Three days before Boston’s season opener, former Oklahoma State outfielder Corey Brown started in right field for the Red Sox in a spring training game Friday afternoon against the Twins. The bad news is he was informed earlier in the day that he’ll start the season at Triple-A Pawtucket.
A first-round pick seven years ago, Brown is a reminder that the 750 spots on Opening Day rosters represent how few players actually live out their dreams of playing Major League Baseball.
“It’s definitely tough,” Brown said in a phone interview with The Oklahoman. “I don’t think anyone easily accepts staying in Triple-A. Every year I come to spring training trying to show these teams what I’m capable of.”
Brown, who was a supplemental first-round pick of the Oakland Athletics with the 59th overall selection in 2007, has compiled solid stats throughout his pro career. He’s even had a cup of coffee in the majors. Three times. But at age 28, the native of Tampa, Fla., is no longer a prospect.
Throughout spring training, manager John Farrell and others in the Red Sox organization complimented Brown on his ability to play all three outfield positions.
“This is a guy that’s got very good tools,” Farrell told reporters during camp. “We’re getting to know him. We’ve tried to get him on the field to get a good look. When you look at our overall depth, once you get past Jackie (Bradley), and the unknown of Grady (Sizemore), this is why we pursued him.”
This time, Brown’s unlucky break was Sizemore, a former All-Star, finally showing in spring training the past month that he might finally be healthy for the first time in four years.
“I was insurance for Grady Sizemore,” Brown said. “He ended up having a great spring and looks good. It’s about being in the right place at the right time. You never wish injury upon anybody. I just try to impress the scouts and teams watching me.”
Brown has 40 career major league at-bats during September call-ups in the last three seasons with the Washington Nationals.
In the minors, he’s put up stats worthy of an extended tryout but now faces a disadvantage, because a team would have to invest one of their 40-man roster spots to put him on a major league roster.
“You try not to get too overwhelmed with it because it’s everyone’s dream to play in the bigs,” Brown said. “I feel I can compete at that level. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way where my window ever opened up.
“I also put pressure on myself after I was traded to Washington.”
It appeared he caught the break he was looking for when the Nationals acquired him in a trade following the 2010 season. His chance to make an impression was hampered by a high ankle sprain during training camp.
“That probably was my best chance because back then the Nationals were struggling,” Brown said. “Two years ago I was healthy. I had my best season (in Triple-A) but they had (Bryce) Harper, (Denard) Span and (Jayson) Werth.”
The Nats’ roster also included Michael Morse, who emerged out of nowhere the previous year by slamming 31 homers.
“I’ve been healthy and playing better the past few years, which is what’s frustrating,” Brown said. “It seems like every time the team I’m with is stacked.”
That ankle sprain wasn’t the only time Brown had been slowed by injuries.
In 2008, Brown slammed 30 homers, collected 84 RBIs with a .345 on-base percentage and 16 stolen bases at two Class A levels.
The following season he was off to another good start (43 RBIs in 66 Double-A games) when he was diagnosed with patellar tendinitis. The injury forced him to miss the second half the season just when he was starting to get noticed.
“I just have to keep plugging away and hope to get an opportunity,” Brown said. “If that opportunity comes I have to seize it.”
Did he talk OSU with Farrell, who also played for the Cowboys?
“I didn’t put two and two together until this offseason,” Brown said. “I went to Oklahoma State but I grew up in Tampa. We’ve had short conversations (about the Cowboys) but nothing in particular. And we talked a little about the basketball team.”
Nick Cafardo, who covers the Red Sox for the Boston Globe, last week summed up Brown’s career: “In camp, he’s been a good center fielder with a strong arm. He’s one of those players perpetually lost in the shuffle — wrong team, wrong time.”
If he ever gets to the point he’s discouraged, Brown thinks of his mother, Kathy, who raised six sons.
“With what she’s been through in life, she hasn’t had an easy road,” Brown said. “She’s been through a lot, but she’s always happy day in and day out. I try to live like that, be the same as her.”
The ultimate dream would have been to be one of 25 players standing on the chalk lines next Friday afternoon at Fenway Park when the Red Sox receive their World Series rings before their home opener.
Instead, Brown returns to Triple-A for the fourth consecutive season.
“I’m going to keep on pushing until at some point it’s over,” Brown said. “At the end of the day I’ll still have to find work. You have to feed your family. I have a wife now and someday there will be kids.
“I never really looked at it but Japan might be an option down the road. I’m just going to try and make the most of my opportunities and make my mom proud, which is the No. 1 goal.”