The Jeremy Brown who steps into the batter's box in early October is, and is not, the fat catcher from Hueytown, Ala., whom the Oakland A's had made the most unlikely first-round draft choice in recent memory. He was still about 5'8" and 215 pounds. He still wasn't much use to anyone hoping to sell jeans. But in other ways, the important ways, experience had reshaped him.
Three months earlier, just after the June draft, he'd arrived in Vancouver to play for the A's rookie ball team. Waiting for him there was a seemingly endless number of jokes at his expense. The most widely read magazine in the locker room, Baseball America, kept writing all these rude things about his appearance, quoting unnamed scouts from other teams saying things like, "He never met a pizza he didn't like." Back in Hueytown, his mother read all of it, and every time someone made fun of the shape of her son, she got upset all over again. His dad just laughed.
Along with most of the other players drafted by the A's in 2002, Jeremy Brown had been invited to the instructional league in Arizona at the end of the season. By then, three months after he'd been the first player from the '02 draft promoted to Oakland's Class A team in Visalia, Calif., no one was laughing at him. In Visalia he'd quickly seized the starting catching job and led the team in batting average (.310), on-base percentage (.444) and slugging percentage (.545). In 55 games he'd knocked in 40 runs. So artfully had he ripped through the pitching in high Class A ball that Beane had invited him to the 2003 big league spring training camp—the only player from the '02 draft so honored. The running commentary about him in Baseball America hung a U-turn. When the magazine named him one of the top three hitters from the entire draft, and one of the four top prospects in the Oakland A's minor league system, his mom called to tell him: Someone had finally written something nice about him.
When Jeremy Brown comes to the plate on this mid-October afternoon in Scotts-dale, Ariz., it's the bottom of the second inning. There's no score, and there's no one on base. The big lefthander on the other team has made short work of the A's first three hitters. He throws Jeremy a fastball off the plate. Jeremy just looks at it. Ball one. The next pitch is a changeup on the outside corner, where Jeremy can't do much with it anyway, so he just lets it be. Strike one. Jeremy Brown knows something about pitchers. "They almost always make a mistake," he says. "All you have to do is wait for it." Give the game a chance to come to you and often enough it will. When he takes the changeup for a called strike, he notices the possibility of a future mistake. The pitcher's arm motion, when he throws his changeup, is noticeably slower than it is when he throws his fastball.
The next pitch is a fastball off the plate. Ball two. It's 2 and 1, a hitter's count.
The fourth pitch is the mistake: The pitcher goes back to his changeup. Jeremy sees his arm coming through slowly again, and this time he knows to wait on it. The changeup arrives waist-high over the middle of the plate. The line drive Jeremy hits screams over the pitcher's right ear and toward the gap in left centerfield.
As he leaves the batter's box, Jeremy sees the left-and centerfielders converging fast. The leftfielder, thinking he might make the catch, is already running himself out of position to play the ball off the wall. Jeremy knows he hit it hard, and so he knows what's going to happen next—or imagines he does. The ball is going to hit the wall and ricochet back into the field. The leftfielder, having overrun it, will have to turn around and chase it. Halfway down the first base line Jeremy Brown has one thought in his mind: I'm gonna get a triple.
It's a new thought for him. He isn't built for triples. He hasn't hit a triple in years. He thrills to the new idea: Jeremy Brown, hitter of triples. A funny thing has happened since he became, by some miracle, the most upwardly mobile hitter in the Oakland A's minor league system. Surrounded by people who keep telling him he's capable of almost anything, he's coming to believe it himself. He races around first ("I'm haulin' ass now") and picks up the leftfielder, running with his back to him, but can't see the ball. He's running as hard as he's ever run—and then he's not. Between first and second base his feet go out from under him and he backflops into the dirt, like Charlie Brown. He notices, first, a shooting pain in his hand: He's jammed his finger. He picks himself up and starts to scramble back to the safety of first base, when he sees his teammates in the dugout. The guys are falling all over each other, laughing. Everybody's laughing at him again. But their laughter has a different tone; it's not the sniggering laughter of the people who made fun of his body. It's something else. He looks out into the gap in left centerfield. The outfielders are just standing there. They've stopped chasing the ball. The ball's gone. The triple of Jeremy Brown's imagination is, in reality, a home run.