The fly ball to left field — like it seemed to do so many times at Starkville High’s park — was lost in the sun, leaving the left fielder helpless and the coach with a sense of dread.
“You know what’s going through your head as a coach,” Travis Garner said. “‘Oh, no. Here we go.’”
But then the center fielder came charging — out of nowhere, Garner said — reached out, made the catch, spun, and crashed into the fence.
“He just gives a fist pump,” Garner said. “I said, ‘Yeah, he’s pretty good ain’t he?’”
It was moments from afternoons like that in Starkville, Miss., that allowed Garner and others to dream of A.J. Brown one day reaching the major leagues. Brown would soon drop baseball for football and become one of the NFL’s premier wide receivers. He signed a four-year, $100 million contract with the Eagles after being acquired in Thursday’s stunning draft-night trade.
But his future in football was not always certain.
Brown’s first love was baseball, the sport his dad wanted him to play, and he didn’t even play high school football as a freshman.
He was drafted in the 19th round by the San Diego Padres in June 2016 and signed with them weeks before heading to the University of Mississippi on a football scholarship. If Brown opted to stick with baseball, he had a path to the major leagues.
“I believe it to this day, he could play center field in the big leagues,” Garner said. “One hundred percent. I think he was that good.”
Brown came late to football after struggling at the pee-wee level. Starkville High’s coach urged him to give the sport another chance as a sophomore and he blossomed into one of the nation’s top college recruits. Baseball came much more naturally, so much that Garner — who played baseball at the University of Alabama — needed just a few weeks to see Brown’s future after being hired in June 2013.
“I went down to the football coach, and I said, ‘Hey, I know he’s a pretty good football player, but I can tell you right now that this kid can make money playing baseball,’” Garner said. “‘How good is he? He’s good. He’s really good. He’s really, really good.’ He said, ‘I’ll tell you this, coach, A.J. will play in the NFL one day.’ I started laughing and said, ‘OK.’ He turned out to be right, but I think I was right, too. I think he could have played baseball for a long time.”
Padres area scout Steve Moritz first saw Brown in August 2015 at Wrigley Field when Brown played in the Under Armour All-America Baseball Game. The game featured 12 future first-round picks and 10 players who have already reached the majors, including Toronto’s Bo Bichette and Washington’s Carter Kieboom. Brown, who was a football All-American five months later, was in their class.
Moritz circled back to Brown that spring when Starkville’s baseball season began, marveling at the way he played center field and believing that Brown’s work ethic would fix any shortcomings with his swing. He watched Brown at practice, talked to his teachers, and told his bosses that Brown was a prospect.
“I could remember the first time I laid eyes on him and saw how big and strong and powerful he was. How athletic he was,” Moritz said. “He was just different from all the other high-school guys, obviously. The best way to describe him was that he was just dynamic.”
“The way he patrolled center field was very impressive. There was like an ease with the way he could get to balls. He would just kind of glide across the field. The offensive game was going to be a question. Was he going to hit? How much was he going to hit? What was the impact going to be? He was big and strong and could hit the ball a long way.”
Most scouts faded away from Brown, believing that his future was in football after he signed his football scholarship two weeks before the start of his final high-school baseball season. Moritz stayed on him.
If football was not an option, Brown likely would have been selected much higher in the draft. The Padres, aware of Brown’s NFL potential, still wanted to take a chance on him as they saw him as comparable to Gold Glove centerfielder Lorenzo Cain.
“I put an everyday grade on him; whether that’s right or wrong, I’m not sure,” Moritz said. “You’re talking about an athletic center fielder who in my opinion would have been able to play everyday in the big leagues. Those guys usually go in the first couple of rounds.”
“The discussions were, ‘Hey, this is a high upside kind of a talent.’ We knew it wasn’t a slam dunk because of the bat, but if he does hit and works the way we know he’s going to work, then we’re going to get an impact player.”
A crazy athlete
Brown and his friends were using the indoor batting cage so much their senior year that Garner installed a keypad on the door and gave them the combination. A security camera allowed the coach to check in from home.
“The way I figured was there’s a lot worse things the kids can be doing at night than going up there and hitting,” Garner said. “A.J. was up there all the time. They got me in a little bit of trouble, but it was worth it.”
Milton Smith, who was drafted by Miami in 2018, was one of those kids swinging with Brown in the cages. Smith has played three seasons of pro ball and will play next month for an independent-league team in Illinois. He has seen what it takes to reach the majors and thinks his old teammate was headed there.
“He was a crazy athlete,” said Smith, who was also a wide receiver with Brown on the football team. “I’ve never seen someone who could look so effortless but still be great at it. No doubt in my mind that if he put the same work in it that he does for football, he could be in the majors. I’m telling you, because I saw him do some crazy things in football. If he had that same work ethic, he could definitely play both.
“It was almost like when he was at the plate that he didn’t really care and just swung and hit it over the fence. It was so natural. It was easy to him.”
Brown was humble, Smith said, despite the buzz that followed him. Brown had football scholarship offers from nearly every major program and coaches were always visiting the school after he had more than 1,300 receiving yards as a senior. The football coaches even went to baseball practice, following Brown’s every move before he finally picked a college. It was a circus, Garner said.
But Brown handled it with poise, ignoring the distractions and remaining focused on baseball. He was quiet, Smith said, and didn’t seek attention. And then the games started.
“When you get on the field, you have to have that type of swagger about you,” Smith said. “Not everyone understands, it’s not cocky. Some people see it as cocky, but I see it as confidence. You have to have confidence if you’re going to be successful at what you’re doing. You can’t go in there scared.
“It’s hard to explain. If you know, you know. You can tell just by the way someone walks or the way they talk if they’re confident or not. He was one of the guys who you could definitely tell was confident.”
The next Bo Jackson?
Padres general manager A.J. Preller worked out a deal with Brown and his parents that allowed him to sign his baseball contract before going to Mississippi to play football. The Padres told Brown he was always welcome at their spring-training facility in Arizona, and Brown trained there twice during college.
“I remember telling him and his dad, ‘Hey, you’re a Padre. I know you’re playing football but you’re a Padre, man. This is your home,’” Moritz said.
Brown tweeted earlier this year that he dreams of playing both sports like Bo Jackson did and posted a video of him swinging in a batting cage. He just needs a workout, Brown told the Padres.
“I promise I will do better than Michael Jordan in baseball,” Brown joked.
The Padres still hold his rights, but they’re not counting on him to show up any time soon.
“It’s a really neat story and I never thought I’d be proud like I am to now watch him sign that contract with Philadelphia and be a leader in the community,” Moritz said. “He did a lot of great things in Nashville and was outspoken on mental health. I think that kind of stuff is just as cool, if not cooler than the accolades on the field.”
Garner is now coaching junior college baseball at Bevill State Community College in Alabama. Years later, the fly balls to left-center field can still take him back to that field in Starkville when a future NFL star seemed to track down everything and allow him to dream of what it would have been like if Brown had stayed with baseball.
“I even catch myself saying it right now. If a ball gets hit in the gap and lands, I’ll say, ‘Where are you, A.J. Brown?’ He would’ve caught that ball,” Garner said. “He was as good as any defensive outfielder I ever coached. This is my 19th year as a head coach, and never have I coached a player who could do what he did in the outfield. As good as a center fielder I’ve ever seen at that level.”
“I’m happy for him. He signed a $100 million contract, so it’s safe to say that he made the right decision. But would it be cool if he was a Major League Baseball All-Star and I could go watch the All-Star Game and watch one of my former players play? Yeah. But it’s hard to argue when I saw it come across the bottom line: $100 million. I think he did the right thing.”