On Independence Day, 1987, Kevin Mitchell was traded from San Diego to San Francisco in a seven-player deal. At the center of the trade, from the Padres' point of view, was third baseman Chris Brown. Two years later, as the Fourth of July rolls around again, it's clear that San Francisco got a Roman candle; San Diego got a dud.
If ever there was a trade that marked divergent arcs in two careers, it is this one. At the time, Brown and Mitchell had much in common. Both were powerful, thickset 25-year-old third basemen; both had grown up among the gangs of Southern California (Brown in the ghettos of L.A.); both had enormous potential—especially Brown, according to most talent scouts. But the Giants had begun to sour on their young star. "We'd heard Mitchell wanted to play every day." says one Giants official. "We got him for a guy who didn't."
The rap on Brown, an All-Star in 1986, was his fragility and his apparent lack of heart, a quality that earned him the nasty nickname Tin Man. "I've seen Chris do things in the field that would make your head spin," says Larry Bowa, who was his manager in San Diego. "He'd make great plays. He'd hit balls 500 feet. Then he'd show up the next day and say he was too hurt to play. He'd invent injuries." In his five years in the majors. Brown has missed more than 250 games games due to injury; only one of those injuries, a broken jaw, warranted his being placed on the disabled list—a 21-day stint in 1987. (Two others, a detached tendon in 1986 and a fractured hand in 1987, occurred in September, when, with expanded rosters, the DL is not employed.) Brown has benched himself for a seemingly endless array of other ailments, ranging from a bruised tooth root to sleeping wrong on his eye, and some have suggested that his problems are, at least in part, psychosomatic. "Chris has the talent to be an MVP," says former Giants teammate Mike Krukow. "But he's got an incredible fear of failure."
Mets outfielder Darryl Strawberry, who played alongside Brown at Crenshaw High in Los Angeles, compares him with Mitchell: "Both got offered lots of advice and encouragement along the way. The difference was that Kevin listened. With Chris, advice went in one ear and kept right on going."
Brown, who has always been reluctant to talk to the media and who declined an interview with SI last week, sat out 82 games last season with an assortment of bumps and bruises; he hit .235 and had as many fights with teammates as home runs (2). The Padres dumped him on Detroit as part of a trade over the winter. Tiger manager Sparky Anderson, whose brother Bill had taught Brown in his government class at Crenshaw, thought he could motivate him. "I told Chris this was his last chance," says Anderson. "I said, 'If you can't play for me, no one else will take a chance on you.' I told him, "We're going to trick some people this year, you and me.' "
Instead, Brown came up with a trick shoulder and a trick back. On May 19, when he was hitting .193 with no homers and four RBIs in 57 at bats, the Tigers released him, citing "insufficient skills." And now, while Kevin Mitchell is chasing Roger Maris, Chris Brown is chasing grounders for the Triple A Buffalo Bisons.
Brown's career has had strange twists—and sprains and fractures.