From Harrisonburg to the Hill City

Virginia native D.J. Brown’s season has featured a roller coaster ride of highs and lows. His career path has taken the High-A Lynchburg pitcher from a professional career that might never happen to a regular in the 2015 Hillcat pitching rotation.

The road of his dreams of becoming a Major Leaguer began in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He had always planned on attending James Madison University to the point where he did not apply to any other schools and is unabashedly enthusiastic about the Dukes and Harrisonburg, Virginia where the school is located.

“If you talk to anybody that went to JMU they are going to tell you the same thing, it’s the best college on earth.”

He played on the JMU baseball team for two seasons, working primarily as a starter during his freshman year, and then out of the bullpen as a sophomore. In both of these years the team won the Colonial Athletic Association conference title. This was exemplified in his sophomore year where he pitched a career nine innings against Virginia Commonwealth University to lock up the conference championship to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament, and was honored with the teams Relief Pitcher Award.

This led to a summer stint with the Holyoke Blue Sox of the New England Collegiate league that summer.

“The competition was great,” said Brown about his summer in New England, “I think we had 12 guys from our team drafted, with six or seven of them still playing. It was a great experience, and my host family dad was awesome.”

The energy D.J. exudes when he talks baseball is obvious despite the up and down trajectory his career has followed. Coming off of the heights of a CAA championship and summer league experience had him excited for his junior season as a Duke. Unfortunately his season did not go as planned, as it was determined that he had labrum damage that required surgery.

“That was definitely a roller coaster year. I was getting a little bit of being looked at by scouts before surgery. Once I had the surgery I kind of thought it was a career ender.”

Though he did not pitch during the 2012 college season he remained in touch with the game. His good friend and former JMU teammate Jake Lowery had been drafted in the fourth round in 2011 by the Indians and he paid close attention to that year’s draft, though not really having hopes of being selected. Unexpectedly his dreams of being a professional baseball player were revived when he was selected in the 39th round.

“Seeing my name picked on the draft board was really a dream come true. I weighed my options to go back to school, but it’s one of those times when you can’t really pass up the opportunity. My only regret would be if I had gone back to school and then never had the opportunity to play pro ball again.”

What had been a roller coaster year finished high, though he did not pitch for a minor league team until the 2013 season. Over the course of his three-year career he has made 67 appearances split between relieving (37) and starting (30).

“I like starting, I like relieving, so it’s not really a preference either way. It’s a different mindset, whichever you are doing. I think I have the mentality for both of them.”
Depending upon his role his game preparation differs.

“In the bullpen you can read hitters throughout the game.” says Brown. “You’re only throwing one or two innings, probably only going to see each guy one time, so you’ve got to go in there and have all your pitches effective.”

Working as a starter requires a different kind of intensity since you will face the same batters multiple times. Brown’s first appearance of the season came against Frederick in the back end of a double header due to a rainout on the seasons second day.

“As a starter you’re kind of feeling it out as the game goes on, and then making adjustments as you go. If your off speed is not working in the first inning you can work it out in the second inning and throughout the game.”

As to his preference to work as a starter or reliever he keeps an open mind.

“Whatever they want me to do I’m willing to do.” says Brown. “I’ve come out of the pen, I’ve started. Hopefully it’s a good option to be versatile.”

Now in his second year in the High-A Carolina League Brown has seen all of the league parks and compared this year’s home park, Calvin Falwell Field, with last year’s park when he wore the Carolina Mudcats uniform.

“Carolina is a definitely a bigger ball park. It plays a lot bigger. To hit a ball out in centerfield is almost impossible.”

Zebulon’s Five County Stadium features a short right field porch, with the distance down the line being 309 feet. Left field is 330 feet and center field is 400 feet. Compare this to Falwell field in Lynchburg where the dimensions are 325 to left, 390 to center and 325 to right.

“Here [Lynchburg] the ball flies out pretty well, pretty often, it’s a little different, but it also makes you focus more when you are pitching here.” says Brown. “You need to keep the ball down. Make sure they’re not lifting the ball and getting it into the wind.”

At the midpoint of the season D.J. has pitched effectively enough to be second on the team in wins with 4, sporting a 4.95 ERA in 60 innings pitched and has struck out 35 while issuing only 10 walks. The highlight of his time on the mound this season came on the road against the Frederick Keys.

On the afternoon of Sunday May 31st Brown reached a professional high water mark for innings pitched in a game with 7 2/3. He allowed only four hits, two doubles, giving up only a single earned run on a homerun by Frederick’s Trey Mancini. Throwing just 89 pitches, 68 for strikes, he quieted the Keys line-up. The Hillcats hitters backed him with nine runs as he cruised to his third victory.

As the grind of the minor league season continues Brown will continue to draw strength from his friends and family as he pursues the goal of reaching the major leagues. In the short term he hopes he gets the opportunity to play with his good friend and former college teammate Jake Lowery who is currently on the AA Akron roster. Beyond that his wife blogs about the life of being married to a ballplayer who is away from home during a large part of the year.

“She’s my backbone.” Says Brown about his wife, whom he also met a James Madison University.

“She stays at home and works [during the season], then she’ll come out and be here for a good month.”

On the roller coaster that has been his life’s experience with baseball, Brown continues to ride high. He rolls with the challenges and continues that dogged pursuit of a career centered on hitting, throwing, and catching a nine inch horsehide covered sphere.

“I’ve made the right decision,” exclaims Brown, “I’ve had a blast since I’ve been here and I keep working hard to get to the next level. Eventually I hope to be a big league pitcher.”

With his exuberant attitude he makes a great teammate. When his pitching career ends he will then go back and finish college at the school he loves. Till then he will continue to pitch and fight to make his dream a reality.

Photo: Lianna Holub/DTTWLN photographer

David Freier was born in Brooklyn New York in 1966 less than a decade after the Dodgers had departed the very same borough. His first professional baseball game was at Yankee stadium and to this day he and his father still argue over who started for the Orioles that day (his father says Mike Cuellar, while he insists it was Jim Palmer). Being a lover of underdogs he naturally became a Mets fan. He grew up in Montclair New Jersey which had the advantage of being home to two baseball legends, Yogi Berra and Larry Doby, as well as having a local college which regularly held baseball card conventions that fed his baseball card hobby. While attending college at the University of Richmond he and some of his friends attended a Richmond Braves game in the then (1985) brand new Diamond stadium, and now home to the Richmond Flying Squirrels. This began what has become a passion for the minor leagues of baseball. During his 10 years as a Richmond resident he and his future wife developed an affinity for the Braves, especially when Richmond fan favorite Francisco Cabrera scored the winning run to knock the Pirates from contention and vault the Braves into the World Series of 1991. During extensive travels he has rooted for the Minnesota Twins, Minneapolis Loons, St. Paul Saints, Iowa Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Erie Sea Wolves, Berkshire Bears and of course the Lynchburg Hillcats. To date he has visited over 110 different baseball parks in which he has seen a game. He joined the Society for American Baseball Research in 2000 and has been a member ever since, where he participates on the Biographical and Minor Leagues committees when time permits. In his day job he is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Science at Lynchburg College in Virginia.

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