A baseball star’s death is shrouded in mystery
A life marked by unfulfilled promise on the baseball field and three dangerous tours as a truck driver in Iraq ended in mystery this week when Chris Brown, a former Crenshaw High star whose major league career was cut short by injuries, died from burns suffered nearly a month ago in a house fire.
Brown, 45, died early Tuesday at Memorial Hermann Hospital. Though gravely ill during a 25-day stay in the intensive care unit, Brown communicated to relatives that he had been detained by robbers in Houston, brought to his home in nearby suburban Sugar Land, tied up and abandoned while robbers set his home ablaze.
But authorities in Sugar Land said they were investigating the circumstances that resulted in Brown’s death as an arson case, not a kidnapping or attempted murder.
They declined to discuss whether Brown was the primary suspect in the arson investigation but made clear that the version of events they culled together from interviewing neighbors and firefighters at the scene was different from the one Brown shared with family members.
“It’s just crazy; it doesn’t make any sense,” said Darryl Strawberry, an eight-time big league All-Star who played with Brown at Crenshaw. “Nobody really knows what happened. It doesn’t sound right. He was not a violent person. He didn’t have a history of trouble.”
Brown, along with Strawberry and Eric Davis, another childhood friend, was part of an exceptionally gifted generation of young ballplayers that rose from South Central Los Angeles in the 1970s to the big leagues. The three formed such a close bond that John Moseley, their youth league coach, said they were “bound together by some magnetic force.”
But while Strawberry and Davis, a Fremont High graduate, enjoyed distinguished 17-year major league careers -- Strawberry grappling with drug and alcohol addiction along the way -- Brown fizzled after six seasons with San Francisco, San Diego and Detroit. A string of injuries, some of which made teammates and coaches question his toughness, and underachievement ended a career in which he batted .269 with 38 home runs and 184 runs batted in from 1984 to 1989.
Afterward, Brown worked at various construction jobs in California and Houston. In 2003, he began driving fuel trucks between Iraq and Kuwait for Halliburton Co., the construction and oil-field company that holds many of the contracts to rebuild Iraq.
When Brown returned in June from his third one-year stint in Iraq, his life began to unravel. First, he lost his job. Then he lost his wife, Lisa, who moved out of their house with the couple’s 9-year-old daughter, Paris.
At 1:26 a.m. on Nov. 30, the Sugar Land Fire Department responded to a call in a residential neighborhood.
“When we made it to the location, the house was fully engulfed,” said Doug Adolph, fire department spokesman. “The house was vacant when our firefighters arrived. There was no one there, and we confirmed with neighbors that the house had been vacant for some time.”
It was not until hours later that morning that Sugar Land authorities learned from a hospital official that Brown had been inside.
The Sugar Land Police Department, which is assisting in the investigation, was unable to interview Brown because of his deteriorating condition. They learned from the medical examiner in nearby Harris County on Tuesday that Brown had died.
“His injuries were sustained as a result of that fire,” which caused $250,000 in damage, Adolph said. “Those are the facts. There is not much more that we can say beyond that at this time, because the investigation is ongoing.”
Davis said that when he last spoke to Brown, in September, Brown was “kind of irate” upon returning from Iraq.
“He was in the process of getting a divorce and was doing what he could to keep his daughter,” Davis said. “There was a financial burden” because much of the money he earned in Iraq had been spent.
Neighbors in this tract of middle-income homes said Brown seemed traumatized by his experiences in Iraq, and that there was friction between Brown and his wife.
Brown left Halliburton voluntarily in June, a company spokeswoman said.
Mortgage payments on his home, purchased in July 2005, had stopped, and according to real estate records, Wells Fargo Bank began foreclosure proceedings before the fire. The bank assumed ownership Dec. 5.
Neighbors said they heard a boom after midnight Nov. 30, and a resident who lives across the street spotted fire in the second-story bedroom that belonged to Paris. How Brown got from the home to the hospital nine miles away remains unclear.
Davis found it difficult to reconcile the story of the fire with the person he knew.
“He’s not the type of guy to even think like that,” Davis said. “It’s almost preposterous to think he’d consider setting his house, or himself, on fire. But you can never say never about anything.”
Brown’s sister, Lisha, who was at Chris’ bedside every day of his hospital stay, said she “doesn’t have any details” about Brown’s separation and didn’t “care to elaborate on that.” Brown’s wife declined to discuss his death. His friends, meanwhile, are mourning, trying to understand something that seems incomprehensible.
“Eric and I are pretty devastated,” Strawberry said. “Chris was one of our closest friends, a great player and a great person. It’s a tragedy.”
A chiseled 6 feet 2 and 210 pounds, Brown was a gifted two-sport athlete, a power forward who led Crenshaw’s basketball team to a pair of City championships. As a third baseman, his natural gifts were considerable: His soft hands, strong arm and home-run power reminded George Genovese, the scout who signed Brown, of Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett.
A second-round draft pick in 1979, Brown reached the big leagues in 1984 and was an All-Star in 1986, but his success was tempered by his growing reputation as a malingerer and his prickly relations with the media.
In his first full season, Giants teammates questioned his willingness to play despite minor injuries and began calling him the Tin Man because of a suspected lack of heart.
“It’s an injustice to talk about a person when you don’t know him,” Brown told The Times in 1986. “I’m quiet, a loner. I kind of move at my own pace. I kind of operate in slow motion. Maybe it looks like I’m lackadaisical, but I’m not. It’s the way I was taught. I care. I’m sensitive. I mean, it hurts when people say I’m dogging it.”
Brown also had problems at Crenshaw.
“He was a contradiction,” Brooks Hurst, Brown’s high school coach, said in 1986. “He was the type of competitor who would throw his body at the ball during a game but would not practice because of the slightest injury.”
In five minor league seasons, Brown never appeared in more than 103 games.
“Like a lot of great players to come out of high school, he thought very highly of himself, and when he got into professional baseball, he found people didn’t love him as much as they loved him back home,” said Michael Sokolove, who interviewed Brown extensively for his book on the 1979 Crenshaw team, “The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw.”
Brown, Sokolove said, “wasn’t used to any adversity, and he didn’t handle it very well. He had a lot of bluster but very thin skin.”
Even in 1986, one of Brown’s best seasons, Giants general manager Al Rosen questioned whether a shoulder injury was serious enough for Brown to miss some 30 games. Brown had surgery after that season.
“Chris thought everyone would finally believe after the surgery that he wasn’t a malingerer, but they still thought he was,” Sokolove said. “The press, in that era, took the side of management over a young black kid from L.A. He felt roughed up, he wouldn’t let it pass, and things went from bad to worse.”
Brown was traded in 1987 from San Francisco to San Diego, where manager Larry Bowa had little tolerance for Brown’s injuries, which included a toothache, a thumb injury from punching teammate Marvell Wynne and a twisted ankle suffered when he tripped walking off the field.
“He had an eye infection once, and Bowa said he slept on his eye wrong,” Sokolove said. “Everyone wrote that, and it was a big joke. It wasn’t fair. But the thing about Chris, in baseball, he wasn’t considered manly, he wouldn’t play hurt, and he ends up driving a field truck for Halliburton in Iraq.”
Brown was traded to Detroit after the 1988 season and released in May 1989. He played briefly for Pittsburgh’s triple-A team but was finished by 1990.
Brown lost his job as a large-crane operator near his home in Missouri City, Texas, before taking the lucrative but dangerous job with Halliburton in 2003.
During his first stint in Iraq, Brown was part of a convoy that was attacked. Six Halliburton drivers and one soldier were killed. One day, after his convoy emerged from a sandstorm, Brown spotted a man in a face mask off to the side of the road, pointing an AK-47 at him. He swerved, and a bullet pierced his windshield.
Despite the hazards, Brown returned to Iraq two more times.
“One of my neighbors was murdered in Houston last week,” Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle in May 2004. “It’s all up to the Lord.”
Funeral services are tentatively scheduled for Jan. 6 at Liberty Baptist Church in Los Angeles.
Bustillo reported from Houston, DiGiovanna from Los Angeles.