Saturday, January 20, 2018

Zephyrhills' Brown eyes fresh start with Blue Jays

DUNEDIN — Positioned across from a Coca-Cola refrigerator, Domonic Brown's locker is rearmost along a row of eight minor-league prospects. An unusual blue No. 81 jersey sways from a hanger, with other articles of clothing and unfamiliar equipment lining the wooden shelves inside.

"They told me about No. 81," the outfielder said, cracking a smile. "Put Terrell Owens on me if you've got to."

Three seasons ago, Brown stood under one of Major League Baseball's brightest spotlights at New York's Citi Field as one of 39 first-time All-Stars. The Zephyrhills native had seemingly endless promise and a skyrocketing future with the Philadelphia Phillies.

But two years of injuries and misfortune muddied that outlook and cost the former Pasco High standout his job.

Five months after being removed from Philadelphia's 40-man roster and electing free agency over a minor-league assignment, Brown has landed in camp with the Toronto Blue Jays on a minor-league deal that includes an invitation to spring training.

It's a chance for the 28-year-old to salvage a career stuck in a nosedive.

"It's humbling, but I've always been that guy," he said. "Even with the Phillies, I had to prove myself every year, man."

With a logjam of competition for Toronto's fourth outfield spot, that proof will have to come quickly over the next five weeks.

Brown, however, is no stranger to pressure, especially after starring under the microscope in a market like Philly.

In 2013, heralded as the game's top prospect three years earlier, Brown was named an opening-day starter in the left field for the first time following an impressive spring. In a four-month stretch from April to July, he slugged 23 home runs.

Yet in the 32 months since that night in Queens, Brown has totaled just 19.

The former two-sport star at Pasco, who once turned down a scholarship offer to play receiver at the University of Miami, simply hasn't been able to stay healthy.

Hoping to rebound from a dispiriting 2014 campaign in which he hit just .235 in a career-high 144 games, Brown was forced to open last season on the disabled list with Achilles soreness. He didn't play again after Sept. 2 because of a concussion.

There was no longer a place for him by the abrupt end of his tenure.

"I still loved the game," Brown said. "I wasn't ready to go. Things just played out that way. …

"I take ownership in myself and know that when I was playing, I wasn't playing up to my abilities."

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons believes a fresh start with a new club could be just thing Brown needs to get back on track.

Gibbons compared Brown's situation with Jays first baseman Justin Smoak, the 11th overall pick of the 2008 draft. He labored through five erratic years in Texas and Seattle before hitting 18 homers with Toronto last season.

"I think guys can get in ruts in this business," Gibbons said. "… Bringing him over here might spark him and turn him right back into what he was doing when he was really, really good."

In a journey that has seen its share of uncertainties, Brown wants this chapter to commence by making a solid impression.

On his first day with the Blue Jays, as reigning American League MVP Josh Donaldson and some other teammates playfully danced to music blaring on a stereo steps away from his locker, Brown didn't join in. Instead, he inserted a pair of red headphones, pulled a fresh bat out of a long plastic bag and strolled down the hallway toward the batting cages.

"I'm just trying to do whatever I've got to do for the team to make the team — that's it," he said. "I'm not looking to do any more or any less. I just want to get back to a winning organization and try to prove myself here."

There's no time to waste.

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