By BILL BANKS
For the Journal-Constitution
Published on: 03/15/07
P.J. Phillips smiled and admitted he was as surprised as anyone when he saw what his parents had done.
Phillips, a fledgling professional shortstop, is still all arms and legs at 6-foot-3, 175 pounds, and with a young man's wispy goatee (he's only 20). He'd spent last fall honing his skills in the prestigious Arizona Instructional League.
He came home in late fall to find his mom and dad converting an old commercial car garage in Pine Lake into an indoor baseball facility.
"I thought 'Wow,' " said Phillips. " 'I'm gonna have my own personal batting cage.' "
Not exactly. First, he was told that he'd have to share with others. Many others.
Second, his parents added, he'd have to pitch in and help run the place.
So it happened that on the day after Christmas, James and Lue Phillips, with occasional aid and advice from their four offspring, officially opened the Phillips Baseball Center of Pine Lake, Ga., down the street from their longtime Stone Mountain home.
Despite the frenetic pace of starting this business — Lue first spotted the building while driving down Rockbridge Road only last October — it's clear that a lot of years and thought have shaped this whole enterprise.
The batting area has four full-length hitting cages, along with three "soft- toss" areas, or small cages for intensified work, where batters practice leveling their swings and maintaining focus.
James Phillips can roll the cages aside, creating an Astroturf-layered surface where he sprays line drives and ground balls, teaching the fine subtleties of infield play.
"The fact is I was always training people on the side, especially when my kids were at Redan High School," said Phillips, a sales rep for R.J. Reynolds. "The nearest batting cages are in Snellville, and a lot of players from around here go all the way to Marietta or Alpharetta.
"Well," he said, "my wife and I decided we needed something here in DeKalb County."
When it comes to sports, particularly baseball, James and Lue Phillips have been something of a cottage industry. Their oldest son, Jamil, now 30, played in the minor leagues until a serious knee injury ended his career. Their youngest, daughter Porsha, is a 19-year-old freshman on the nationally ranked Louisiana State University basketball team.
P.J., or Patrick James, was a 2006 second-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. In his first professional season last summer, he played 69 games on a rookie league team in Orem, Utah.
The middle son, 25-year-old Brandon, came of age with the Cincinnati Reds in 2006. He hit .276 with 17 home runs and 25 stolen bases, but more astonishing, perhaps, was his acrobatic defensive play at second base, which drew rave reviews throughout major league baseball.
"When we were putting this place together," James Phillips said, "I asked Brandon to critique me as a coach. I didn't necessarily like all the things he told me. He said he didn't like for me to get in his space. He said I needed to be more patient and not be so critical.
"I'm probably better," Phillips said, "with [the students at his center] than I am with my sons. I know for a fact I'm more knowledgeable now than when they were coming up."
On a recent weekday evening, Phillips, wearing a Cincinnati Reds cap, folded his arms and kept close watch on 11-year-old Jared Maner, a fifth-grader at Paideia. Even at such a tender age, Jared already displays a compact left-handed swing, as he whacked one line drive after another into the netting.
Also watching, from a distance, was his father, Carlton Maner.
"Coach Phillips has incredible patience," the elder Maner said. "The most impressive thing about him, though, is that whether a kid is 10 or 12 or 16, Coach Phillips understands exactly where they are supposed to be. From what I can see, he doesn't demand any more of them than they're capable of giving."