For what feels like forever, many of us here have been earnestly hoping for Domonic Brown to stuff it in his naysayers' faces and develop into a productive major league ballplayer. Now that he finally looks poised to do that, I almost feel reluctant to write about it, so as not to jinx anything. But if there's any reason to feel anxiety about how this story ends, it's only because of how much is at stake, not because a happy ending is - or ever was - unlikely. To put it another way, this is not a Cinderella story. Brown is still only 25 years old and there have been lots of good players in baseball history who took a few years to adjust to the big leagues, plus he showed some signs for hope after his call-up late last season. If he breaks out in 2013, no one should be surprised.
That said, if Brown succeeds, there will be a couple of heroes to the story. The main one, of course, will be Brown himself. A lot of people would have become (understandably) embittered by being treated so unfairly for so long by so many fans and media personalities. Many others might have become so discouraged that they would have given up. Brown's success in Philadelphia will be a direct result of the fact that he did neither of those things. He will have overcome a level of adversity that few other baseball players face, and demonstrated "toughness" and "grit" (the real kind, not the cartoon version you hear about on the radio) that is not regularly seen.
The other hero will be Ruben Amaro. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of a Brown breakout is that it would be one of the rare occasions in which both sides of a raging sports debate in Philadelphia were revealed to have been badly mistaken. First, we had the talk radio-fueled nitwit brigade who spent all of 2011 going around telling everyone that Brown was already a proven bust at age 23. Here's an example. It was outrageous nonsense from the word Go, and a lot of those people should feel ashamed of themselves now, although I doubt they ever will.
But while these fans showed themselves to be the worst that Philadelphia had to offer, they weren't the only ones to misfire in their opinions on Brown. It was justifiable to be angry at the beating that Brown was taking in the court of public opinion, but many of his most vocal supporters responded by lashing out at the wrong target. A great many commentators accused Amaro of "burying" or even "hating" Brown and writing him out of the organization's future. But there was never much of a factual basis for these accusations, and people should have known that all along. An objective look at Amaro's actions over the last four seasons strongly suggests that Amaro has always been one of Brown's strongest supporters.
Amaro did make one grievous mistake on Brown, but that was because he supported Brown too much, not too little. That was in July 2010. At the time Brown was one of the top-ranked prospects in baseball and he'd torn up the Eastern League for the first half of the season, earning him a mid-season promotion to AAA. The talk radio set had spent the entire first half furiously whining about why the Phillies hadn't already called him up. It was perfectly foreseeable then that calling Brown up would be a mistake, and Amaro held out against the tide for a while, but then in late July, after Shane Victorino suffered a minor injury that would shelve him for two weeks, Amaro finally gave in to the pressure and brought Brown to the majors. He struggled. Then, when Victorino returned, Amaro compounded his error by failing to return Brown to AAA. He languished on the bench for the rest of the year. And that was the first time you started to see a contingent of "Brown skeptics" in the fan base and the commentariat: people who thought they had discovered flaws in Brown's swing mechanics or his "makeup" that doomed him to failure.
But apart from that one mistake, if you go back and look at the bare historical facts, you won't find a single instance where Amaro harmed Brown. A brief timeline:
1. July 2009: Amaro goes hard after Roy Halladay. Alex Anthopoulos demands that Brown be included in the package. Amaro refuses and trades for Cliff Lee instead.
2. Winter 2009-10: Amaro goes hard after Halladay again. Anthopoulos asks for Brown again. Amaro again refuses and instead trades the other three of the Phillies' four best prospects.
3. Winter 2010-11: Brown goes to the Dominican Republic to play winter ball, but struggles badly and is almost immediately sent back home amid odd reports of fatigue.
4. Spring 2011: After a slow start, Brown breaks his hamate bone and is put on the disabled list for several weeks.
5. Summer 2011: Brown is handed the starting RF job shortly after returning from the DL. But while he holds his own at the plate (101 wRC+, .322 wOBA despite .276 BABIP), he struggles badly in the field (-27.5 UZR/150), and ends up sporting a -0.2 fWAR after 56 games.
6. Late Summer 2011: Amaro overpays badly in a trade for Hunter Pence and sends Brown to AAA, where he hits okay (117 wRC+), but not as well as he had in AAA in 2010 (156 wRC+). He also struggles mightily in the field and sits out the last several games of the year.
7. September 2011: After the AAA season ends, Amaro calls up Brown to hang out in the clubhouse for the rest of the year. He doesn't play much.
8. Winter 2011-12: Some rumors swirl around Brown, but Amaro does nothing.
9. April 2012: Amaro awards John Mayberry, Jr. the starting LF job out of spring training and sends Brown to the minor leagues.
10. Brown plays sporadically for a while due to a series of nagging injuries and gets off to a slow start at the plate.
11. Summer 2012: Brown finally starts to heat up, and Pence is traded. Brown is brought back to the majors and he starts for most of the remainder of the season. His fielding looks much improved over a small sample (-7.8 UZR/150), but his hitting stats are disappointing over the same small sample (91 wRC+).
12. Winter 2012-13: Again, some rumors swirl around Brown, but Amaro does nothing. However, he does give Delmon Young a cheapo contract, which causes some Phillies fans to go apesh*t.
I challenge anyone to look at that series of events and find a pattern of hostility towards Brown, because I don't see it. What I see are: decisions that suggest support for Brown (1, 2, 5, 8, 11), decisions that had little to no impact on Brown one way or the other (7, 12), genuine setbacks that were not the front office's fault (3, 4, 10), and finally, two decisions that I think are most plausibly interpreted as attempts to help Brown by going easy on him (6, 9).
Now, it can fairly be debated whether #6 and #9 were correct decisions. Perhaps they were misguided. But it's difficult to see how anyone can conclude that they display any sort of animus. Let's take #6 first. I take a backseat to no one in my utter distaste for the Pence deal. The Phillies didn't need Pence (they were going to take the top seed in the NL with or without him), and they overpaid horribly for him. But at the same time, it is a fact that Brown was playing poorly at the time: he had a negative WAR! If a talented 23-year-old performs at a sub-replacement level for a third of a season, it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that he isn't ready and could benefit from extra time at AAA to get his act together. Demoting a player like that isn't "burying" him, any more than Toronto's decision to demote Roy Halladay in 2000 "buried" Halladay. If anything, it's being done to help him. If the Phillies could have acquired Pence for a good price - like, say, the price that Atlanta paid to acquire Michael Bourn - there would have been very little reason to object to it.
As for #9, that was also a reasonable decision for the reasons discussed here.
It's important to remember that whether you're a fan or a general manager, truly "supporting" a player isn't the same thing as wanting him to play at as advanced a level as possible, as much as possible, as soon as possible. Rather, what a true supporter wants is what's in the player's best interests, and depending on the circumstances that could very well mean slowing down or even reversing that player's advancement. It should give everyone pause to recall that one of the main reasons why Brown got messed up in the first place was that, at the behest of the same folks who later morphed into his haters, he was promoted to the majors too quickly, not too slowly.
As a final note, I just want to say I have no desire to be an apologist for Ruben Amaro. He hasn't had a particularly good tenure as GM, and (unlike Ed Wade) I don't think he deserves to be held in higher public regard than he already is. However, it isn't enough for the guilty to be punished. They also need to be punished for the right reasons, otherwise the right lessons won't be learned. Amaro has made some serious errors, but those errors do not include his (non-second-half-2010) treatment of Brown. To the contrary, that's one of the items on his track record of which he can actually be proud. He rightly stuck with a talented young player despite several genuine setbacks that might have fooled other GMs into giving up on him and despite immense fan pressure to do just that, and he waited patiently through two long years for that player to finally regroup and arrive. Any success Brown achieves in the future will be creditable, in no small part, to Amaro.
Unless, of course, he does something stupid tomorrow.