While the close of the Mike Sweeney Era has understandably received the most attention, the 2008 campaign will also be the first since 2005 which won't include the vaguely adequate production and braggadocio of Emil Brown. While the end of Emil's time in Kansas City has been long established, (and debated, thanks to a flurry of interest generated by Poz) there's something appropriate about returning to it now, during Spring Training, considering that Emil was that rarest of creatures: the man who makes the team in March.
A Chicago native, Emil was drafted in 1994 by Oakland, and ended up joining the Pirates as a Rule Five draftee in 1996. Brown broke camp with the Pirates in 1997, and while he never stuck as a regular, he spent the entire season getting a big league per diem. Brown hit only .179/.304/.284 in 66 games that year, and aside from a bizarre four day stretch in which he hit his first two big league homers of Terry Mulholland, then with the Cubs, little of note occurred. Although his season was lame and unremarkable, according to some insiders, his infectious attitude and brio helped inspire his teammates to a 79-83 record, the last time the Pirates were sorta OK.
Brown returned mostly to the minor leagues in 1998-9, appearing in only 19 games total as a Pirate. In 2000 however, Emil was called back up for short stints in May, June and July, before getting an extended look in August and September. Brown was 25 then, and this was his time to prove himself. Instead, he began his callup with an 0-8 in a doubleheader against the Dodgers, and ultimately hit .204/.288/.280 in 39 games and 101 PAs with the Pirates. Undeterred, the Pirates gave him one last start, as he again headed north with the Bucs in 2001, serving as the team's primary center fielder until July 1, when he was traded to the Padres. At the time of the trade, he was hitting just .203/.300/.325. Emil was consistent as a Pirate: he never hit. With the '01 Padres Brown didn't do much better, hitting .071/.133/.071, almost exclusively as a pinch hitter.
At the end of his age 26 season, Brown was the owner of a career .200/.289/.302 line in 457 scattered PAs. Essentially, he was fully blossoming into a tweener, only, tweeners are supposed to hit better than that. For the next three years, Brown bounced from the Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Houston organizations. While he hit decently in 2002-3, in early 2004 he was terrible, hitting .281/.339/.333 in Memphis and was released by the Cardinals. In August, he was signed by the Astros, and he responded with a .337/.365/.533 line in 26 games with New Orleans. That hot streak likely earned him another contract with the Royals, and was the beginning of his emergence, at age 30, as a Major leaguer.
Against very weak competition, Brown emerged during Spring Training 2005 as the strongest candidate for the right field job thanks to an inspired March. Brown, hit .389 in 26 games that spring, belting five homers for good measure. Brown was not the Opening Day starter, that ceremonial honor went to Matt Stairs, but he did start in game two, and essentially remained an everyday player for the next three seasons.
Interestingly, Brown's hot March - a stretch that likely saved his career and earned him millions of dollars - did not translate into a hot April and May. He hit .161/.254/.339 during his first eighteen games with the Royals, a level of performance which would have landed back on the journeyman AAA player fun bus had he done so the month before. Brown responded with a strong May however, settling in as a regular with a .313/.389/.506 line. In June, he got even hotter, hitting .366/.412/.527. On July 1, 2005, he was hitting .297/.365/.474 and had been the cleanup hitter for a big league team for two solid months. After his two month tear, Brown would never hit at such a high level, for so long, again as a Royal. He would have two similar months in 2006, but they were not consecutive. From July 1 until the end of the season, Brown hit .278/.336/.441, and finished the year with a .286/.349/.455 line in 144 starts and 150 games total. His 86 RsBI would lead the team, and he would finish second on the club with 17 home runs. This was all acceptable enough, one would suppose, but hardly something truly valuable. Brown had his merits. He was cheap, and for a mid-decade Royal, Brown was insanely patient, which along with a solid batting average made him productive. Despite being a large man however, Emil was never a true power hitter. In 2005, Mike Sweeney, despite playing in 28 fewer games, managed more homers (21 to 17) and more doubles (39 to 31) than Emil.
Either happy with Emil's generic production or dissatisfied with any better options, Allard firmly ensconced Emil as the regular left fielder in 2006, switching sides to accommodate Reggie Sanders. Ironically, Brown had a terrible Spring Training this time around, hitting .211. (If Brown was one of the game's designated bad men, this is where you'd insert something snarky about his sense of entitlement or laziness or whatever. But, he's not, for whatever reason, so no biggie.) As he had done in 2005, Brown crawled out of the gate, hitting .227/.315/.333 in April. By May, he was Emil Brown again, which is to say he was Ken Harvey was less doubles and a little bit more power. In June of 2006 he had one of his two remaining good months as a Royal, hitting .329/.385/.506. Specifically, from June 2-27, he hit .338/.391/.532, helping the Royals win nine of eleven games, mostly against the National League. Again, although I was never quite cognizant of it at the time, with Emil, it was really always about batting average. When he hit .360 on balls in play from time to time, he was a dangerous hitter. Throughout his Royal tenure, he never really had a power surge. He had singles surges. In 2006 he mixed in some doubles power, but that was it. Despite certain physical and career similarities to someone like Jack Cust, Emil really wasn't your typical AAAA journeyman with under-appreciated secondary skills. Not surprisingly, the singles and the RsBI kept Emil in the good graces of many.
Brown cooled off in July, as his monthly BA dropped to .270. In August, at the age of 31, Emil put together one final, sustained, hot streak as a Royal, hitting .327/.382/.571. His best slugging month ever, Emil hit five homers that August, and added nine doubles, also a large total for him. However, once again, he cooled off again in September, and finished the year with a .287/.358/.457 line. Cumulatively, his rate stats were just slightly better, but thanks to a few weeks missed due to small injuries, his season totals dropped a wee little smidgen. He ended up with 15 HRs and 81 RsBI. Only the power hitting alien that invaded Mark Teahen's body in 2006 prevent Emil from proudly leading the team in those two categories that year. Considering that Emil made $1.7 million in 2006 (thank you zombie service time from the late 1990s!) he was slowly sliding from cool story to just another unlovable player on a bad team.
Still, in 2006, perhaps inspired by Teahen, Emil managed 41 doubles, which was actually 9th best in the AL that season, a nice accomplishment, even given the inherent weirdness of the doubles leaderboard each year. (Fast guys, singles hitters, and dudes who play in Fenway a lot, rinse, repeat.) After another generic Spring Training in which he hit .267 (insert second snarky remark about Emil's lack of motivation and focus), Emil once again hit terribly in April, coughing up a .186/.237/.229 line. Unfortunately, after a third straight cold start, Emil didn't turn up the heat in May. Well, we'll all remember his one homer that month, a blast in game 43 at Coors Field (this was before God made the Rockies win), and more astute fans may even be able to recall his lone double that month as well. All told, he hit .218/.283/.327 in May. Through May 30th Emil was hitting .200/.257/.272, and competing with, sadly, a whole host of Royals for the title of Worst Hitter in the American League. He had one home run, one triple and four doubles.
With the change of the calendar, Emil celebrated June with a two-hit game, double-included game over those stingy Devil Rays hurlers. The rest of the way, that is to say, over the next 75 games and 261 PAs, Emil hit .286/.322/.386 and finished the year with a .257/.300/.347 line. Returning to the numbers behind his mini-resurgence over the final four months of the season, it's clear enough that something had changed. Even when he got his batting average back he'd lost nearly half his walks and almost all of his power. As part of the team's miracle run at a remarkably low HR total, Emil managed only six bombs, and just 13 doubles. After paying Brown over $3.3 million to be a slower Shane Costa, Dayton Moore elected not to bring him back for 2008, a decision he has been unable to reach with similarly uninspiring players such as Ross Gload and Mark Grudzielanek.
Of course, no mention of Emil's 2007 season would be complete without reference to the embarrassing and infantile pellet gun incident, which occurred on July 27th. While she was standing near Pena's locker, Karen Kornacki was hit "near the eye" with a pellet fired from a plastic gun by Emil. Amazingly, a man who was born in 1974 had a pellet gun on his person. A man born in 1974, who is a millionaire, no less. After being a curious news item for a few days, the story quickly faded away, apparently just a weird and funny accident.
Coupled with the loss of Sweeney, the 2008 season should be especially heart-wrenching for Royals fans given Brown's historical legacy with the team. Emil ranks 37th in team history in hits (401, two behind Ibanez), 29th in doubles (85) and 34th in home runs. In spite of being both a silly and overrated statistic, Emil was a prolific RBI man, by the horrible standards of his franchise, and leaves as the 29th highest RBIer in team history, sandwiched between Angel Berroa and U.L. Washington. When DeJesus drives in his 21st man in 2008, we can only hope that the team honors him with an in-game ceremony, for at that moment, he will have eclipsed Emil.
Looking back, what stands out is how very fortunate Emil has been to even scratch out the modest career he's had. In 2004, he hit rock bottom when he was released by the Cardinals. Then, after getting another chance with the Astros, he turned in his best minor league mini-season ever, which earned him a throwaway Spring Training invite with the Royals. Blessed by the Royals' inability to produce young talent, even at the simplest of positions to fill, Brown had a rare chance to make the team, and he responded, with a you-can't-ignore-this Spring Training. Then, again saved by the lack of options around him, the team stuck with him two more times, after a slow 2005 start, and an OK but not great overall 2005 season. In January, the A's signed Brown to a $1.4 million dollar contract, which will be the third largest payday of his career. While he will never be fabulously wealthy, his good fortune/hot hitting against AAA pitchers in 2004 and Spring Training flotsam in 2005 has meant that he can retire from the game, whenever, in financial comfort. In line to earn over six million dollars between 2006-08, Emil has crossed the threshold between having to, proverbially, sell insurance, and being able to live in self-employed comfort. Just three years ago, that seemed very very unlikely. Barely more likely, in fact, than say, me being able to do so.
Congratulations Emil. I hope you appreciate your good fortune.