In one corner of Athletes Academy, a sports-training facility in East Norriton, Domonic Brown was back in a batting cage Tuesday afternoon. Yes, that Domonic Brown. His head and eyes flitted back and forth from Max Hitman — a senior at Archbishop Carroll, a St. Joseph’s University recruit, and Brown’s star pupil — to a computer screen above the cage, to a HitTrax program showing the data of Hitman’s every swing off a batting tee: his bat speed, the ball’s exit velocity, the distance it would have traveled. One of Hitman’s cuts produced a piercing sound, like pipe on pipe, and what would have been a 194-foot line drive to left-center field. “Not bad,” Brown said. In another corner of the facility, Domonic Brown Jr., age 2, kept shooting a little basketball through a little basketball hoop. He couldn’t miss. His dad was supposed to be like that, too.
This is Brown’s new career, new beginning, now that he is 32: here in suburban Philadelphia, years after his flaming fall from nascent greatness to disappointment with the Phillies, as a private hitting instructor. He had been a ballyhooed prospect, billed as the bridge from Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard to the next era of Phillies excellence, 6-foot-6 with that liquid, left-handed swing, and he’d had that incredible period in 2013 that made everyone believe stardom was inevitable for him: 12 home runs in May, 11 in a 15-game stretch, 27 for the season, a spot on the National League All-Star team.
He was never so good again. He hit .235 with 10 home runs in 2014, then .228 with five home runs in 2015, injuries and a stint at triple A limiting him to 63 games. The Phillies released him. He ricocheted around pro ball: the Toronto Blue Jays’ and Colorado Rockies’ systems, the Pacific Coast League, four teams in Mexico, one in the Dominican Republic, launching 49 home runs and slugging .485 over the last two years at those lower levels. He rediscovered his swing, just too late.
He moved back to the region last year, with his wife, Stephanie, who is an alumna of Plymouth Whitemarsh High School, and their three children. Looking for a place to hit during the winter, he found Athletes Academy, started offering tips to teenagers once his own sessions in the cage were finished, and decided after a while that he enjoyed teaching enough to retire from playing altogether. The facility’s owner, Cherifa Howarth, was impressed enough to hire him. Every day, he spends hours in the cage, with the kids he coaches and the HitTrax and a black day planner into which he scribbles any thought about hitting that strikes him. He spoke at length Tuesday about everything that led him there. His comments have been edited for clarity.
"I didn’t understand hitting when I was in the majors, and that’s what made me want to teach. I started seeing I had more love for the game because of the downfalls, because of the struggles. Even last year, I was at a field in Laredo, Texas, where you couldn’t hit a ball out to right field, so I had to turn my swing toward center field and left field. All of a sudden, I hit 20 out of my 26 home runs last year to the middle or opposite field, and I’m like, ‘If I did that in the big leagues, I’d still be a Phillie.’ But … life lessons. I love teaching more than I do playing because of the failures.
"The Phillies made me feel like a big leaguer. That was great. I pretty much hit .295, .300 every year in the minors. Hit .279 in Reading in 2009, and I was ticked. A lot of people don’t know that. That’s how hungry I was for success. But I just needed a little more push. For example, 2012 spring training, I’m out early with Juan Samuel, working on some stuff in left field. Still dark out. Dallas Green comes out, walks right past me, says, ‘Thought they said you couldn’t catch any fly balls.’ I’m like, ‘All right. Let’s go. Show you what I can do.’ A lot of that stuff is what drove me in ’13.
"Why did things go so well in that month? Wally Joyner. He was a great teacher for me as the Phillies’ batting coach that season, a big role model in my life to this day. He made me believe, and that’s all that I needed at that time. Be consistent every day. Stay with the drills that worked for me: tee work, front flips, side flips.
"Now I go back to that month: what was clicking, why was it clicking, what angle were you getting to the point of contact. I was using the whole plate and changing the whole field around. Jimmy Rollins showed me his toe-tap, and that helped me out a ton. I was on the fringes then, and I knew it, and it fired me up.
"After the season, Dallas sent me a letter saying congratulations on everything. Looking back on it, Larry Bowa would get me to those stages, too. Charlie Manuel did. But a lot of people couldn’t get that out of me consistently. I blame myself. I needed to be pushed in certain areas.
"Pitchers didn’t catch on to me until the end of that year. Now 2014 comes around, and I know they’re going to come back out here, on the outside of the plate, and I couldn’t make the adjustment. It took me years to get that back.
"Getting sat down was tough. In ‘15, I was beat up physically, and I was beat up mentally, too. I knew from how I was performing that I should have been at triple A. I knew I wasn’t that kind of player, but it was extremely tough knowing I wasn’t getting the results I normally get.
"At 4 years old, I started doing a back handspring. By 7 or 8, I was flipping in the end zone with full pads. By middle school, I was kind of a myth in my area where I grew up. I was throwing the ball super hard. I was running a 4.4 40 in high school. I was 6-foot-5, 6-6. I was playing three sports. The pressure’s always been there. It was just part of the program for me, honestly. That’s how I looked at it. I put more pressure on myself than anybody else just because I knew I was always that guy. The scouts knew I had what it took. My agent Scott Boras knew I had what it took. I knew I had what it took. But I got to the point where I just couldn’t figure it out.
"When I got the phone call that I was going to be put on waivers, I was at my house in South Jersey. Scott Proefrock, the Phillies’ assistant general manager, told me. I put the phone down and was like, ‘No way.’ I knew everybody — the grounds crew, everybody at Citizens Bank Park. I also knew I was supposed to be here for 10 years-plus, so I felt like I let the city down.
"I didn’t understand I was a spoiled brat when it came to the Phillies. I didn’t realize it in a baseball form because I’d never really been spoiled before. My parents always had decent jobs. Living was always OK, but my parents were tough on me. But with the Phillies, I could do no wrong. I’m happy it was that way, but I couldn’t really handle that part. Going through Mexico, going through some tough times, got me right.
"People bring up my career pretty much every time I start working with them. It’s not, ‘What happened?’ Most of the time, it’s like, ‘Hey, I watched you.’ See, that makes me feel good also. I didn’t realize that I still had a huge following here. I didn’t realize people still ask about me.
"Every time we go to the city, somebody’s stopping us, talking to us about the Phillies and all that stuff. If I knew that four years ago, I never would have left. But at the same time, I wouldn’t have gotten any better, either. I still would have been a spoiled kid when it came to baseball.
“Now, I’m at the point where I don’t want any of my guys going to college, going to the next level, and they can’t tell a hitting coach how to position a baseball. They should know their contact point. They should know what angles work for them inside. They should know how to backspin a ball to right-center, not only in batting practice but at 7 o’clock.
"For me now, that’s what I’m trying to do — really understand the game. If I had understood the game more, I would still be there, a hundred percent. I’m in better shape than I have been, even when I played. I know if I had all of this it would be a different story. But it can be a different story for somebody else.”