced a major-league baseball player.
Perhaps Anthony Phillips can change that.
The Everett AquaSox shortstop and South Africa native is a rarity in professional baseball. But he hopes he’s blazing a trail straight to the major leagues.
“Playing professional ball has always been a dream,” the slick-fielding Phillips said. “And since I’ve been here the dream’s been to make it to the big leagues.”
It’s an unusual dream for a South African. Baseball is an afterthought in the country. There’s no professional league, only amateur ones. Occasionally the top amateur league imports foreign players, but when the most prominent of those imports include the likes of German outfielder Simon Guhring, you’re not one of baseball’s top destinations.
“It’s probably not in the top 10,” Phillips said when asked where baseball sits in the South African sports hierarchy. “It’s not a very well-known sport in South Africa. I think in the history of South African baseball there’s only been about 10 guys who have played professionally in the states.”
But while baseball opportunities my be sparse in South Africa, Phillips has been smack in the middle of what little there is. His hometown of Bellville is a suburb of Cape Town, where the greatest concentration of baseball is played in the country.
His family also is in the thick of the country’s baseball history. His father, Alan, is South Africa’s former ace pitcher, representing his country at the 2000 Olympics at the age of 44. His older brother, Jonathan, is a fair player himself, having spent 2003 in the minors with the Milwaukee Brewers organization.
“My dad always played, and my dad’s dad was involved,” said Phillips, who was scouted and signed by the Seattle Mariners in 2006. “So I’ve been on the field since I was 3 or 4. My dad coached me and took me through the steps. Then my brother went and played for the Brewers and he took over, teaching me the ins and outs.”
Aside from his country of origin, there are other aspects that make Phillips unique. At 18 years, three months and 14 days, he’s the second-youngest player in the Northwest League, surpassed in youth only by 17-year-old Spokane pitcher Martin Perez. Phillips and Perez are the only two players currently in the league who were born in the 1990s.
Add in Phillips’ sleight size — 5-foot-9, 160 pounds — and he looks more like a batboy than a player.
But Phillips makes up for his youth and size with a heightened level of determination.
“To me he’s like (David) Eckstein,” said Everett manager Jose Moreno, comparing Phillips to the diminutive Toronto Blue Jays shortstop. “He’s a gamer.”
How much so? Well, Phillips wasn’t supposed to play in the states last season. Still 16 when invited to spring training, the initial plan was for Phillips to return home following spring training to complete his junior year of high school.
However, Phillips impressed enough for the Mariners to ask him to stay for the summer. Playing for Seattle’s rookie-league team in Peoria, Ariz., Phillips began the season on the bench. But as the season progressed, his playing time increased. He ended the season as a regular, batting .279 and committing just seven errors in 45 games.
“Any time we needed him in a game, he’d play some really good defense or get a big hit,” recalled Moreno, who managed Peoria last season. “I think he was the youngest player in the league, maybe the youngest over here in professional baseball, and he did a very good job.”
Phillips began the 2008 season with Pulaski of the short-season single-A Appalachian League before being promoted to Everett. So far he’s handled the jump in level adequately. Going into Thursday night’s game he was batting .237 including a mammoth home run at Tri-City — “I definitely had never hit a ball that far,” Phillips said — and had made just two errors in 13 games.
As for the remainder of the season with Everett, Phillips hopes to continue improving at the same rate he did last season.
“I definitely improved a lot from the beginning of last spring training to where I am now,” Phillips said. “Hopefully I can have a good season and help the team win any way I can.”
And if he keeps improving, Phillips may just be the first player to put South African baseball on the major-league map.