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Yanks hope Brown is nasty as he wants to be


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Yanks hope Brown is nasty as he wants to be


Monday, February 23, 2004



Star-Ledger Staff


TAMPA, Fla. -- On the first day of spring training workouts, the pitchers generally aren't throwing the ball as hard as they can. Usually they're just warming up, getting into the flow of the spring, loosening muscles they haven't used in a while.


Which is why it surprised Yankees catcher John Flaherty that his hand hurt so much on Thursday.


Flaherty was catching Kevin Brown, one of the Yankees' new ace right-handers. And Brown was rocking back into his old-style windup and firing hard, hard sinkers into Flaherty's mitt.


"It was not fun," Flaherty said. "Your thumb takes a beating. But I was impressed. He was full-bore right away."


The best advice for Brown's new teammates is to get used to that. Brown is a full-bore guy, and those who know him aren't surprised to learn he's throwing hard on the first day of spring training. His personality would allow nothing less.


It was that fiery personality and in-your-face mound presence that prompted the Yankees to trade Jeff Weaver to the Dodgers for Brown in the days that followed Andy Pettitte's signing with the Houston Astros. When healthy, Brown is the ace of any pitching staff. And in many ways it was he, not Alex Rodriguez or Gary Sheffield, who may have been the most important acquisition of the Yankees' off-season.


"There's no question about it," manager Joe Torre said. "I think he's very key for us, because he gives us, along with (Mike Mussina), two guys that have been there and experienced that. Assuming he's on his game, there's no question he's a key man for us."


Brown has missed time each of the past three seasons with injuries to his ankle, elbow and back. He missed the first couple of games of the 2003 season as he recovered from off-season surgery on his back. He still finished 14-9 for the Dodgers with a 2.39 ERA and 211 innings over 32 starts. But he will turn 39 years old on March 14. So there are reasons to be concerned.


But when they watch Brown pitch, and they look at the numbers he has put up as one of the dominant pitchers in the National League since 1996, the Yankees also have reasons to be excited.


"He's one of the best there is," said Mussina, who teamed with Brown on the 1995 Baltimore Orioles. "When he's healthy, he's basically unhittable. That's what the numbers show."


Flaherty remembers one time when he hit Brown. It was in 1997, when he was with the San Diego Padres and Brown was pitching for the Florida Marlins. Flaherty hit a home run against him. Still remembers it.


"He went back into his rock there, at the beginning of his windup, and as soon as he leaned back, I started my swing," Flaherty said. "I cheated that much, and I connected. I couldn't believe it."


Brown probably couldn't believe it either. More than likely, he began cursing and kicking the dirt on the pitcher's mound before the ball even cleared the fence. And it's entirely possible he trashed some valuable piece of electronic equipment in the clubhouse as he carried his rage with him once the inning was over.


That wouldn't be out off character for Brown, who has something of a reputation as a hothead.


"The thing you've got to know about Brownie is just not to go near him on the day he's pitching," said Sheffield, who played with Brown in 1996 and 1997 in Florida and from 1999-2001 with Los Angeles. "He's all right as long as you don't get in his way."


"He's pretty hard on himself," said Yankees reliever Paul Quantrill, who played with Brown in L.A. the past two seasons. "Here's a guy, he gives up two hits and pitches a shutout, and he's in there barking about the two hits."


Brown won't deny it. In fact, the only reason he even takes exception to such characterizations is to inform you that he doesn't bark at teammates -- only himself. And the occasional reporter.


"I'm probably a perfectionist," Brown said. "But more than anything, I just tell it like it is. Sometimes that rubs people the wrong way. Especially when you're a guy people think has a temper."


Brown's temper is well documented, but so is his excellence. Only once in the past eight seasons has his ERA been higher than 3.00, and that was in his injury-ravaged 2002 campaign. When healthy, he has consistently ranked among the league leaders in ERA, innings, strikeouts and victories. And it's no coincidence.


"I used to hate facing him, because you'd swing and you'd think you had it, and then it was at your back foot, just like that," Flaherty said. "And you didn't even know if he struck you out with his splitter or his sinker, because all you knew was it was hard and you missed it by a mile."


That is the Kevin Brown the Yankees are hoping takes the mound for them this season -- hard sinker, nasty temper and all. He thinks it shouldn't be a problem.


"I feel so much better than I did this time last year, when I was coming off the surgery," Brown said. "All last year, I never felt right. But now I feel like I used to feel all the time."


That could be good news for the Yankees, and bad news for the rest of the American League.

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