SARASOTA, Fla. — 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 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.