"How's Dom going to handle this?"
This was two years ago -- two years before Domonic Brown became the best story in all of baseball and the hottest hitter on the planet, with one of the strangest, most astonishing and most spectacular home run binges in recent memory.
This was July 2011. Domonic Brown was unraveling. And Ricky Giles' phone rang.
The man on the other line was from the Phillies, and he knew that Giles -- Brown's old high school coach at Pasco High in Dade City, Fla. -- understood the young outfielder as well as anyone else. Giles was there when Dom, with his 90 mph fastball, led Pasco to the state semifinals as the ace of the pitching staff. "I always thought Dom would make it as a pitcher -- he'd have been a damn good one," the coach says. Giles was there when Dom, with his legendary home run power, put on epic batting practices for visiting scouts. And Giles was there when Dom -- a star wide receiver with a Megatron-like frame that NFL coaches dream about -- turned down a scholarship offer from the Miami Hurricanes to sign with the Phillies. "Sky's the limit for this kid," Giles would always say.
But two summers ago there were so few Domonic Brown believers out there you could fit them all into a Philly food truck. Brown had entered that season as the fourth-ranked prospect in the game by Baseball America, but everyone could see that he was now utterly lost at the plate, with his .240 average, long swing and poor approach. So when Giles' phone rang, and the Phillies official said the team was considering a demotion for the then-23-year-old, Giles wasn't surprised. "How's Dom going to handle this?" the official asked.
"He's going to work harder than ever to fix that swing," Giles said. "And he's going to learn from this. Don't bet against this kid. And definitely never give up on him." The next day Brown was sent down to Triple-A Lehigh Valley, and his re-education began.
That was two summers ago, and Brown still had a long road ahead of him, but look at him now. Not only is he somehow single-handedly keeping the wounded Phillies, who are two games under .500, from falling completely out of the playoff picture, he is also giving some hope to both the Philadelphia faithful and to every struggling former stud prospect in the game, from Eric Hosmer to Mike Moustakas to Colby Rasmus to Justin Smoak to Dustin Ackley. Once the top of endless trade rumors Brown, who hit his league-leading 19th home run on Saturday and is now hitting .289 with a .596 slugging percentage, appears to be here for good.
"He's kind of a cautionary tale: don't give up, because you never know when it's going to click for a player," says a scout. "He reminds me of Alex Gordon, the way it's all suddenly clicking. I think, truthfully, a lot of us thought he needed a change of scenery, that there was no way he could do this as long as he was a Phillie."
THE ONLY EASY DAY WAS YESTERDAY, reads the red t-shirt Brown is wearing in the Phillies clubhouse one recent afternoon. On his right bicep is the greatest tattoo in all of baseball: below the UPS logo, the words "What Can Brown Do For You?" He's sitting at his locker as he patiently and quietly answers each question from the latest reporter who's come through town to cover the Domonic Brown Story. Despite his historic, jaw-dropping May (he hit a major-league high 12 home runs while not walking a single time), he remains a relative unknown: In NL All-Star voting, Brown isn't even among the top 15 outfielders.
"I'm playing free now," he tells all the reporters. He starts at the beginning of the story, and he talks about how his parents -- Robert Walker, who works at Disney World, and Rose Jones, a pastor -- always taught him the importance of hard work. He talks about how Giles shaped him as a young player. ("When I need to talk about baseball, he's the guy I call.") He talks about the confidence that comes in knowing he will play every day. He talks about feeling stronger now that he's over the fractured hamate bone from 2011. He talks about making small adjustments: moving closer to the plate, lowering his hands, shortening his swing, being more prepared early in counts. He talks about everything he's learned from talking baseball with Chase Utley. He talks about the "angel" that arrived in Phillies camp this spring: Wally Joyner, the Phillies' new assistant hitting coach who seemed to change everything with a few simple words: Loosen your hands. Relax. Be free.
There wasn't, he says, a Eureka moment of a single turning point: good health, opportunity, maturity, all of it has added up to this new Domonic Brown. His swing is more fluid, more compact, more explosive -- a beautiful thing to watch, as you can see in this hypnotic GIF of all 12 of his May home runs, compiled by Crashburn Alley:
Early in his career Brown heard all the harsh criticism from the merciless Philly fans and the media -- "He read everything, he heard all the people saying that Domonic Brown isn't the player everyone said he was," says Giles -- and now he hears all the talk that he can't possibly sustain this, not with his approach at the plate. Yes, Brown is swinging more and walking less, in this new approach that's working, but Brown is also constantly learning, evolving and adjusting -- 10 days into June, he's already walked four times (one intentional).
Is this just the beginning of the Domonic Brown Story? Ask the man who knows the player better than anyone else. "This is just the start," says Giles. "We're just beginning to see what this kid is capable of."