With his seventh pitch of this season Kevin Brown will have earned more than the median household income of the 10,797 folks of Wilkinson County, Ga. The first of Brown's twice-monthly paychecks will bring him $1.25 million, as much as a median wage earner in Wilkinson County makes in 46 years, a lifetime of work. Still, while Brown may rest his head at night in a Beverly Hills mansion after earning about four grand per pitch from the Los Angeles Dodgers, he is never far from Wilkinson County. "I'm afraid we'll be the Beverly Hillbillies—'Here come the Clampetts,' " says his wife, Candace, laughing. Candace was 13 when she met Kevin, who is three years older, and 19 when they were married.
Wilkinson County is smack in the center of Georgia. The middle of nowhere. There, in the town of McIntyre (pop. 552), Kevin Brown grew up. The county, which begins about 20 miles east of Macon, is a haunting sepia photograph come to life, though barely. A somber stain of umber blots the landscape, as if reddish-brown ink had spilled from the sky. Rusted metal roofs hang heavily over the dark wood planks of tottering houses, and long-dead autos lie like toppled gravestones in dirt the color of a fresh scab. This is a place where collarless dogs chase cars down country roads, where one out of every eight families lives below the poverty level, where there is no obvious sign of the 30 households that, according to the last census, earn $100,000 or more per year, and where there are some 38 churches to offer reminders that everyone is destined for a better place.
"Got a cell phone with you?" Kevin's mother, Carolyn, asks a visitor who is about to drive from Macon to McIntyre. "That's the country country over there, you know."
Business district reads the green sign with the white arrow pointing to Main Street in McIntyre, a single block that begins at a salvage yard and ends at a filling station, with a hardware store, a police station and an unmarked convenience store in between. At 5 p.m. on a weekday in February you could play a chess match in the middle of Main Street without vehicular interruption. The police station is locked shut. No one is inside.
An old-timer remembers having no indoor plumbing or electricity in his home in McIntyre as recently as 1948, when he was 19 years old. He remembers the gaps in the floorboards of his old house, through which you could see the earth; the three meals of cornmeal each day; the patched pants he wore to school, which so embarrassed him that many times he just wouldn't go; and the 60 cents or so per hour he made as a teenager mining kaolin, the fine white clay that is the only reason McIntyre is inhabited at all.
That old-timer is Gerald Brown, who by the grace of his son Kevin's freakish right arm is sipping coffee in a leather chair in a spacious four-bedroom brick house in Macon—out of Wilkinson County. From his front steps Gerald can see the 15,000-square-foot mansion Kevin is building, the brick fortress that sits on 70-plus acres of land and makes Gerald and Carolyn's spread look like one of those plastic Monopoly houses.
As a boy Gerald walked a mile to fetch a bucket of water. Kevin grew up in a family of five in a 1,300-square-foot house with one bathroom, where no one knew the luxury of a long shower. His new estate will be flush with 10 bathrooms.
In the reddish-brown dirt of McIntyre and especially in the creases of Gerald's square face are clues as to why Kevin throws a baseball with a fury like that of no other man alive. In those same places are also clues as to why, unless you saw Kevin playing with his own two sons or flying one of his remote-control airplanes or watching one of the 89 episodes of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation he keeps in his video library, you might never have seen him smile.
"There were teammates who hated his guts," says Tom House, Brown's pitching coach during his first six major league seasons, with the Texas Rangers. "People who have Kevin's makeup are pretty much oblivious to other people's feelings. There's not a lot of empathy in Kevin. Like a lot of athletes, he is a narcissistic individual who's paid a lot of money to be that way. Oh, he's a hard-ass, all right. But I'd like to think that, at heart, he's a great kid."
"I guess that comes naturally," Gerald says of his son's brutish single-mindedness. "I was the same way. I thought I had to be perfect in everything I did." Gerald is a short, stocky man who even in winter wears short-sleeved shirts, which bare his muscular tattooed arms. He has a twinkle in his eyes of the Jimmy Cagney tough-guy sort. Carolyn says that if he were a ballplayer—both she and Gerald played softball—he would be Chuck Knoblauch, the New York Yankees' hard-nosed second baseman.