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Before He Was a Professional Wide Receiver, A.J. Brown Was Making Money Playing Baseball

During his time at Ole Miss, the now Eagle had a strange agreement with the Padres: He’d make a few thousand dollars here and there … provided he fulfilled one obligation.

As the minor league outfield and baserunning coordinator for the Padres in 2016, ’17 and ’18, Tony Tarasco spent the bulk of the baseball calendar on special assignments, roving from affiliate to affiliate. But there were two days out of each of those summers when he could count on his services being called back to Peoria, Ariz., the organization’s spring training and player development hub. “I always looked forward to that visit,” Tarasco says. “It was blocked off on my schedule: A.J. Brown is coming.”

These days Arthur Juan Brown is a punishing All-Pro NFL receiver whose blockbuster trade addition last April has lifted the Eagles’ offense to championship-level heights this season. But before that, he was a sweet-swinging outfielder and two-sport phenom from Starkville (Miss.) High School whose first taste of major league sports came when San Diego picked him as a 19th-round flier in the 2016 MLB draft, soon after he enrolled at the University of Mississippi to play SEC football as a four-star recruit and the state’s top wideout.

A.J. Brown

Brown had a unique minor-league deal with the Padres while playing football at Ole Miss.

Rather than leave baseball behind for good, though, Brown agreed to a unique professional baseball contract with the Padres that temporarily afforded him the best of both worlds (not to mention offered a nifty fiscal loophole in a pre-NIL society). The terms: Brown would still retain his amateur football status with the Rebels while in college, but he would also receive periodic signing bonus payments from the Padres, totaling $100,000, under the condition that he annually show up at Peoria Sports Complex—10 or so miles north of where Brown will face the Chiefs in Super Bowl LVII—for about two days each year after school let out. “It wasn’t a huge investment, from an organizational perspective,” says Sam Geaney, then San Diego’s farm director. “But we still wanted to have him report and spend a little time [around Padres coaches and players].”

The arrangement didn’t last long, with Brown making the trip only three times before leaving Ole Miss as a senior and going to the Titans in the second round of the 2019 NFL draft. Still, unlike other minor league prospects who whip through town only to disappear like a cloud of kicked-up infield dust, Brown’s brief stint with the Padres was unforgettable to those who crossed his path in Peoria—not only because of how bright of a football star Brown became, but for how normal his foray into baseball felt. “You could see something like this turning into a dog-and-pony show,” Geaney says. “My recollection is the opposite. We picked the kid up at the airport. His dad [Ken] was there. Then, for a couple days, he was just kind of a minor league baseball player.”

A locker was cleared. A uniform was hung. “He’d suit up, stretch, go through the drills, take batting practice with the team,” Tarasco says, referring to fellow Padres prospects on-site for extended spring training. Himself a former journeyman outfielder who played for six major league clubs from 1993 to 2002, Tarasco recalls first taking notice of how the teenage Brown—listed today on the Eagles’ roster at 6’3” and 226 pounds—physically stood out among fellow prospects. “Then, once you get past the body, you see the skill set,” Tarasco says. “I was like, Oh, this dude actually knows what he’s doing!

Padres area scout Steve Moritz took it much further in his initial report on Brown to San Diego brass, rating the high school center fielder as an “everyday” big leaguer with above-average power, above-average speed and “elite” defensive range. Moritz was an excitable second-year scout at the time, and looking back, several memorable plays informed what Moritz now admits are “some pretty aggressive grades,” including one time when Brown sprinted “like a thoroughbred” to score from first on a double; another when he “freakishly” turned on a high-and-tight pitch and cranked it over the left-field wall; and a third when a coach whacked a fungo toward Brown and some Starkville teammates chopping it up during pregame warmups. “A.J.’s not even looking,” Moritz says. “The ball takes a hop, and he turns, bare-hands it, and makes a quality throw back to the infield like it was nothing.”

As eye-popping as this athleticism was, Moritz emerged more impressed with what countless teachers, parents, even “a random guy cooking burgers” at Starkville’s stadium said about Brown’s character. “Throughout this whole process of scouting and signing him, it kept coming back that he was a charismatic, happy leader,” Moritz says. “I sat down for a couple conversations postpractice with him, too. It wasn’t like he was nervous to talk to a scout. He was comfortable and confident in his own skin.”

Tarasco concluded the same over his trio of stints with Brown in Peoria, where the latter proved an attentive listener to the former’s teachings on baserunning technique. “He’d ask questions, but he got it right away,” Tarasco says. Even more than that, Brown seemed to truly enjoy the experience of hitting in the cage and shagging flies alongside actual professional players. “He was admiring other guys’ swings like, Damn, look at his hands; he stays through the zone nice,” Tarasco says. “The essence was true joy. He wasn’t there for the money. He was there because he really loves to play this game.”

In the end, Brown’s involvement with the Padres stopped shy of any live batting practice, scrimmages, or rookie-level game action in the then Arizona league. “The last thing we wanted to do was push him too hard and create an injury risk,” says Geaney, who now works in the Giants organization, “considering where his future was more than likely going to be.” But Geaney also observed in Brown a genuine desire to be a present participant in Peoria, too. “There was true passion for baseball,” Geaney says. “And, maybe, a little bit of a tough realization that he wasn’t going to be able to do it anymore.”

The alternate reality is impossible to predict. Geaney guesses Brown would’ve spent the summer of 2016 in the AZL had he committed to playing for the Padres, followed perhaps by a promotion in ’17 to Class A Short Season (which no longer exists). Tarasco, for his part, wondered then how Brown would fare pursuing both baseball and football full time, which is why one day in Peoria he put Brown on the phone with a good friend who knew what it was like: former MLB outfielder and NFL safety Brian Jordan. “I encouraged him to give it a shot,” Jordan says. “But, I told him, You’ve got to go where your heart is.”

It would seem that Brown made the right move, if only judging by the four-year, $57 million guaranteed contract extension that he signed upon arriving in Philadelphia from the Titans last spring, and the instant production alongside quarterback Jalen Hurts that followed. (Brown finished the regular season ranked fourth league-wide in receiving yards with 1,496, and tied for third in touchdowns with 11, both career highs.) Even so, more than half a decade after his last real at bat, his background on the diamond informs his success on the gridiron in noticeable ways. “You watch him make a catch now, the way he can ballhawk, there were some similarities in center field,” Moritz says.

It’s clear that baseball remains special to Brown: Before his trade, the now 25-year-old quote-tweeted a statistic about two-sport legend Bo Jackson and tagged the Padres in a message—“Sometimes i think about playing both sports again…all I need is a workout”—that he punctuated with a chin-stroking emoji. A couple of weeks later, Brown once more tagged the Padres as he posted a brief video of himself taking cuts in a batting cage.

Should Brown indeed want to hang up his receiver’s spikes and switch back to baseball cleats, the clock is ticking to do so with the team that drafted him, as the Padres hold his rights only through the end of 2023, according to the team. Count Jordan among those hoping Brown finds a way to play both sports at the same time. “I thought Kyler Murray would do it, but playing quarterback, I knew he had to be on a football field,” Jordan says, referring to the Cardinals quarterback (and, until Brown joined him in ’15, the only high schooler ever to make the Under Armour All-America Game in both football and baseball). “Playing another position, like running back, or defensive back, or receiver I think you have a good shot.”

No matter where Brown’s career heads from here with the Eagles, though, he will always have a flock of fans in the game of baseball rooting hard for his success. “I haven’t watched a football game in seven years,” Tarasco says. “But there is one person that I Google, and that’s A.J. Brown.” Moritz understands this connection. “I absolutely make sure I pay attention every week and see what he’s doing,” the scout says. “When he does do something good, it’s a cool feeling.”

There is just one complicating factor: Moritz lives in Kansas City, and he’s a big Chiefs fan. “I just hope he takes it easy on them,” Moritz says of Brown. “If he caught three touchdowns and the Chiefs won, that’d be perfect.” 

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