BY STEVE KRAH
Phil Britton was attending the Culture & Leadership Hot Stove at the 2023 American Baseball Coaches Association Convention in Nashville when Jerry Weinstein began talking about body language.
As the ABCA Hall of Famer spoke, a slide went up which read: Body Language Is The #1 Form Of Communication. “What You Do Speaks So Loudly I Can’t Hear What You Say.” Immediate Attention Away From The Group.”
“When you’re trying to be competitive and put together a good ball club it starts with your values and what you’re trying to achieve,” says Britton, who played college and professional baseball, runs a training business in southern Illinois and southern Indiana and coaches travel ball. “It’s a lot easier to achieve those things when you don’t have to coach body language.
“Don’t get me wrong. The game’s hard and everybody gets down. But if you’re recruiting Player A and Player B and they’re both really talented and have the same skill set but one has body language that communicates that they can handle defeat and the other one has the shrugged shoulders, eye rolls and the stuff that really projects bad energy you’re going to select the player that doesn’t have that.
“If you’ve got those guys on your team it’s going to be a long year. It comes down to what kind of player am I — the one who pouts or the one who says ‘I’m going to get the next one.’”
Britton graduated from 2003 graduate of East Richland High School in Olney, Ill. (now consolidated into Richland County High School), where he played for Andy Julian of Newburgh, Ind., spent two seasons under National Junior College Athletic Association Hall of Famer Dennis Conley at Olney Central College and turned down an offer from the University of Kentucky to go pro. The catcher was in the Atlanta Braves and Baltimore Orioles organizations and with the independent league Fargo (N.D.)-Moorhead (Minn.) Red Hawks and Evansville (Ind.) Otters. He has been on the Otters coaching staff of manager Andy McCauley since 2012.
As his playing career was winding down, he started Britton’s Bullpen in Olney and has expanded to Indiana locations in Boonville and Fort Branch.
“I’m always watching body language,” says Britton. “I try to see what my body language is. If somebody strikes out in a big spot, how am I handling myself? Am I moping in the dugout or the third base coach’s box?”
As a manager, Britton wants to project a confident, stoic approach.
“I’m not sure how many kids understand (body language),” says Britton. “Everybody’s got body language. Your body speaks way bigger than your words. You can tell when somebody’s up. You can tell when somebody’s down.
“It’s difficult for a team to continually progress if you’ve got guys with bad body language. It’s a sign that they don’t want to be there. Why would you want somebody that doesn’t want to be there?”
Britton says players can’t project poor body language and be ready for the next play.
“If you’re putting yourself in position to make a play and you don’t make the play that’s not a bad inning that’s just not making a play. There’s a humungous difference.
“I can handle guys not making plays. That will never bother me. Not being in position will.”
Southern Smoke Baseball will field 8U, 11U and 13U teams out of Fort Branch and 12U, 14U, 15U, 16U, 17U and 18U out of Olney in 2023. Britton facilitates off-season workouts for Illinois teams, pops in with the younger teams and is a manager for the older squads.
He has an understanding with his players.
“Don’t mistake my intensity for getting after you,” says Britton. “The only time I’ll (do that) is if you’ve got it coming. By that I mean you’re a poor sport and showing up your teammates.
“I’m not going chew somebody’s tail just because they didn’t make a play.”
Britton expects his players to learn the game.
“We play half the season without base coaches and we do that to force kids to run with their heads up and make their own decisions,” says Britton. “There are some parents that are rubbed the wrong way. They want their kids to be coached every single play and they’re not learning anything. They’d be learning less with us controlling them.
“When you’ve got a kid crossing the road you want them to just put their head down and tell them it’s OK. Eventually they have to cross the road on their own with no one telling them.”
Britton, 38, was raised “old school” and spent a lot of time helping his grandfather. When he set his grandson for a tool, he didn’t ask where it was he just found it.
“You figured it out,” says Britton. “That’s how I grew up.”
It was this approach that Britton took into high school baseball.
“Coach Julian challenged me,” says Britton. “I was that player who needed someone to get up into my personal space and challenge me and Andy did a real good job of that.
“I wanted to be the best player everywhere I went.”
Jim Baker, who was from nearby Sumner, Ill., and pitched at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Ind., and in Triple-A in the Toronto Blue Jays system, was an encouragement to Britton.
“I respected him because he was where I wanted to be,” says Britton. “He said to me, ‘you’ve got some tools. Keep working your tail off.’”
Growing up poor and rural, Britton did not have brand new equipment. He got the old gear left over when the youth league was cleaning out the closet.
When he was a high school freshman, he and a friend entered a radio contest. The 95th caller won Bruce Springsteen tickets. Britton won the contest, sold the seats to a teacher who was a fan of “The Boss” and took the money to buy his first set of new catcher’s gear.
In his two seasons at Olney Central, Britton hit .426 with 15 home runs and a nation-leading 89 runs batted in and .430 with 10 homers and earned NJCAA All-American honors while playing for veteran coach Conley.
“People who know baseball understand just how valuable the guy is,” says Britton of Conley, who has led the Blue Knights for more than 40 years. “I can’t thank Coach Conley enough for holding me accountable.”
Britton came to campus not recruited by other places and 160 pounds, won the starting catching job and caught all games in the spring, including doubleheaders on Saturdays and bullpens between games.
“You’ll find out what you’re made of in a heart beat. That’s why Coach Conley’s the best. He is going to challenge you.”
He was going to be a Conley assistant when he turned his attention to building his own business, which now has Josh Wetzel and (former Castle High School player) Conner Porter leading things at Boonville and (former Indianapolis North Central High School and Indiana University catcher and current Otters hitting coach) Bobby Segal and Matt Racinowski at Fort Branch. Britton’s Bullpen also trains softball players.
“The end goal has been to help as many players as we can,” says Britton.
McCauley was in his first season as Otters manager when Britton came in at the all-star break in 2011. Bill Bussing has been the team’s owner since 2001.
“There’s nobody better than Mr. Bussing when it comes to independent baseball,” says Britton. “He cares about his people.
“That guy is there to help anybody he can help. He’s there to set a good example. We have got an extremely short leash in Evansville. We’ve got to bring in high-character dudes. If we swing and miss, you move on down the road.
“The guy at the top sets the standard. That’s true anywhere you go. Mr. Bussing is our standard.”
Britton credits the ABCA — the largest organization dedicated to baseball coaches in the world — to saving his coaching career.
“Getting a change to hear Patrick Murphy, Augie Garrido, Ken Ravizza and Matt Deggs — you talk about some very humbling individuals,” says Britton. “There is so much to learn than what I know.”
Britton’s Bullpen is on Facebook and Instagram and has a YouTube channel.