5. Pittsburgh Pirates
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A fast start by Adrian Brown will boost his confidence -- and the team's
By Jeff Pearlman
That's why despite having greater job security than he's ever possessed, Brown arrived at the Pirates' spring training facility in February as wary as he had been the day -- shortly after graduating from McComb (Miss.) High -- he received a whopping $4,000 signing bonus to forget his commitment to Meridian Junior College and join Pittsburgh's Rookie League club in Bradenton, Fla.
Can't Brown relax a little now, knowing that he's slated to be the Pirates' every-day centerfielder and leadoff hitter? Doesn't it help that new manager Lloyd McClendon has been hollering his praises since the day Brown arrived in camp? Doesn't it matter to the bashful, small-town, 27-year-old that he's being counted on to turn Pittsburgh's new waterfront stadium, PNC Park, into Excitement Central?
"Being a 48th-round pick, that's always going to stick with me," says Brown. "It's made me tougher and more determined. I've always believed that if you can play, you can play. I can play, but I've had to do a lot of convincing." Telemarketers have to do a lot of convincing. What Brown has done is spend virtually all of his career -- the first seven years primarily in the minors, the last two mostly with the Pirates -- as a part-time player. His minor league résumé looks like Automobile Club of America's list of blah Southern towns: Bradenton; Augusta; Lynchburg, Va.; and Zebulon, N.C., plus stops in Lethbridge, Alberta; Calgary; and Nashville.
Not that he missed the bright lights. As a boy growing up in tiny Summitt, Miss., life was simple: baseball after school and baseball on weekends. "In Summitt there's nothing to do," he says. "For fun, people would go to the high school basketball game and then McDonald's." Brown hadn't been on an airplane until his first year of rookie ball, and his hands still get sweaty upon boarding.
Growing up, he did not idolize Dale Murphy or Dave Winfield, big stars at that time, but the overlooked Otis Nixon, a toothpick-sized, switch-hitting spark plug. In 1994, after his third season in the Pirates' organization, Brown was asked to play in the Florida Instructional League so he could learn how to switch-hit. He started out 0 for 26. "I just kept on trying," he says. "I remember getting that first hit up the middle. Man, did that feel good."
Brown was always able to jump on fastballs, but a lack of power and an inability to hit breaking pitches slowed his rise to the majors. He was finally called to Pittsburgh twice during the 1997 season, but he hit only .190 in 48 games; when he came back up in August '98, he hit .283 in 41 games. He started the last two seasons on the Pirates' Opening Day roster as a backup outfielder, having his best year in 2000. After missing most of last July because of a strained hamstring, Brown became the full-time centerfielder and leadoff hitter -- and dazzled. Showing improved patience at the plate, he waited on curveballs and used his speed to pile up ground ball hits.
Except for his low walk total (29), Brown is an ideal leadoff hitter: good contact (only 34 strikeouts in 308 at bats), solid on-base percentage (.373, but .428 in the second half), effective baserunning (13 steals in 14 attempts) and a .315 average in 104 games. Now McClendon can drop Jason Kendall, the club's Opening Day leadoff hitter by default the past two seasons, to the third spot in the lineup.
In 2000 the Bucs ranked seventh in the NL in batting average (.267), ninth in on-base percentage (.339) and 12th in home runs (168) and stolen bases (86). They have All-Stars in Kendall and Brian Giles, but the rest of the lineup is unspectacular -- except for Brown. The Pirates have featured several swift leadoff hitters over the past two decades, but perhaps none boasted the pure burst of Brown, as fluid a runner as they come. He is also -- shhh! -- emerging from his cloak of anonymity. "This season," he says, "I'm going to give people something to talk about."
Issue date: March 26, 2001