High School to Pros: A Lot Farther Than Glendora to Florida

Times Staff Writer

It was minutes after his baseball team had defeated the Bradenton Pirates and there was a smile on Kurt Brown's face.

The 18-year-old rookie catcher from Glendora High, playing for the Sarasota White Sox of the Gulf Coast League, had just gone 2 for 4, including a booming double off the 385-foot marker in right-center at Honus Wagner Field in Bradenton, Fla.

As he talked to a reporter next to the team van, several White Sox coaches drove by in a station wagon.

"That's it," one of the coaches shouted out of a car window. "Tell him how you hit the ball all over the yard today, bonus baby."

The smile on Brown's face turned to laughter.

A Rough Start

There hasn't been much to smile--let alone laugh--about on the field since Brown made the transition from high school to professional baseball in early July.

He is finding out what thousands before him have discovered the hard way: The difference between high school ball and even the lowest of the minors--the rookie leagues--is like the difference between a cookie and a chocolate eclair.

After his first four weeks, Brown was batting .177 with no home runs.

That's a far cry from two months ago when he basked in the glory of a brilliant senior season at Glendora, where he batted .512 with 13 home runs and 42 runs batted in.

Regarded as the premier high school player in the nation by USA Today, the 6-2, 203-pound Brown was the first high school player--and the fifth player overall--selected in major league baseball's free agent draft last June. The only ones chosen before him were college players, all members of the 1984 Olympic team.

A Distant Memory

But the euphoria of June is just a distant memory.

Sarasota White Sox manager J. C.Martin, a 12-year journeyman catcher in the major leagues, said what is happening to Brown is not unexpected.

"It always takes an adjustment, but this is a big step from high school to the pros," Martin said in a slow, southern drawl. "You have the best players around the country playing here. Some of these kids have played college ball and Kurt has never seen this kind of pitching."

"In high school, he overshadowed everybody, but here he's just another one of the guys, playing every day, getting used to pro ball and putting in the hours," added Dave Nelson, Chicago's roving minor league instructor.

Brown doesn't mind living away from home for the first time. He rather enjoys it.

He's Adjusting

He is also growing accustomed to the hot, humid and sticky climate of Sarasota, a resort and retirement community (pop. 51,000) along Florida's Gulf Coast, probably best known as the winter quarters for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

It's the level of baseball that has been the biggest adjustment.

"It has been tough learning how to play every day, learning how to pace yourself during practice, how to adjust to a certain pitch and getting adjusted to using wooden bats," Brown said.

Catching five days a week, rather than twice a week as in high school, was quite an adjustment. Brown developed a sore arm but says it is better now.

Brown, who used aluminum bats in high school, estimates that he lost 10% to 15% of his power when he switched to wooden bats.

The spacious parks of the Gulf Coast League, which have major league dimensions, and the heavy tropical air haven't helped his power, either.

"Not that many guys get home runs down here," Brown said. "You have to hit it a ton just to get it out. I think it would be easier to hit a ball out of Dodger Stadium. When you hit a ball here, it sinks in a hurry."

Players Much Better

The most noticeable difference between high school and pro ball has been the caliber of the players, Brown said.

"It's been hard because this league is so much better than high school. Everyone you play against was a star at one time, so you have to be ready to play every day."

Brown, who reportedly received a signing bonus of about $150,000, said any pressure has come from himself, not the other players or coaches. "It's very frustrating when you keep getting up and getting out," he said.

As frustrating as it has been, and despite his low batting average, there is little doubt that he is still the catcher of the future for the White Sox.

Sarasota has five catchers and only Brown plays five games a week.

He is also the only catcher wearing No. 72 on his jersey. That happens to be the number that Chicago's superstar catcher Carlton Fisk wears.

Is that an omen or just a coincidence?

Only time will tell.

It's almost game time at Payne Park, home of the Sarasota White Sox, and Brown and teammate Tony Bartolomucci are walking out of the locker room.

As they approach the stands, they are stopped by an elderly lady with a camera.

"Oh, can I just take one picture?" she asks.

"Sure, but it's gonna cost you," Brown jokes as he poses for the picture.

She is all smiles as she walks away.

There are about 60 fans seated in the green wooden seats and bleachers. It's a large crowd by White Sox standards, about twice the usual. The 6,500 seats are often filled when the major league White Sox play spring-training games.

Can't Beat the Price

"We charge only $1 for these games but still don't get anyone to watch," moans Tom Saffell, president of the Gulf Coast League.

In the fifth inning with the White Sox clinging to a 1-0 lead over the Bradenton Blue Jays, Coach Dave Nelson is leaning on a railing next to the dugout and a little girl in the stands offers him popcorn.

"Is that for me?" he asks. "Thank you."

"Want some more?" she asks moments later.

"Sure. That's really sweet of you."

In the ninth inning, with the White Sox still leading 1-0, a woman gets up to leave and shouts a question at Nelson.

"Couldn't you guys have gotten a few more runs?"

"What do you want, we're winning," he jokes.

Welcome to the rookie leagues, the lowest level of minor league baseball--the place where the dream of making the majors begins for most players.

For the fans, it's baseball at its basics. The pace is slower and more relaxed than at any other level, admission is usually $1 or less and every seat is within an earshot of the players and coaches, and a strike is a pitch, not a walkout.

Only One Day Off

For the players, it's the first rung of the ladder.

There are 10 teams in the Gulf Coast League and all play in four ballparks in Sarasota and Bradenton and are within about a 30-minute drive of each other.

Unlike high school ball, where a team may play 25 games in a three-month period, the teams cram 63 games into July and August. They usually play every day except Sunday.

That doesn't leave much time for anything except baseball.

The White Sox practice for two or three hours before each game, with most games played in the afternoon.

Practices and games are made more difficult, Brown said, because of the intense heat and humidity in Sarasota, which has an average temperature of 82 degrees in the summer and gets about 50 inches of rain a year.

Players Tire Fast

"You get tired a lot easier because the humidity is always about 80% or 90%," Brown says. "It gets to you around the seventh inning. You run down to first and there's nothing left in you. You're just sweating all over the place."

After games Brown spends most of his time with his roommates, all pitchers: Eric Wilson from Lennon, Mich., Tony Bartolomucci from Oak Forest, Ill., and Wayne Edwards of Sepulveda, who played college baseball for Azusa Pacific University two years ago.

The four share a small one-bedroom apartment in a motel a few blocks from the beach where about half the team lives.

"I sleep on the couch (in the living room), two other guys are in the bedroom and another guy sleeps on the floor," Brown says.

He hasn't been homesick but usually calls his parents and his girlfriend, who lives in Glendora, about once a week and writes letters frequently.

'Pretty Big Adjustment'

For the most part, he says he enjoys being away from home for the first time.

"It's a pretty big adjustment but I seem to be handling it pretty well," Brown says. "Your roommates are your family now and having them around helps a lot. If you have a bad night they'll joke around and help you ease the pressure."

Brown describes Sarasota as "a nice town, but there's not much to do here. The town is kind of slow. It's really like a resort."

What do the players do when they're not playing baseball?

"We just try to keep our mind off baseball. Once in a while the guys hit the bars, walk around the mall or go to a movie. I usually go to the beach a lot," says Brown, who has the rich tan to prove it.

But most of the time, he says, "it's pretty much baseball, baseball and more baseball."

And that is just the way Brown likes it.

An attractive young woman was talking to her girlfriend in the stands as Kurt Brown stepped into the batter's box.

"Oh, that's Kurt Brown. He's cute," she said.

Later, Nelson described Brown as "our All-American bonus baby."

No, it's not easy to go unnoticed in a small town when you're a handsome, muscular blond who is a White Sox bonus baby.

"I would have to think that he's under a lot of pressure, but that doesn't seem to bother him," Edwards said. "He knows he's the No. 1 draft pick and he knows he should perform, but he doesn't act any different because of it.

"He's always very easy to get along with. He has a good attitude about everything. He wakes up in the morning saying he's gonna break out of it and start a hitting streak. He's always real positive."

'A Nice Kid'

J. C. Martin says Brown's disposition has helped him adjust to the ups and downs of his first stop in pro baseball.

"He's a very easy-going person who is well-liked," Martin said. "He's not a flamboyant, outgoing guy. He's just a nice kid. The kind you like to have on your team."

Nice guy, indeed.

But can he hit pro pitching?

Martin and Nelson think so. It's simply a matter of time, they say, and they're willing to wait.

"They've got a four-year plan for the kids who sign with the White Sox out of high school," Martin said. "They don't expect them to step right in and tear everyone to pieces. It's all down the road. We're looking at his potential and we think Kurt will make it to the big leagues in time."

"I like his attitude for the game," Nelson said. "He's a gamer. He loves to play and we think it's only a matter of time before he improves. We're going to send him to the Florida Instructional League during the off-season. That's where he really should improve.

"We have two other catchers (higher in the Chicago farm system) who we think are pretty good, too. Kurt is not at their level yet, but with his ability he should be in the big leagues in four or five years."

Brown is hoping he will make it to the majors within four years. By then he will be 22.

He believes that the Florida Instructional League will help to speed his development. "That will probably help me with a lot of the little things about hitting and catching that I still need to learn and other areas of my game."

Brown is confident he will make it to the major leagues.

But right now all he wants are a few more hits to get him started.

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