Brett Phillips has always wanted to wear the No. 35. Trouble was, it was always taken — in stops at Milwaukee, Kansas City and Tampa Bay .
This offseason, that elusive number finally became available when the Rays traded Nate Lowe to the Rangers as part of a six-player deal in December.
For Phillips, a former Seminole standout, this career-long quest is personal.
The number is the same one shared by childhood friend, Nate Richardson, who was among four students killed in a car crash in 2009.
Once the request was granted, Phillips presented a Rays jersey with the No. 35 to Richardson’s mother, Diane, in an emotional video tribute that was posted Thursday night via Facebook.
“I’ve always wanted to wear the No. 35 in the big leagues to honor Nate, but it was never available,” Phillips said in his video tribute. “It’s exciting, obviously, but also emotional at the same time. I wish No. 35 wasn’t a thing, wasn’t a number, to have my buddy back. Life is precious.”
Phillips recalled selling the Tampa Bay Times with his travel ball teammates in a promotion that allowed him to go to Rays games.
“I always dreamed of playing in the big leagues and playing for the Tampa Bay Rays,” Phillips said in the video. “And now to be able to do it with his number on is just so special.
“It’s going to be a special moment that first game when I run out there with the No. 35 on, look up at him, point to him, and know that he’s going to be smiling from ear-to-ear.”
When Phillips was selected by the Astros in the sixth round of the 2012 draft, Phillips wrote a letter he posted to Nate’s MySpace page.
“You’re my angel in the outfield every time I step on a baseball field throughout my high school career,” Phillips wrote in the letter. “Every time I step on a baseball field I’m that much better because of you.”
“I want to make a promise right here, Nate, if I make it to the big leagues that first game when I walk out onto the field I’ll be wearing the No. 35 so when your parents and our friends and family will not only see me but will also remember you and what you meant to the city of Seminole, as well.”
That gesture appeared as if it would go unfulfilled. Not only was that coveted number taken, but Phillips wondered if his playing days were coming to an end.
Through much of last season, Phillips was on the bench with the Royals. In August of last year, Phillips was in the clubhouse hot tub when he noticed a sticker in someone’s laundry that had a familiar number — 35.
Two days later, Phillips got a phone call. He was traded to the Rays.
Immediately, Phillips began scouring the roster to see if anyone was wearing No. 35.
It belonged to Nate Lowe, who had the same first name as Phillips’ childhood friend.
Phillips believed it was a sign from above.
“This is where I feel I’m supposed to be,” Phillips told Pastor J.J. Johnson of South Tampa Fellowship in December. “Whatever it is (God) has in store for me, I trust your plan.”
Then in September, during a road trip, Phillips checked his email for his assigned seat on the flight.
The number: 35.
“Now, I’m like ‘Alright God, I get it. I hear you’,” Phillips said.
When the Rays traveled to San Diego to play the Yankees in the divisional playoffs, Phillips saw a statue honoring Padres’ former Cy Young winner Randy Jones.
The statue bore Jones’ retired number: 35.
“In the back of my head I’m like, ‘Fellas, we got this’,” Phillips told Johnson.
The Rays beat the Yankees, then the Astros, to make it to the World Series.
That set the stage for Phillips’ Game 4 heroics. His walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth inning helped score two runs (one came on an error) to knock off the Dodgers 8-7. Phillips became the first player since Kirk Gibson to have a walk-off hit with two outs while trailing in a World Series.
But even in that moment of triumph, Phillips’ thoughts turned to the person not there with him: Nate.
Phillips — and the Warhawks’ baseball team– continue to honor Nate. Last week, Seminole held its annual Nate Richardson Memorial preseason tournament. Phillips made an appearance.
Now, Phillips gets to pay tribute the way he always wanted — with the number that bore so much significance but had eluded him for so many years.
“It’s not only important to me in many ways, but important to Nate’s parents, Nate’s friends, his family, people that knew Nate and the type of guy he was,” Phillips said in the video of wearing No. 35. “He was a stranger to no one, someone you always wanted to be around. He was funny. He worked hard. He had all the qualities of someone you want to be friends with.
“So it was important for me to honor Nate’s legacy and know that when I go out onto that field and people who knew Nate see his number they’ll remember all the great memories that I have of Nate and it brings back and keeps his legacy alive.”