Domonic Brown: From family strife to baseball stardom

Domonic Brown pitches during a high school game in Florida in 2005.
Domonic Brown pitches during a high school game in Florida in 2005. (LANCE ARAM ROTHSTEIN / Tampa Bay Times)
Posted: July 15, 2013

Rosemary Joseph disappeared. She told the newspaper her son, Domonic Brown, was "brainwashed." For years, she worked two jobs to raise her two children as a single parent. She loved her 17-year-old son and encouraged him to play baseball because she was a former softball catcher. And when Brown chose his father over his mother, Joseph clutched her daughter.

"We just left," Joseph said. "It was such an embarrassment."

Five months later, Robert Walker bought his son a batting cage for Christmas. He installed it in the backyard of his suburban Atlanta home. He enacted a dusk curfew. Brown's friends in Florida labeled him a traitor. His mother shunned him. He knew no one in Georgia but Walker. They fought every day. "I was clueless," Brown said. This was hell.

This was a decision no kid should have to make. Brown's father turned up for the occasional birthday and football game. He worked at Disney World, and relocated to Georgia when Brown was 14. Brown wanted to know Dad. To do that, he inflicted torment upon Mom.

"This is someone you have raised yourself," Joseph said. "It is hard to imagine you send him away for a game and then he does not come home."

Brown, a lefthanded pitcher who threw a high-80s fastball and a knuckleball, was invited to a 2005 tryout for the U.S. junior national team in Joplin, Mo. Walker put him on a plane. He missed the cut but departed with two suitcases and dreams, fostered by his father, of professional baseball. He returned to Georgia instead of Florida. He called his mother.

"You coming back?" she asked before Brown muttered a word. "When are you coming back?"

"I told you I was staying here for good."

"No, that's not going to work."

They did not speak again for almost two years.

She was served two summonses to appear in Courtroom 6A at the DeKalb County courthouse in Decatur, Ga. They were undeliverable; she was gone. Walker was granted temporary custody that enabled Brown to play high school athletics in Georgia.

He said Brown would be more visible to scouts at Redan High School, which produced major-leaguers Brandon Phillips and Wally Joyner, now the Phillies' assistant hitting coach. He arranged for a tutor to improve Brown's test scores. Above all, Walker wanted his boy to become "a man."

"And," Brown said, "it was a disaster."

Walker told his son he had "female tendencies." He often left the house without Brown if the son was not ready. "He does not like for me to B.S. him," Walker said. When it was dark, and they argued, Brown's escape was that batting cage in the backyard.

"All night," Brown said. "I would be out there until midnight. He didn't care because I was hitting. That's how I would stay away from the arguments. He knew exactly what he was doing."

They laugh about it now. This past New Year's, Brown brought his girlfriend to Georgia. They partied with his 47-year-old father at a bar. "He's my best friend," Brown said.

They talked. "I think," Brown told him, "a lot of stuff is getting ready to happen."

"Why do you say that?" Walker asked.

"I feel totally different," Brown said. "It's all about me now. Nothing against the Phillies, but I'm thinking about what I need to do on the field, not about this prospect stuff. I just want to play."

An early June junkyard fire in Southwest Philadelphia was visible from Citizens Bank Park. The smell of smoke overwhelmed the Kentucky bluegrass. Phillies batting practice was minutes away. Brown stared at the plume. Three groundskeepers shook his hand.

"Do you smell smoke," one said, "or is that just you?"

Brown nodded without a smile. On Tuesday, he will play in the All-Star Game. He is 25. He has 23 home runs. He is manager Charlie Manuel's cleanup hitter. He is the next young baseball star in this city, a place that doubted him as recently as April 21, when fans booed him in a nationally televised game because a fly ball fell in front of him.

Now Brown grinned. Nothing dulled the pain of 2005.

"There were a lot of things you guys thought were tough," Brown said. "But for me, it was simple. It was easy. Going through what I went through in high school, that was tough. That was the real-life stuff. Not just stuff I had to deal with on the field. Stuff on the field is easy. That stuff was always a piece of cake. That's how I got away from stuff at home I was going through."

Brown was anointed the team's top prospect before the 2009 season. He was off-limits in trade talks with Toronto to acquire Roy Halladay, the game's best pitcher. He adorned the cover of Baseball America, which named him the game's top prospect midway through 2010. He was rushed to the majors that summer with 28 games above double A.

He was too frequently injured. He left Dominican winter ball after a mere nine games. He was labeled a bust. When he was demoted again in July 2011, rival executives say, the Phillies dangled him in trade talks. He misplayed four fly balls in one doubleheader at triple A. He privately questioned the team's motives. His father wondered if a trade would best serve his son.

"We allowed it to play out," Walker said. "With a lot of things in life, you have to let it play out. You cannot read the first chapter of a book and say, 'I read that book.' You only read the first chapter. Domonic is in what I would call the second chapter of this long book."

The first chapter was extensive. Too long, his detractors will say. Chip Lawrence, the former Phillies scout who befriended Walker and Brown to woo the 20th-round pick with a $200,000 bonus, foresaw this.

"I figured it would take him a little longer to become accustomed to playing every day," said Lawrence, now a crosschecker for San Diego. "When he signed, he was a dual-sport guy. He didn't have the number of at-bats under his belt as the regular high school, strictly year-round baseball player."

There are other theories. Brown was yo-yoed by management. "He was not a ready-made product," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. Brown was injured: From 2009 to 2012 he broke a finger, strained a quadriceps, fractured a hamate bone, twice sprained a thumb, and felt soreness in his neck and both knees.

"It was one thing after another," former teammate Juan Pierre said. "Mentally, that can wear on you - anybody, not just a young kid. Now he's healthy for the first time maybe in his whole career."

Brown was late to mature. "When I lived with my mom," Brown said, "I was out all night." He was a big fish in a small pond at Dade City. You aren't supposed to leave. Joseph admitted Brown was forced to grow up fast when Walker assumed custody.

"He never failed in the minor leagues," said Steve Roadcap, Brown's minor-league manager for three seasons. "Unfortunately, he didn't have that instant success when he got to the big leagues."

And for the first 17 years of his life, his father was a fleeting presence.

What is going on?

Pasco High School would not release Brown's transcript to his new school. The custody battle unfolded in two Florida newspapers, which wrote 12 articles in a week. His parents, who were never married, fought in print.

Why is this even happening?

Because Brown moved from a parent who had custody to one who did not, he was ineligible to play Georgia high school sports for one calendar year. His old Florida coaches incessantly called. They pressed his mother to act.

Why me?

"All I'm trying to do is make a better opportunity for myself," Brown said. "People said I was a traitor. Even my friends; I realized then you don't have any friends. You don't have any guys you can go to but your parents. Then my mom, acting the way she did. . . . I was angry. I was an angry young man.

"If it wasn't for my dad, I would still be angry to this day. He taught me a lot of great things about life. I see things before they even happen now. I make sure I'm doing the right things. If somebody is not right, if I get that edge on somebody, I don't even mess around at all. Period."

Brown cried. Walker drove him to the DeKalb County courthouse. It was Aug. 22, 2005. Thirteen days earlier, Brown swore in an affidavit before Walker's attorney.

I am seventeen years of age. I was born September 3, 1987. I have made the choice to solely reside with my father, Robert M. Walker. I have made this decision voluntarily and on my own free will and without the interference or persuasion of anyone whomsoever.

There was no resolution. An emergency hearing was held. Judge Mark A. Scott presided in Courtroom 6A. The defendant, listed as Rosemary Adams in court records but whose surname had also been Brown, was absent.

"I know he has been brainwashed," she told the Tampa Tribune on July 26, 2005. "Nobody's going to come into the kid's life this late in life and try to take over him."

Brown's mother sued Walker in 1995 to prove paternity. Those results were submitted to the judge. Walker was granted temporary custody of Brown. Now eligible, he missed the first few games of the football season, but baseball is what mattered. Brown had a scholarship offer to play both sports at the University of Miami. Major-league scouts started to flock. He took batting practice for them after school. The Phillies paid him the equivalent of fifth-round money.

"He had a very good upbringing from somebody," said Roadcap, the minor-league manager. "Everything was 'Yes sir. No sir.' He came and worked hard."

Dale Maggard, who first coached Brown when he was 8, was his baseball patriarch. He managed an all-star team from Dade City that played in the 2004 Senior Baseball World Series held in Bangor, Maine. Brown's mother accompanied him on all of the trips.

"I thought she was monumental," Maggard said. "She was a very religious lady. She had a lot of faith."

Maggard did not know Walker, except for a few brief encounters. "He was very gracious," he said. Maggard said the entire community was "heartbroken" when Brown chose his father over his mother.

"Every son needs their father," Maggard said. "He did what he felt was the right thing."

Brown was provided three free tickets for Tuesday's game at Citi Field. He wants his father, mother, and 23-year-old sister, Rashawnda, to sit together so they can watch the long-awaited product of affidavits, sore knees, damaged feelings, trade rumors, and love.

"Do they speak?" Brown asked incredulously. "When they come here, they come here together. Everybody comes together."

They are united by Brown, just as they were once torn apart.

"We talk now because of Domonic," said Joseph, now a pastor at Bibleway International in Fort Pierce, Fla. "I know that's what he wants. He wants us to be there. We make it happen."

"It feels great. It feels unbelievable," Brown said. "I talk to both of them almost every day. It feels good to have a strong background like that. My mom is a lot like my dad. That is why they clash and bump heads."

They made Brown the man he is. They are why he is humble. They are why he is slow to extend trust. They are why steadfast adversity with the Phillies did not break him.

"Eventually," Walker said, "your day will come."

The family adopted that maxim. Now the father sees his son, the all-star, from his home in Georgia. Brown is on TV, not in the backyard batting cage, since dismantled and bestowed to another high-school hopeful. It is a Sunday afternoon. The opposing pitcher throws Brown an 85-m.p.h. fastball low and in. Brown swings his hips and flicks his bat. The ball blasts off at 98 m.p.h.

"I'm watching, but it's slow," Walker says. Brown is past third base. He kisses his left hand and points to the sky. The electronic Liberty Bell in right field ceases ringing.

"It just came up. Right now. It's about a 30-second delay. They're showing the fan in the front row with the ball. He's just coming across first base."

Walker holds his phone near the TV.

"Can you hear it?"


Contact Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com.

Follow on Twitter @magelb.

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