Phillies' Domonic Brown has kindred spirit in Wally Joyner

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Wally Joyner has worked on Dom Brown's technique, confidence.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Wally Joyner has worked on Dom Brown's technique, confidence.
Posted: March 28, 2013

CLEARWATER, Fla. - As an Angels rookie in 1986, Wally Joyner became a national sensation. The hype, the unrelenting attention, even garnered a moniker. The Angels weren't coming to your town for a three-game series. "Wally World" was.

With an unusual baseball name and an everyman frame that one of his BYU coaches described as "a bowling pin in knickers," Joyner was an easy feel-good story to get behind. After finishing each of his two full minor league seasons with 12 home runs, that first season he hit 15 by mid-May and outpolled perennial Yankees All-Star Don Mattingly to start the All-Star Game in July.

"It was surprising," said Joyner, the Phillies' new assistant hitting coach. "It was very unsuspecting. I got off to a great start and people were wondering why and whether it was going to last. And who is this kid that nobody knew about?"

Expectations rose. Interview requests multiplied exponentially. Veteran teammates such as Doug DeCinces and Reggie Jackson tried to both shield and prepare him for it, but even they couldn't anticipate what happened after an August game in Yankee Stadium.

Walking from the field following a 2-0 victory, Joyner was hit in the arm by a knife thrown from the stands. A large knife. "You wouldn't have too much trouble killing a bear with it," Angels manager Gene Mauch told the Los Angeles Times at the time.

The shaft of the knife hit Joyner and glanced off, leaving a mark. It could have been worse. Much worse.

Joyner was 24.

Domonic Brown is 25.

Much has been made this spring about Joyner's influence on Brown's hitting. In February, the Phillies' perplexing leftfielder dubbed Joyner "an angel," presumably for the technical improvements to Brown's swing that had been made together. Joyner, now 50, and hitting coach Steve Henderson have lowered Brown's hands. Most of the time, his once-hyper lower body stands as still as a tiger's before attacking its prey.

But it's more than just technique. Brown is from Stone Mountain, Ga., the same hometown as Joyner, and went to the same high school. Like Brown, Joyner rose quickly through the minor leagues after he was drafted. Like Brown, his production in his rookie season waned as the attention and pressure on him grew. Joyner hit two home runs after the All-Star break that year and was hobbled by injuries when the postseason rolled around.

Brown knows about Wally World only through pitching coach Rich Dubee, and was surprised to hear about the knife incident. "He never talks about himself," said Brown.

Not directly, anyway. But clearly Joyner understands what Brown has gone through over the last two seasons more than most of us do. And clearly Brown has responded to that.

"There's a lot of chemistry between us," said the Phillies outfielder. "It's not just baseball, either. It's on the field, off the field. Just making sure that I'm free. Mentally."

In Tuesday's 10-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays at Bright House Field, Brown hit two doubles into the right-centerfield gap and pulled a 1-2 pitch between first and second for a single in his last at-bat after fouling off three straight breaking balls, each slower than the one before.

In all, he saw seven pitches in that at-bat after having jumped on a first-pitch fastball for his first double, which one-bounced to the wall.

"The best at-bat of the day for sure," he said of his single. "I was more impressed with that than the doubles because I wasn't trying to do too much. I knew he was trying to throw a lot of offspeed pitches. I finally got a cutter inside and did something with it."

Said Joyner: "Steve Henderson and I, our approach is to be ready every time you step into that batter's box. It could be the first pitch, it could be the seventh pitch. It could be the 15th pitch after you fouled off some pitches and you still have a chance to do some damage. So have confidence to know that you can get the job done in the batter's box.

"Some people think that success is getting a base hit," Joyner said. "I choose to see it as how hard the ball is hit. That's all the control we have. That's a quality at-bat . . . "

Joyner played for 16 seasons and finished with a career batting average of .289. After hitting 22 and 34 home runs in his first two seasons, he eclipsed 20 just once after that. (Named in the Mitchell Report, Joyner said he tried steroids late in his career and only briefly.) Just as he was in college and the minors, he was a doubles machine, collecting at least 27 in 11 of those 16 seasons.

After Tuesday's prolific day, Brown is hitting .373 with seven home runs, four doubles, 17 runs batted in and 22 runs scored. Aside from the healthy production of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, he is the most exciting thing to happen in Phillies camp, but there still is some anxiety about whether it will translate once the real games start next week.

Brown wore an easy smile when this was mentioned. "I've been going through that my whole career," he said. "I have to put up the same stuff during the regular season. And that's what I'm still working toward."

Joyner wore an easy smile, too. "He's facing quality pitchers. He's putting up quality at-bats every day," Wally World said. "The doubters - I'm sure everybody's got their questions because it's spring training. But not everyone is doing what he's doing and I think that what I can remember is that if I did it in spring training against the quality pitchers he's doing it against, it doesn't matter where you are.

"My hope is that he's going to be dangerous the whole year. Righties, lefties, he's shown that he can handle the strike zone vs. both. And I think more than anything, he has the confidence now that he belongs."

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

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