MIAMI — Brad Miller had not yet searched for bamboo in Chinatown when he finished his dinner one day last month at an Atlanta steakhouse, looked across the restaurant, and saw a table of Phillies players waiting to order.
Miller had joined the team a day earlier in a trade with the Yankees, moving to his fourth team in four months. Once again, Miller was the new guy.
He had crossed paths with a few of the players at the table — such as team leaders Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins, and Jake Arrieta — during his seven-year career, but he did not know them. It was time to introduce himself.
“I sat down and talked with them, and they were really welcoming,” Miller said. “It was fun to just feel like ‘OK, I am the new guy, but I’m part of the team.’ ”
The Phillies went on to lose the following night in Atlanta and drop eight of their next nine games. That’s when Miller went to Chinatown, bought a bamboo plant for the clubhouse, and watched the Phillies win five of their next seven. The new guy had endeared himself to the team by becoming the bamboo guy.
But Miller, in two weeks with the Phillies, has brought much more to the Phillies than just bamboo. The 29-year-old is 6-for-16 with two homers and four walks since joining the Phillies. He’s been a needed left-handed bat off the bench, a versatile defender whom manager Gabe Kapler can insert into the lineup when needed at almost any position, and a positive clubhouse presence during a difficult month.
“Brad has brought a pretty consistent fire,” Kapler said. “Even when he’s not playing, there’s still a lot of energy in the dugout. A lot of high-fives. A lot of smiles. We talked about playing with a lighter mood the last couple of days, and he’s brought that in a pretty consistent fashion.”
Miller did not have a camp to report to in February when spring training opened. Finally, the Dodgers signed him to a minor-league deal two weeks into camp. He was a second-round pick by the Mariners in 2011 and hit 30 homers for the Rays in 2016, but he found himself this winter without a team until the last day of February.
Miller had played through injuries in 2017 and 2018 and undergone offseason surgery after each. He had core-muscle surgery after 2017 to reattach his ab muscles and surgery last season to repair a torn hip labrum and microfracture.
The pain hurt Miller’s production. He combined to hit .220 the last two seasons with a .689 OPS. Interest was equally dim.
“The game kind of passes you by,” Miller said.
His deal with the Dodgers was just a minor-league one, providing Miller a shot to make the roster after camp. For Miller, it was a chance to prove he was healthy.
“I’m a guy that wants to be there for my team and go and post,” Miller said. “I did, and I wasn’t as good of a player as I was when I was healthy. Now, the perception is ‘Oh, you’re terrible and you need to go to triple A.’ I feel like I’m a warrior and I’m going to go post.
"But the second you’re damaged goods, teams turn their back on you. But I think it made me a better player.”
Miller had a strong camp, but he opted out of his deal at the end of spring when it became clear that he would not make the Dodgers. He latched on with the Indians but was designated for assignment after two weeks despite having the team’s third-highest OPS.
Miller moved to the Yankees, went to the team’s triple-A affiliate in Scranton, and mashed.
After two surgeries, Miller was healthy. He was producing at the plate the way he did three years ago, and his ailing body no longer limited him to just the infield. Miller said he became a better player in triple A by embracing his minor-league chance.
“There’s really no choice,” Miller said. “If your goal is to be the best player you can be and help the team, which is what my ultimate goal is, then it doesn’t matter where you are. You have to embrace it, or you’re going to be a sliver of your potential.”
The Phillies tried last summer to hold onto a division lead by plugging their roster holes with veterans, but the players they added were not all the right fit, and didn’t mesh with the other players. The front office decided this season to spend more time vetting potential additions before putting them in their clubhouse.
They added veteran Jay Bruce in early June and 11 days later brought in Miller. General manager Matt Klentak said the Phillies had gathered information on what the players were like as teammates, how they would respond to being used in a specific role, what type of person each was. A season after nosediving out of first place, the Phillies were adamant to not make additions in haste.
“I didn’t know there would be a bamboo obsession that would kind of capture the town,” Klentak said. “But I think we heard really good things about Miller’s energy, his positivity, his makeup, and the fact that he’s fit in well has not been a surprise. The fact that he’s been the ringleader for some of this stuff has been awesome.”
Miller arrived in Atlanta last month a day before the Phillies flew south. It was by coincidence that he picked the same restaurant as his new teammates. It was a chance to meet his new team and it was a chance for the leaders of the clubhouse to meet the player the front office thought would mesh with their group.
He went 12 days later to Chinatown, bartered with a shopkeeper to lower the price on the store’s biggest bamboo plant, and then lugged it to the clubhouse. The tension of a seven-game losing streak was eased by Miller’s purchase. But he’s brought much more than just a bamboo plant.
“I just try to be myself. I want to add something positive,” Miller said. “That’s the biggest thing I focus on, and hopefully these guys can get a feel for what I’m all about. It just feels good to be healthy and to be part of a really good group here.”