FORT PLAIN - As head coach for 37 seasons of the Fort Plain Hilltoppers baseball team, Craig Phillips has guided the team to 676 victories, 21 league titles, nine sectional championships, four regional titles and four trips to the NYSPHSAA tournament and the 2007 New York State Class C Championship.
Phillips and 24 distinguished baseball players, coaches and officials will be inducted into the Capital District Baseball Hall of Fame on Oct. 28 at the Hilton Hotel in Troy.
"It is a great honor," Phillips said. "I have had some great kids and some great coaches through the years. It has been a great career, and I appreciate that they think enough of the job I have been doing to award me with this. This award, along with the one I won last year for the National Small School Coach of the Year, are great honors."
Fort Plain coach Craig Phillips, right, congratulates Chris Hanifin after scoring a run during a game against Middleburgh on May 10 in Fort Plain. Phillips will be inducted into the Capital Regional Baseball Hlll of Fame on Oct. 28. (The Leader-Herald file photo).
Joining Phillips in the second class of inductees in the Capital District Baseball Hall of Fame are former Amsterdam Rams coach Brian Mee, former New York gov. and player in the Pirates system Mario Cuomo. Other inductees include Rick Bernardo (Rangers), Don Berti (Astros), Peter Brown (Cubs), Ken Hayner (Blue Sox), Jim Howard (Orioles, Scout), Tim Lane (Twilight League), Joe Mahoney (Baltimore Orioles), John Mayotte (Eckerd), Jon Mueller (UAlbany), Bill Norris (Red Sox), Brendan Ryan (umpire), Dave Smith (Mets), Karl Steffan (RPI), John Stewart (Braves, scout), Gary Tuck (Red Sox, coach) along with deceased players Buck Ewing, King Kelly, Waldo Lozano, Mike Maetta, Jack O'Brien, Ed Phelps and Cy Seymour.
"The first year I coached, we went down and scrimmaged Brian Mee at Amsterdam and they beat us something like 27-1," Phillips said. "That was with that really good team they had."
Phillips' love for the sport started as a youngster and continued through his high school playing days at Fonda-Fultonville High School.
"From the time I was 5 years old, I fell in love with the game," Phillips said. "I played JV ball for Phil Schoff and varsity for Don Flood for three years. Both of them gave me a good background on the game. The game has never left me. It has been a great ride."
However, it was another sport that gave Phillips a jumpstart on a successful coaching career.
"I played fast-pitch softball for nine years up in Meco and, back then, that was serious ball," Phillips said. "When you managed to get a runner on first, you bunted him up. Early in my career, I didn't play for the big innings. I played baseball like I played softball."
Phillips' style of coaching the game has changed some, but his passion is still the same.
One of the many highlights for the Hilltoppers' program was winning the Class C state championship in 2007.
"When we won the state championship I did not run out on the field," he said. "I stood back and just watched the kids. It has always been about the kids. I get a lot of publicity, both positive and negative, but anything we have done has been because of good players and good kids. When we arrived home, it was unbelievable. There were people who didn't really know Fort Plain had a baseball program lining the streets. The kids really felt like somebody when they got off that bus."
Phillips credit's the dedication of the players and everybody involved in the Hilltoppers' program for the team's success.
"The kids would get done with basketball on a Friday night and on Saturday at 7 a.m., we would leave for Hayner's Sports Barn in Clifton Park and take lessons for two hours. Going to Disney World was a blast; going to Myrtle Beach was a blast. That builds togetherness."
Phillips credits his "best friends," Phil Thibodeau, Dale Smith, Jeff Briggs and Adam Cutspec with much of the team's success.
"Those guys don't care who gets the credit, they just do their jobs," Phillips said. "Adam Cutspec, who played for me, coached with us last year."
One thing Phillips enjoys is when players come back to see him or support the Hilltoppers.
"The greatest feeling in the world is when a former player comes back," he said. "We had an alumni game this year and 65 players played in it. It was a blast. They played like they always did for me."
Coaching a team for 38 years means Phillips also has had sons of players he coached early in his career on the diamond.
"Chris Hanifin plays for me now and his father and uncle played for me and his cousins played for me," Phillips said laughing. "I am getting a lot of second-generation kids now. I don't know if I will be around long enough to get their grandkids, though."
Reflecting on the awards, Phillips said, "It is just a culmination of my career. When I do retire I don't know what I am going to do. I have a batting cage in my yard and I am out pitching batting practice for the neighborhood kids now. I just love the game so much."