In Sunday’s Kansas City Star, Joe Posnanski–one of the truly great baseball writers out there–has a feature on Dee Brown, a former Royals can’t-miss prospect who, in 1999, at age 21, was a minor-league sensation, hitting .331 with 25 homers, 30 steals, and 107 runs. At the time, Baseball America ranked Brown the #11 prospect in the country. Today, seven years later, he’s playing for the AA Witchita Wranglers. He’s been released five times.
Posnanski’s story is heartbreaking, a tale of talent, character, and maturity colliding with spectacularly disastrous results. It’s also a tale of how to mishandle young talent, and might help explain why the Royals have remained mired in the cellar when other teams with low payrolls have had some success. It might even help explain why the Red Sox’s pitching staff has been propped up by a trio of rookies who’ve shown surprisingly consistent poise and confidence.
In his story, Posnanski recounts how, in 2000, Brown got news that his mother had breast cancer. He spent the night in tears, and in the next day’s game, he didn’t run out a fly ball. His manager benched him, made a throat-slashing gesture with his pencil, and told Brown he was “done.” Brown swore at his manager and took off from the stadium–an immature reaction, to be sure, and one that likely signified a player not only struggling with a personal crisis but also in need of some nurturing and patience.
Brown was promptly suspended. And, as he tells it, he was never forgiven. â€šÃ„ÃºI was a kid, man,â€šÃ„Ã¹ he tells Posnanski. â€šÃ„ÃºAnd they decided I was a bad person.â€šÃ„Ã¹ (This account is backed up by a former Royals employee, who told Posnanski, “I’ve never seen any organization fuck with a player the way the Royals did with Dee Brown. They ruined him.”)
So what does this have to do with the Sox? A lot. Theo Epstein and the team’s baseball operations crew have been proud of the fact that they’ve held on to their prospects. But they’ve done more than that. They’ve tried to figure out the effect coaches have on developing players. Instead of letting prospects get by on their talent, they’ve tried to teach them good habits. (Take, for instance, the “Red Sox Minor League Quality Plate Appearances Award,” which is given out every month.) And they’ve taught the team’s minor leaguers how to deal with the media, how to deal with success, and how to deal with failure.
Last September, a little over a month after his big league debut, Jonathan Papelbon told me, “In January, I did the media development program. A lot of the subjects we went over in that time period are coming up now, and I’m able to go back to that and rely on it and say, ‘Hey, what did I learn and how can it help me?’ So in terms of dealing with the press and everything else that comes with playing major league baseball, yeah, it’s helped.” Papelbon is clearly an incredibly poised, confident pitcher. But I’d bet it’s not coincidental that he’s dealt with his incredible success in stride and has shown such steely resolve while mowing down opposing teams in the ninth.
Brown’s failure likely doesn’t come as a big surprise to Bill James. “A highly successful player is supported by a ‘network’ or ‘scaffolding’ that must be built up gradually over time,” he told me last year. “To play successfully in the major leagues requires a great deal of athletic ability, but also a great deal of knowledge of how the game is played, training habits, self-motivation habits, self-confidence, and a wide variety of skills.” To explain his point, James referenced Dustin Pedroia, the Red Sox’s infield propsect. Last year, with Mark Bellhorn limping through the beginning of the season, there were plenty of fans who wanted Pedroia to take over second base. After all, he couldn’t be any worse than Bellhorn, right? Well, if Pedroia came up, fell on his face, and was scarred by the experience, the Sox not only would have had a hole in their infield, they would have had a freaked out prospect on their hands. “Obviously, [Pedroia] has a lot of things going for him beyond talent,” James says. “But then there is a danger of relying too much on that. … [You want to] give the player the opportunity to succeed, but hold back as much as you can on the pressure to succeed.”
(An aside: Last May, the Red Sox called up pitcher Cla Meredith. Meredith made his major league debut in the 7th inning of a tie game against the Mariners with two outs and a man on second. Meredith walked the bases loaded before giving up a grand slam to Richie Sexson. When Epstein stopped by John Henry’s suite later in the game, he seemed at least as upset about the effect the experience might have had on Meredith as he did about the loss. Meredith, who pitched two more innings that year and was traded to the Padres this May, looked absolutely shell-shocked in the Red Sox clubhouse after the game.)
I’m certainly not arguing that the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Mets, the Dodgers and all of the game’s other big revenue teams don’t have a huge advantage over teams like the Royals, the Brewers, and the Marlins. But in sports, money doesn’t equal success (see Knicks, New York) and the absence of a $100 payroll doesn’t equal failure (see Athletics, Oakland). In the past four years, the Red Sox have had the dough to add players like Curt Schilling and they’ve been smart (and lucky) enough to pick up players like David Ortiz. They’ve also, as Jonathan Papelbon, Manny Delcarmon, and Jon Lester can attest, given their young players the chance to succeed. I bet Dee Brown wishes he’d gotten that, too.