THE KID APPEARED about 4 p.m. in the same quiet manner that has accompanied his rise through the minor leagues. One minute, Ryan Howard was sitting by himself in front of his locker, talking about all the hype and expectation that a blue-chip prospect must learn to ignore. The next minute, he was swiveling in his chair to find the Next Big Thing standing quietly behind him.
"I know you saw your name in the lineup out there," Howard said as he stood up to greet the kid.
Howard wore a broad smile, the kind that comes with ease after several seasons of dominance in the major leagues.
The kid? He wore the kind of smile that comes on the first day of high school - thin and humble and maybe a bit uncomfortable, but at the same time brimming with the kind of quiet confidence that so many ascribe to him.
Domonic Brown might have entered the year as Baseball America's 15th-best prospect in the game, but he doesn't act like a player who has the world by the baseball cleats. The Phillies called him up to the big leagues yesterday after just 28 games at Triple A, and they felt comfortable enough in his ability to hit him sixth in a lineup that was riding a six-game winning streak. But after a quick conversation with Howard that consisted mostly of him nodding and smiling, Brown walked to his locker and slipped back into the process that has consumed the past 4 years of his life: preparing for his first game as a big-leaguer.
"It was a great day," the 22-year-old outfielder said before helping to lead the Phillies to a 7-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks. "One of the best days of my life."
The day came earlier than expected, thanks to a strained oblique that is expected to sideline centerfielder Shane Victorino for about 3 weeks.
Barely a month ago, Brown was still at Double A Reading, where he had been promoted late in the 2009 season. A 20th-round selection in the 2006 draft, the Phillies convinced him to forgo a football scholarship to the University of Miami, which had wanted him to play wide receiver. After he struggled in his first professional season, hitting .214 with a .557 OPS as an 18-year-old in the Gulf Coast League, Brown vaulted through the minor league system. In 2008, he hit .291 with a .798 OPS at low-A Lakewood. Last season, he spent his first 66 games at high-A Clearwater, hitting .303 with a .903 OPS and enduring rumors about a potential trade to Toronto for Roy Halladay.
Last night, however, he and Halladay shared a lineup, and in one of those moments that trumps any volume of fiction, Brown gave the veteran righthander a 1-0 lead with an RBI double off the rightfield wall in his first big-league at-bat.
"You'd be crazy not to be curious to see how he is going to do up here," said Greg Gross, who briefly served as Brown's hitting coach at Triple A Lehigh Valley before the Phillies promoted Gross to replace Milt Thompson last week. "He's probably the most polished of the young hitters that I've seen get to that level."
The swing that Brown put on Edwin Jackson's off-speed pitch in the second inning last night was one that Gross saw plenty of times in Lehigh Valley. "Majestic," and "fluid," are two words the veteran coach used when searching for a description of the way the bat slices down from Brown's left shoulder and glides through the strike zone. In 28 games at Lehigh Valley, Brown hit .346 with a .390 on base percentage, .561 slugging percentage and five home runs.
"I think the impressive part was he was very even," Gross said. "It didn't matter if he took an 0-fer or struck out . . . If he struck out two straight times, it didn't mean it was going to be a bad night."
This past March, Brown drew raves from players and coaches for both his work ethic and his deferential manner during major league spring training. He also left a lasting impression in his final Grapefruit League game, when he hit home runs off of Tigers ace Justin Verlander and lefty specialist Phil Coke.
"When I saw him in spring training, one of the biggest things I learned about him was how much he liked to play," Manuel said, "and also that he can take the fat part of the bat and hit the ball. He makes contact a lot - and good contact. And that tells me that you have a chance to be a real good hitter."
How good remains to be seen. Since 2000, 14 players under the age of 23 have posted an OPS of at least .800 in their first major league season (minimum: 50 games). For every Chris Davis (.849 OPS, 12 home runs in his first 50 games in 2008), there is a Mike Stanton (.745 OPS, eight home runs in his first 40 games in 2010).
Chase Utley, who was 2 years older than Brown when he made his debut in 2003, hit .239 with a .696 OPS and two home runs in his first 43 games. Howard, on the other hand, hit 22 home runs in 88 games after replacing an injured Jim Thome in 2005.
"It's one of those things, where when you come up, there's so much hype," said Howard, who played 19 games as a September call-up in 2004. "In my situation with Thome - I know what Jim Thome's done in his career. I know what Jim Thome was doing for the team. I know what people expect out of Jim Thome. And for me to come up to replace Jim Thome, I'm automatically getting compared to Jim Thome. I had to look, and I had to say, I already know this coming in. My thing is, I'm not going to get caught up in the hype. I can't be Jim Thome. I can only be me."