“I think we both have a light in our stomachs. A special light. Like E.T. And the team needs somebody to light the way. My stomach light needs your stomach light. We can all phone home together.”
–Goon (2011), written by Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg
Domonic Brown and I go way back, in a manner of speaking. He came to prominence as a prospect at almost exactly the same time I started blogging about the Phillies, and as his fame as a prospect grew, my own writing career was starting to take off—I went from writing for a tiny site nobody read to progressively larger platforms. As Brown made his big-league debut, I started experiencing the first touch of that very small, very specific team blogger attention, and it felt good. It felt like I was going somewhere.
Somewhere along the line, I started to identify with Domonic Brown, to view his potential in baseball as something of a parallel to my potential as a writer. I got attached to the idea that if Dom Brown had potential, so did I. That if he could toil in obscurity as a 22-year-old in Double-A, and good things came to him later, that my toil as a 23-year-old blogger and grad student would lead to something good happening to me later.
So I became one of the biggest pro-Dom Brown advocates around, not only because I thought that playing him was smart from a baseball perspective, but because I wanted to see that potential fulfilled. If he could do it, so could I. At some point, the phrase “Free Dom Brown” started floating around Phillies Twitter, as playing time that should’ve gone to Brown went to Raul Ibanez or Ben Francisco. That got translated into the #FreeDomBrown hashtag, which my friend and longtime writing partner Paul Boye started reading as Freedom Brown. It turned into a rallying cry. I was all-in on this young player who I just knew could’ve been great, but never got the chance.
So it’s fitting that one of the first things I ever got paid to write about baseball was a story about Domonic Brown for ESPN’s SweetSpot blog. Specifically, about being disappointed.
June 2012 was a tough time for Domonic Brown—he’d been poised to take over the right field job to start 2011 when a broken hamate bone knocked him out of the lineup and sapped his power all year. In July, the Phillies traded for Hunter Pence, relegating the former No. 1 prospect to the minor leagues, where he remained when I wrote about the danger of falling in love with a prospect. As the Phillies plummeted from preseason NL East favorites to the .500 mark (and, in the years to come, worse than that), Freedom Brown turned from a triumphant, affirming cheer to something jaded and ironic.
And as the Phillies and Brown were falling apart, so was I. It became very clear around that time that I wasn’t going to cut it in academia, so I started looking for honest work, and like so many young people fresh out of school at that time—and indeed now, found none. For almost a year I applied to jobs in government, journalism, PR, advertising and education—hundreds of them, across dozens of states, and most of the time didn’t even get an official rejection. The constant anxiety over my future took its toll—most nights in 2012 I went to bed terrified at the prospect that I’d wake up the next morning, though when I did wake up I devoted most of my time to watching and writing about the Phillies, just for lack of anything better to do.
The next April, Brown was back in the lineup, and I wrote my first column for Grantland. From May 25-June 3, Brown went on a hellacious tear, hitting nine home runs in 10 days, the product of a total overhaul in approach that changed Brown from an overly passive hitter to an extremely aggressive one. The day after that streak ended, I wrote my first article for Baseball Prospectus.
That year, Domonic Brown made the All-Star team and finished with a career-high 27 home runs. That winter, one-for-one trade rumors popped up involving Brown and Jose Bautista and Yoenis Cespedes, and many Phillies fans said they wouldn’t do it.
That was the high water mark. Since then, Brown bounced in and out of the lineup, and ultimately, off the Phillies altogether. All the things that made him great—his power, his plate discipline, his athleticism in the outfield—seemed to have abandoned him by the end. One of his last acts in a Phillies uniform was to misplay a fly ball at Citi Field in New York, run into a waist-high fence in right field and flip over it, leading to an inside-the-park home run for Ruben Tejada and a season-ending concussion for Brown.
Our paths have diverged since mid-2013; as things got incrementally worse for Dom Brown, they’ve gotten incrementally better for me.
Still, I’d think about Dom Brown often, watching pages turn on the calendar, each one falling to the ground like leaves off a tree, taking with it another chance to cash in on what had—it seemed like yesterday—been an immense natural reserve of potential, now depleted and discarded and left on the road like refuse. It gave me a visceral understanding of the difference between being a promising, callow 22-year-old and an embittered, exhausted 28-year-old, and every step in between.
It would be a little easier to deal with if there was a reason Domonic Brown failed so spectacularly in Philadelphia. I don’t know if it’s the badly-timed broken hamate, or the lost playing time to inferior older players, or the constant tinkering with his swing, or how the Phillies’ organization jerked him around at every opportunity, or a combination of those things or some external factor that never made it into the papers.
Or maybe he just wasn’t good enough, and there’s nothing anyone could’ve done differently to change that.
That’s the most terrifying part. That being good enough isn’t good enough. You need to be lucky, and get support from the right people at the right time, and that all of it can disappear in an instant and you’ll be left on the outside looking in, with no idea how much of your failures are your fault, or if you were just doomed from the start.
“God … holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire,” said Jonathan Edwards. I feel that statement in my soul, constantly and overwhelmingly, in part because of lessons I learned following Domonic Brown.
The man a city once pinned its hopes on, before being dashed and discarded, is now a bit player in Toronto, a non-roster invitee trying to stick with the Blue Jays. The shine is completely gone, abraded and beaten away by years of injury and failure, but maybe there’s something left there to be salvaged.
Maybe failure can’t completely extinguish potential. Freedom Brown.