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Ex-Bulldog Garner has UT number retired, named All-Century
World Series hitting hero, veteran manager joins BHS alum DiFelice on all-time team

A native of Rutledge, Phil Garner said his father moved the family to Knoxville and enrolled him at Bearden High School in 1965, his junior year, because “I wanted to play football.”

However, as a teenager in Bulldogs maroon, “I had always thought about playing baseball professionally … I thought that I would play [base]ball at a higher level,” said Garner, a former BHS and Tennessee Volunteer standout who, as a Major League Baseball second baseman, helped lead one team to a World Series crown then, 26 years later, managed another team to the World Series.

“Obviously I wasn’t going to play basketball; and football, I don’t think I was probably fast enough.”

Garner highlighted some of his Bearden adventures at UT’s Lindsey Nelson Stadium just hours before a special ceremony: his Vols jersey number, 18, was formally retired during Tennessee’s 17th annual Baseball Leadoff Banquet in Knoxville Convention Center Thursday night, Feb. 19.

Garner, a 5-foot-10, 177-pounder who played at UT from 1968 to 1970 (.296 average, 17 home runs), also was one of 26 ex-Vols named to UT’s All-Century Team as revealed at the banquet.

Saying he was “flattered” by UT making him just the second Vol baseballer ever to have his number retired, joining Todd Helton, Garner recalled how he permanently became an infielder.

It started with a relief performance as a Bulldogs pitcher.

“I remember being asked to pitch one day down there in a game we were pretty close in,” the 1967 BHS graduate said. “It was maybe the sixth inning … and we were doing pretty good until I gave up a couple of hits and maybe walked somebody.

“I thought I was going to get cute, I had a little bit of a knuckle-curve kind of ball. … I threw it and some kid knocked the light bulbs out for a grand slam. I think it was the last pitch I ever threw as a pitcher.

“I think that might have been the defining moment in my career, they decided I was going to be an infielder,” added Garner, namesake for the BHS baseball field.

Quarterback of the BHS football team and a guard on the basketball team, “I was O-K, got some scholarship offers, but not great,” he said. “I think I had more basketball scholarship offers than anything.”

As a basketball Bulldog, Garner recalled “Rupert Breedlove” of what was then East High School (now Austin-East). “I think he was the first 7-foot player, I think, in Knoxville history, and I caught an elbow off him one night and it about knocked me out,” he said.

Saying he faced a decision on whether or not to use performance-enhancing drugs as a player, Garner said he “studied” the possibility of using steroids “trying to come back from back surgery, thinking that it might be an alternative for me to try.

“I realized — not from any moral high standard that I shouldn’t do it — but just the fact from the health standpoint, it’s not wise to get into this whole steroid thing,” he said.

Drafted by the Oakland A’s organization in 1971, Garner’s highlight as a professional baseball player was his 1979 post-season run in helping the Pittsburgh Pirates win the World Series. Garner went 12-of-24 at the plate as the Pirates edged Baltimore 4-games-to-3.

In 16 years managing three teams, Garner led Houston to its first and only World Series appearance, 2005, where it lost to the Chicago White Sox 4-games-to-0.

Still living near Houston and “spending a lot of time on the golf course,” Garner also said he’s “involved in the gas and oil business a little bit down in Texas.”

Garner added that while he’s “never saying never” about managing again or becoming a general manager, “I’m perfectly fine with being retired right now.”

Garner was joined on UT’s All-Century Team by another former BHS Bulldogs standout.

Catcher Mike DiFelice (BHS Class of 1988) played at UT from 1989 to 1991 (.308 average, 17 career home runs) before playing for several Major League Baseball teams from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.


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