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Coming up Roses

[03/29/02]Roosevelt Brown is growing accustomed to the doubters.

First, it was at Vicksburg High.

Now, it’s the Chicago Cubs.

His response will be the same come out swinging.

Brown’s nickname, “Rosie,” describes his outlook. But it hasn’t always described his disposition, he admits.

“The reports on me said, bad attitude, lazy on defense,’ but I shook those tags off last year,” Brown said.

Because of that, he thought he would be rewarded with a starting position this season.

“This is the most excited I’ve ever been about baseball,” Brown said during a visit home in November. “I know I’m going to play every day (in the majors).”

That new-and-improved attitude is being tested.

As the Cubs open today in Cincinnati, Brown is on the opening-day roster and he will be starting his first season as a full-time major-leaguer but he’s back on the bench.

The Cubs traded left fielder Rondell White, which made the job Brown’s … until the Cubs made a high-profile deal to get All-Star Moises Alou.

After that, it looked like Brown would be the starting centerfielder … until late February, when manager Don Baylor said Corey Patterson would start there. The speedy Patterson, a first-round draft choice in 1998, responded with a big spring, hitting six homers.

With future Hall-of-Famer Sammy Sosa in right field, that leaves Brown without a spot in the outfield a spot he thought he’d earned by working hard on his defense and putting up big numbers.

It’s almost like eight years ago, when he wasn’t picked team MVP his senior year at VHS.

“That just motivated me,” he said.

If this latest snub motivates him as much as that one did, his numbers could be off the charts if he does get back into the starting lineup.

Last year, he batted .331, with 26 homers and 99 RBIs, in his Triple-A and major-league stints combined. He batted .265 in 39 games for Chicago, but almost always got at least one hit on the days he had multiple at-bats.

There was a two-homer, seven-RBI outing against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Oct. 6. On Sept. 10, he went 3-for-4 with four RBIs, the first day back with Chicago after helping Iowa rally from 10 games back to win its division in the last series of the weekend. For Iowa, he batted .346 with 22 homers and 77 RBIs in 88 games, won the Pacific Coast League batting title and was co-MVP of the league.

In four years with Iowa and Chicago, he’s batted .321 with 82 homers and 338 RBIs.

His last hit in Triple-A, like his last hit in high school, was a home run.

“I hope my last one in the majors is, too,” he said.

If he has his way, that will be a long time from now.

After finding stability with the Cubs the last four years, Brown said he’d like to stay there and play for Don Baylor.

“He’s a great manager … He stood by me 100 percent,” Brown said before the Alou deal.

Agent Daryl Buford was surprised by the move.

“They complimented him on his defensive prowess,” after playing center for Iowa, he said. “I don’t think Chicago is willing to trade him … they would only trade him for a marquee player.

“He can be a .330, 30-home run, 100-RBI player in this league.”

Stars come out at grandma’s

Long before he ever set a cleat on Wrigley Field, Brown was playing with and against top-notch competition in front of overflow crowds.

Back then, there was no seventh-inning stretch; just a quick trip to Grandma’s kitchen, and back to the makeshift diamond until dark.

Those routine days in his grandmother’s yard, and the uncommon competition, helped prepare him for the pros.

“We had tennis balls and sticks,” Brown said, chuckling at the memory.

The list of kids who played in Hazel Erwin’s yard on Fairgrounds Street is a veritable Who’s Who of Vicksburg athletes.

There were Brown’s cousins: Ellis Burks, a veteran outfielder with the Cleveland Indians; Michael Carter, now with the Atlanta Braves organization; Bunkie Perkins, who played baseball and football at Hinds Community College and was Memphis’ top receiver this year; Kevin Prentiss, who played football at Hinds and made it to two NFL training camps after two years as a star flanker at Mississippi State, and J.J. Brown, one of Vicksburg High’s top baseball and football players.

Then there are his brothers: Michael Brown, a late-round draft choice of San Diego this summer who is in his senior year at Mississippi State; Shandell Lockridge, who was a football star at Hinds and led the Eagles to the Junior College World Series in 1999, and Tim Brown, who was VHS’ top linebacker this season. Another cousin, Mark Smith, played in the Mississippi/Alabama all-star game in basketball and football. Now, he’s a defensive tackle with the Cleveland Browns.

If only they had realized their potential, they could have charged admission.

“We used to draw some crowds,” Roosevelt Brown said with a smile.

He is making up for the lost potential income now.

The 26-year-old pulled in $150,000 last year, playing part of the time for Chicago and part with Triple-A Iowa. His salary has doubled this year.

The future is “pretty bright,” he said, smiling as he smoothed his pants’ legs and kicked back in his chair.

Life is good for Roosevelt Brown, professionally and personally. He’s in the big leagues, making $300,000 a year, playing alongside Sosa and Fred McGriff on a team that is picked to contend for the NL Central title.

He has a new Jaguar and a Chevrolet Tahoe in the garage at his Columbus, Ga., home. He and his wife Ronita have two kids, R.J., 5, and Rosaria, 17 months.

Yes, life is rosy for Rosie.

But he isn’t content to sit back and enjoy what he’s accomplished. He’s still got so much he wants to do.