The Jeremy Brown who steps into the batter's box in early October is, and is not, the fat catcher from Hueytown, Alabama, that the Oakland A's had made the least likely first-round draft choice in recent memory. He was still about five foot eight 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, Canada, to play for the A's rookie ball team. Waiting for him there was a seemingly endless number of jokes to be had at his expense. The most widely read magazine in the locker room, Baseball America, kept writing all these rude things about his appearance. They quoted unnamed scouts from other teams saying things like, "He never met a pizza he didn't like." They pressed the A's own scouting director, Erik Kubota, to acknowledge the perversity of selecting a young man who looked like Jeremy Brown with a first-round draft choice. "He's not the most physically fit," Kubota had said, sounding distinctly apologetic. "It's not a pretty body. . . . This guy's a great baseball player trapped in a bad body." The magazine ran Jeremy's college yearbook picture over the caption: "Bad Body Rap." His mother back in Hueytown 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.
The other guys on the rookie ball team thought it was a riot. They couldn't wait for the next issue of Baseball America to see what they'd write about Jeremy this time. Jeremy's new friend, Nick Swisher, was always the first to find whatever they'd written, but Swish approached the thing with defiance. Nick Swisher, son of former major league player Steve Swisher, and consensus first-round draft pick, took shit from no one. Swish didn't wait for other people to tell him what he was worth; he told them. He was trying to instill the same attitude, without much luck, in Jeremy Brown. One night over dinner with a few of the guys, Swish had said to him, "All that stuff they write in Baseball America - that's bullshit. You can play. That's all that matters. You can play. You think Babe Ruth was a stud? Hell no, he was a fat piece of shit." Jeremy was slow to take offense and it took him a second or two to register the double-edged nature of Swish's pep talk. "Babe Ruth was a fat piece of shit," he said. "Just like Brown." And everyone at the table laughed.
A few weeks after he'd arrived in Vancouver, Jeremy Brown and Nick Swisher were told by the team's trainer that the coaches wanted to see them in their office. Jeremy's first thought was "Oh man, I know I must a done something dumb." That was Jeremy's instinctive reaction when the authorities paid special attention to him: he'd done something wrong. What he'd done, in this case, was get on base an astonishing half the time he came to the plate. Jeremy Brown was making rookie ball look too easy. Billy Beane wanted to test him against stiffer competition; Billy wanted to see what he had. The coach handed Jeremy and Nick Swisher plane tickets and told them that they were the first guys from Oakland's 2002 draft to get promoted to Single-A ball.
It took them forever to get from Vancouver, Canada, to Visalia, California. They arrived just before a game, having not slept in thirty-one hours. No one said anything to them; no one wanted to have anything to do with them. That's the way it was as you climbed in the minors: your new teammates were never happy to see you. "Everybody just kind of looks at you and doesn't say anything," said Jeremy. "You just try to be nice. You don't want to get off on the wrong foot."
That first night in Visalia, he and Swish dressed and sat on the end of the bench. They might as well have been on the visiting team. No one even came down to say hello; if Swish hadn't been on hand to confirm the fact Jeremy might have wondered if he still existed. In the third inning the team's regular catcher, a hulk named Jorge Soto, came to the plate. Jeremy had never heard of Soto but he assumed, rightly, that he was competing with Soto for the catching job. On the first pitch Soto hit a shot the likes of which neither Jeremy nor Swish had ever seen. It was still rising as it flew over the light tower in left center field. It cleared the parking lot and also the skate park on the other side of the parking lot. It was the farthest ball Jeremy had ever seen hit live. Five hundred and fifty feet, maybe more. As Soto trotted around the bases, Jeremy turned to Swish and said, "I don't think I'm ever going to catch here."