SAN FRANCISCO — With five weeks left in his second major league season, Chris Brown of the San Francisco Giants remains in contention for the National League batting title.
His manager, Roger Craig, believes that as Brown goes, so go the Giants. How far will Brown eventually go? Craig thinks that Cooperstown is a distinct possibility.
Brown was the choice at third base on the 1985 Topps' rookie all-star team. He was National League Manager Whitey Herzog's reserve selection for the 1986 All-Star team. Quietly but surely, Brown has emerged from the shadow of a former Crenshaw High School teammate named Darryl Strawberry.
Now, in fact, Brown's future seems shadowed only by his own personality, style and approach.
Malingerer? Lackadaisical? Difficult with the media?
Brown has been described at times as all of those.
In fact, only a few days ago, Craig and General Manager Al Rosen conducted the latest in a series of meetings with Brown concerning hustle, work habits and concentration.
"Chris has so much natural ability that I think we may expect too much of him," Craig said in reflection the other day. "We forget at times that he's only in his second season."
In his first season, angry teammates questioned his willingness to play despite minor injuries and eventually began calling him the Tin Man because of a suspected lack of heart. Even so, Brown appeared in 131 games and hit .271 with 16 home runs and 61 runs batted in.
He batted .340 with runners in scoring position and led the league's regular third basemen in fielding percentage, making only 10 errors in his 120 games at the position.
A lot of people were impressed. Some weren't.
"He makes me sick," teammate Joel Youngblood said of Brown's tendency to bow out when hurt.
The clubhouse joke was that the pitching staff had more complete games than the third baseman, whose reputation had preceded him. In five minor league seasons, Brown never appeared in more than 103 games. He once scratched from a Dominican Winter League game because he had "slept on his eye wrong."
This spring, after diving for a ball during infield practice, Brown lay in the dirt, clutching his face. Said a cynical teammate: "A fly must have landed on his neck."
Brown has since missed 20 of the Giants' 127 games, primarily because of two legitimate shoulder injuries. He injured the right shoulder careening into a Dodger Stadium dugout in pursuit of a foul popup. Then he hurt the left in a collision with catcher Mike Heath of St. Louis. He has continued to play despite lingering discomfort.
"We razzed and ridiculed him a lot last year about playing in pain, and I think Chris was hurt by it," pitcher Vida Blue said. "I don't know if he's been trying to prove to us that he can play with pain, but he's definitely been gutting it out, which is the way it has to be. We really need him."
Brown is batting .326.
Only Tony Gwynn at .343, Tim Raines at .332 and Wally Backman at .331 have higher averages in the National League. Some lists still show Hubie Brooks at .340, but the Montreal shortstop is out for the season with an injury and will not reach the 502 plate appearances necessary to qualify for a batting title.
In the 28 years that the Giants have been in San Francisco, only Willie Mays, who hit .347 in 1958, ended a season with a higher average than Brown's .326.
The batting title?
"I've never said that I couldn't win one but I've never gone out and tried to win one," Brown said. "I've always felt that I could hit .300 but that hitting .280 in the major leagues was an accomplishment in itself.
"It would be nice to win, but it would be nicer to catch Houston and win the division. I'm not thinking about individual goals right now. If we were 20 or 30 games behind, it would be different. Maybe it will be different if I still have a chance with a week or two to go, but right now I'm thinking only about the team."
The right-handed Brown is 6 feet 2 inches and 210 pounds. He has the characteristic build of a powerhouse third baseman but has compiled the .326 average with a lot of singles to center and to the opposite field in right. His home-run production has dropped from 16 to 7, and he has only 47 RBIs despite a .381 average with runners in scoring position and a .385 on-base percentage, the league's fifth best. Brown has been advancing runners one base at a time.
"Somewhere along the line this year, I decided to cut down on my swing and hit for a higher average," he said. "I don't consider myself a home-run hitter yet and I felt that I could help the team more by striking out less and driving in runs with singles and doubles."
It always seems to come back to the injuries.
Brown acknowledged that he has had a lot. His view is that they result from aggressiveness. He said that he can't stop people from talking but that he wished they wouldn't judge the book by its cover.