LAKELAND, Fla. — In a minute, we will get to the pitch that broke his jaw, and his reputation for being difficult, and the stories about his youth, when he was the brother of a gang leader and the high school student of a certain Mr. Anderson, who happens to be Sparky’s brother. But first, the important stuff. Hey, Chris Brown. Who’s gonna win the NCAA basketball tournament?

“Oklahoma,” he says. “Nobody will beat them. They’ll have the easiest draw. Stacey King wants it more than anybody. As for the rest of them. . . .

“Arizona? One-man team. Sean Elliott.

“Indiana? Can’t beat Oklahoma.

“Georgetown? Good team. Tough draw.

“Duke? Player of the year in Danny Ferry. But that’s it.

“North Carolina? J.R.’s just not into it.

“Missouri? Nah.

“Michigan? Two chances. Slim and none.”

OK, then. Glad we got that taken care of. By the way, some people would pay money for that information. And some people may make money off it. Sparky Anderson hopes to get Brown as his partner in the Tigers’ annual Final Four pool, which should come out Monday morning. “Me and Chris,” Sparky says, nodding toward the clubhouse, “are gonna teach these boys a thing or two.”

Baseball?

Did somebody say baseball?

Well, yes, Chris Brown does play baseball. And yes, he’ll be the Tigers’ starting third baseman on Opening Day. And yes, he has a curious career that, so far, has jumped between the top drawer and the first aid kit. It’s just that Brown, 27, seems to prefer talking about other sports rather than himself. Ask him something personal, he may clam up. Ask him whether the Lakers can handle the Pistons in the NBA Finals this year, he’s the kid in the back of the class going, “OOOH! OOOH! PICK ME!”

And yet, you need to know this other stuff to understand him: his youth in the ganglands of Los Angeles; the injury-prone reputation that earned him the nasty nickname, “Tin Man,” in San Diego; the trauma of trying to return to the batter’s box without thinking about a ball spearing his face. You need to know that.

And — oh, yeah.

“The Lakers will beat the Pistons in seven,” he says.

You might want to know that, too. I never had anything broken before.” He pauses. “That pitch — as soon as it hit me, I knew it was bad. My whole jaw felt like Jell-O.” Another pause. “You don’t ever visualize getting hit in the face. But once it happens, it’s hard not to think about it.” Pause again. “Look. Dickie Thon got hit in the eye that time, remember? And it took him three or four years to get over that, right?”

Chris Brown looks at his feet and awaits the next question. He is sitting inside his new home, the Tigers’ clubhouse, dressed in the new white and blue uniform, his thick, 6-foot-2 frame filling the material to its limit. The questions about injuries do not bother him, so he says, nor do they please him. That one just happened. St. Louis’ Danny Cox threw a pitch that sailed smack into his jawbone two summers ago when he was with the Giants. He has not been the same player since.

He missed six weeks, came back, slumped, got traded to the Padres. Two months later, he got hit by another pitch. Fractured his right hand and finished the season on the disabled list. The following year, no pitches hit him, and he never went on the disabled list, but he still missed half of the season with aches, pains and minor injuries. That’s a lot of minor injuries. They didn’t buy it in San Diego.

And now he is a Tiger.

“Happy?” he says of the trade that brought him here. “That is an understatement. The only person in this room that’s as happy as me is Keith Moreland, and that’s because he got out of San Diego, too.

“I feel much better now. That (broken jaw) is behind me. I worked with a psychologist in Atlanta who helped me, little things, like getting right back in the batter’s box after a high pitch, not stepping out, not thinking about it, you know?

His career average before Cox’s pitch broke his jaw was .285. Since then, it is .224. Brown says it’s just a matter of getting completely comfortable again. “People never understood how hard that is. Just like they didn’t understand what really happened in San Francisco in 1986.”

Oh, yes. That was the year Brown led the league with a .348 average in June, played in the All-Star Game, but sat out the last month of the season with a shoulder injury. It would eventually require surgery, but some felt Brown didn’t try very hard to play once the Giants were eliminated from the pennant race. That was where the Tin Man whispers first began.

“Hey, it was time for me to think about the rest of my career,” he says.
“I had played all season with that shoulder. I was in constant pain.”

He grabs a bat and twirls it.

“When you’re on top of the mountain, everybody wants you. When you start to come down, nobody wants to know you. That’s the way it is.” They call third base “the hot corner” in baseball, but in Detroit, they might as well call it Lourdes. Year after year it seems to be a rebuilding project of Sparky Anderson’s. Chris Pittaro came and went. Darnell Coles came and went. Neither could be saved. But Brown is different. He once posted All-Star numbers. His task is to return to excellence, not to search for it.

“Hey,” says Sparky, “the word is the guy needs some attention. Is that so wrong? What else have I got to do but give my players my attention?”

It will not be the first time for an Anderson. Back in LA’s Crenshaw High School, 10th grade, Sparky’s brother, Bill, a history teacher, had Brown in his class. He remembers Brown as smart and shy. Except when it came to sports — where he talked non-stop. And he did particularly well on Fridays.

“That was the day Mr. Anderson showed us Cincinnati Reds highlight films,” Brown recalls, grinning. “He’d dismiss all the girls and we’d watch the Reds win the World Series, the Reds win the pennant. Every Friday, it was the Cincinnati Reds.”

And every other day, it was look over your shoulder. Brown says his oldest brother was a member of one of LA’s biggest gangs. Soon the rival gangs came looking for the young one. Chris and future Mets star Darryl Strawberry, his teammate, hid behind the shield of sports — you don’t hurt a ghetto kid with a chance to go pro — and managed to graduate without adopting any gang colors. Brown fought constantly, he says, “but nowadays, it’s worse. When I was there, they only shot you as a last resort. Now they’re shooting first and asking questions later.”

It is unlikely the average baseball fan can appreciate that upbringing, any more than he can appreciate a fastball to the jaw. So it may indeed be that Chris Brown simply needed to work some things out. And perhaps a new team with an attentive manager will keep him from rushing to the first aid box.

“He’s some player,” says Sparky Anderson, with typical understatement.
“You watch. This kid may be the best move Bill Lajoie made all year.”

We will watch. After all, the door at third base is well- oiled. And Sparky will not tolerate a less-than-enthusiastic attitude. For now, however, it seems unlikely Brown will be going anywhere.

Especially if Oklahoma wins.

Mitch Albom’s sports talk show “The Sunday Sports Albom” airs tonight, 9-11, on WLLZ-FM (98.7). Tonight’s guests will be Margo Adams, Bill Frieder and Chuck Long. CUTLINE

The Tigers’ new third baseman, Chris Brown: “When you’re on top of the mountain, everybody wants you. When you start to come down, nobody wants to know you. That’s the way it is.”

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