The place to go for some relief from the summertime’s oppressive heat in Elk Grove, Calif., is the Barbara Morse Wackford Community and Aquatic Complex. It’s where children can cool down in well-kept pools, a splash pad and a water slide.
Darold Brown, better known as Dee, often took his boys there, setting them free to romp about while he drifted over to the adjacent Laguna Community Park, catching whatever baseball was being played on its two diamonds.
Shoulder troubles derailed the left-hander’s pitching career after he reached double-A with the Chicago Cubs, and he missed the game after settling in the Sacramento suburb with his wife Lisa, intent on pursuing real-estate opportunities. The ball fields offered a small fix.
It was there he first noticed a 10-year-old Rowdy Tellez, initially taken aback by the appearance of “this big ole brute with long hair” that immediately made him think of John Kruk. Transfixed, Brown watched the boy step into the batter’s box and hit the ball much harder than someone that age should be able to.
“My exact words were, ‘Man, this chubby rascal can hit a little bit,’” he says with a grin.
The chance encounter left an impression, and though they wouldn’t meet for a while yet, Brown soon enough become a coach, mentor and best friend to that “chubby rascal,” eventually helping bring him to the Toronto Blue Jays, where he’s now among their top prospects, a step away from the big-leagues at triple-A Buffalo.
“Without him I don’t think I’d be in the shoes I’m in,” says Tellez, his eyes welling up.
“All I can say is it’s fate, right,” says Tellez’s father, Greg, “and I’m happy for it.”
Even in the womb, Ryan John Tellez, was the rambunctious type, thrashing about so actively in utero that Lori and Greg took to calling their unborn child, Baby Rowdy. After his birth, the nickname stuck, and few people other than his mother use his actual given name these days. Sometimes when she refers to him as Ryan, she draws puzzled stares.
Given their child’s energy, Lori and Greg sought to keep him active early and as they experimented with different sports, they noticed that Rowdy really took to a pop-up baseball toy. As a three-year-old, he’d step on a pedal to make a ball shoot up and then send it flying with a swing of his plastic bat.
When Rowdy was five, Greg remembers taking him to T-ball registration and the two playing catch while waiting in line. The fathers of older kids stopped to watch and kept asking him how old his son was. Their jaws dropped both that a kid as big as him was only five, and that he already handled the ball so well.
“I didn’t know any better,” says Greg. “I thought all kids his age could catch and throw.”
They couldn’t, and before long, Rowdy was pushed up a level to play with older kids, something he’s still doing to this day as a 22-year-old in triple-A. By the time he was 10, Greg helped start a travel ball team called the Bulldogs – the first of its kind in Elk Grove – to get Rowdy better competition.
Roughly a year later, Brown started a travel-ball team of his own known as the Bulls, in part to coach his own son, Michael. A rivalry was born as suddenly the Bulls and Bulldogs were in competition for players. Brown and Rowdy met on the field and instantly connected.
“We ended up playing Dee, so he was at the park and he came up to me and is like, ‘Who’s this long-haired kid?’” says Tellez. “I was 11 years-old, super long hair down past my shoulders. My grandmother (Joan Bernick, Lori’s stepmom) had breast cancer so I thought if I grew my hair out, I could give her my hair.”
His hair ended up going to charity, but Brown was now not only struck by Rowdy’s swing, but also his heart.
“I thought, ‘Man, this kid has a good spirit about him,” he recalls.While Greg Tellez didn’t like the fact Dee Brown was stealing his players, Lori Tellez didn’t like him for a host of other reasons. Once she was sitting in the stands when Rowdy’s coach asked him to bunt and she heard someone yell from behind her, “You’re going to make him bunt? If I was a scout I’d pay him $50,000 to sign right now.”
She turned to see who had made the outrageous statement and there she saw Brown.
“Who is this guy?” she muttered to herself. “I don’t ever want Ry to talk to him.”
But despite her feelings, she could tell there was a connection between them.
“Rowdy totally loved Dee from the beginning,” says Lori. “Every time we’d see him at a tournament, Ry would say, ‘Hey mom, can I go say hi to Coach Dee?’ And I was like, ‘OK, whatever. Go ahead and say hi to him.’ I couldn’t understand what he saw in that man he was so in awe with.”
By the time Rowdy was 13, it was becoming clear that he needed to be challenged more on the field. A defining moment came when the Bulldogs won a tournament and on the drive home, he was moping in the car. When Greg asked him what was up, Rowdy said the victory didn’t matter because they “didn’t beat anybody.”
At that point Greg, an electrical engineer with the local utility volunteering his time as a coach, realized he had coached Rowdy as far he could in baseball.
Brown, with his pro ball experience, was the logical choice, especially since, much to his mother’s chagrin, Rowdy enjoyed spending time with him. From Greg’s perspective, aside from figuring out what to do with the Bulldogs, there was also the question of how to overcome Lori’s objections. During a high school football game, Greg and Rowdy ran into Brown and Brown asked what their plans were for the upcoming season. Rowdy said he wanted to play for him and they floated the idea of combining the Bulls and the Bulldogs, both of which had been hit hard by recent graduations.
Brown and Greg later went to a pizza parlour and spent three hours talking things over. By the end of it, Greg was convinced that for Rowdy to really progress, he needed to play for Brown.
“He really connected with that style of coaching. He needed that push, that somebody to stay on him to perform. He responded well to that. He just did,” says Greg. “For some kids, they would probably have shut themselves off from that or pretty much said, ‘Nah, I’m done with this, I can’t take this.’ For some reason, the harder Dee Brown coached him and pushed him, the harder he played.’”
The opportunity to learn from a former professional ended up swaying Lori, who decided to trust in Rowdy’s judgment.
“I thought if my son really likes this guy, there must be a reason.”
After Rowdy’s first tournament with the Bulls, the team headed back to Brown’s spacious home where most of the players were gathering in the games room. As they fired up the video game system, Tellez and Brown hung back in the living room to watch video of left-handed sluggers such as Adrian Gonzalez and Jim Thome, running through their swings in slow motion over and over.
Brown was impressed with the dedication and the depth of Tellez’s thought process. Much of Tellez’s approach to hitting today is rooted in the lessons from those days.
“We were talking about placement at the plate, we were talking about angles, we were talking about hitting to certain quadrants of the strike zone, and he was like 13 and really, really understood what I was talking about,” says Brown. “The next thing you know, it’s close to midnight and I was like, man, this guy is going to be a dude.”
Rather than focusing on hitting the ball over the fence, Brown preached hitting the ball through the fence, developing a swing that could produce line drives to all fields. With Tellez’s natural strength and size, the home runs would come naturally if the swing was right.
In 2007, the Arizona Diamondbacks hired Brown as a scout and Rowdy tagged along on scouting trips. At the same time, the two families began to bond, Brown inviting Lori to score the team’s games, winning her over in the process.
“She understood where my heart was and where I was going with this,” he says.
As Tellez made rapid gains on the field, scouts started coming to his games regularly once he reached high school. In 2010, Brown joined the Blue Jays as part of former GM Alex Anthopoulos’ aggressive expansion of the scouting department. Before the 2011 draft, with then scouting director Andrew Tinnish in town to take a look at right-hander Brady Dragmire, whom Toronto ended up taking in the 17th round, he made sure to also point out Tellez. Before long, he was on the 2013 draft prospect circuit with some buzz.
Heading into his senior year of high school, Tellez was viewed as one of the top prep power hitters in 2013 draft, considered possible first-round material. But there were concerns about his defence and, more importantly, his body, as the 220 pounds he carried on his 6-4 frame were far from chiselled.
The Blue Jays, who knew Tellez better than any other team thanks to Brown, shared the concerns about him. And with Anthopoulos emphasizing two-way players at the top of the draft, they didn’t have him in their plans. That obviously left Brown in an awkward spot, which led him to have a talk with the family.
“I tried to cut the cord early, and say ‘Hey man, the Blue Jays, we aren’t on you, we don’t want a one-trick pony,’” he says. “I think he was a little hurt, but he understood. I told him, ‘I’ve got to do what’s best for the Toronto Blue Jays and you’ve got to do what’s best for Rowdy Tellez.’”
On the first day of the draft, the Tellez family gathered at home to watch events unfold, fielding calls from interested teams. The first round came and went with nothing but the Seattle Mariners calling before the second round with an offer around $1 million that Rowdy, who had a commitment at USC, accepted. But when the Mariners turn came up at No. 49, they selected Austin Wilson, an outfielder from Los Angeles, instead.
“I was crushed,” says Tellez. “I just sat there and stared at the TV. I was like, ‘Are you serious?’”
The Mariners called to explain that they had Wilson up higher on their board but wanted to take him in the third round, at a lower price, an offer he declined. The Giants, Reds and Phillies called, too, seeing if they could get him at a discount. No dice. Distraught, Tellez called USC baseball coach Dan Hubbs and told him he was coming to school.
Brown, meanwhile, quietly began pounding the table for the Blue Jays to take Tellez on the draft’s third day, just in case they had some money to work with.
Before the draft restarted, he sent a text to Dana Brown, a special assistant to Anthopoulos.
“‘Hey, let’s grab this guy, he’ll make us look good,’” Brown recalls. “Next thing you know, I get a text back that says, ‘We’re going to take him.’”
The Blue Jays finally called his name in the 30th round, long after the family had given up on the draft.
“He was so excited, he was crying, I was a bit teary-eyed just because I knew how hard he worked,” says Brown. “All he said, was ‘Thank you, thank you for drafting me. When do I leave?’”
It wasn’t nearly that simple.
The 2013 draft was Major League Baseball’s second under a system that restricted the signing bonuses teams could hand out to an allotted pool number. Players selected beyond the 10th round could be paid a maximum of $100,000, with any overage counting against a team’s pool. A sliding scale penalized teams for exceeding their allocation, first in a dollar-for-dollar tax and eventually in draft picks.
That meant several things had to go right for the Blue Jays to be able to sign the slugger for the money he was seeking — a figure far in excess of $100,000.
When Tellez reported to Dunedin, Fla., for the physicals every draft pick underwent, he got his first hint that things might break his way. Right-hander Clinton Hollon, the club’s second round pick, needed Tommy John surgery. He and every pick behind from rounds 3-10 – a crop of players that included Matt Boyd, Conner Greene, Kendall Graveman and Chad Girodo – ended up signing for well below their spot’s assigned value, creating an extra $1.773 million in signing spending room.
That created all sorts of flexibility for Brian Parker, the Blue Jays’ amateur scouting director at the time. He thought it was important to take players with signability issues later in the draft and selected several of them that year, including Tellez, Jake Brentz, fellow lefty Eric Lauer and righty Dane Dunning.
“It gives you more options as the signing deadline approaches should something change or money becomes available,” explains Parker. “Rowdy was someone we knew we wanted to make a run at if we had some money left at the deadline.”
The options came in handy when first-round pick Phil Bickford, a high-school right-hander, failed his physical due to a shoulder issue (he also reported for the exam with his left arm in a cast). As the signing deadline approached, it became apparent that Lauer and Dunning were going to school (both ended up first-round picks in 2016), leaving Brentz and Tellez as the main targets.
As the final negotiations played out, Tellez sat anxiously on the family room couch with his laptop, picking out courses at USC, trying to distract himself from what was happening.
“The Blue Jays called and were like, ‘OK, $750,000.’ My agent hung up the phone, didn’t say a word and I’m like, ‘What? I’m ready to go, I’m going.’ A couple minutes later, they shot up to our number, my agent goes, ‘Deal.’”
They settled at $850,000 while Brentz signed for $700,000 and eventually became part of the 2015 trade deadline deal for reliever Mark Lowe. Tellez jumped up, his computer smashing into the ceiling – “I wasn’t even worried about it,” he says – and then hugged his dad, crying together.
Phone calls followed to Rod Miller, his first baseball coach, his high school coach and to Brown, who was on his way over to the house.
“He pulled up, he got out of the car and we started crying,” says Tellez.
Amid the excitement, Brown made sure to put the situation in context.
“I’ve never cut him any slack, so I said, ‘At the end of the day, you’re a 30th-rounder,’” says Brown. “He looks at me and says, ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ I said, ‘Man, that means nobody is going to give this to you.’ He was like, ‘I got you. I understand.’”
Rowdy, once he starts hitting, he’ll rely on his bat and think it’s going to take him to the promised land. I tell him ‘You’re a 30th-rounder dude, that’s who you are.’ He goes, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’m going to be the best 30th-rounder to ever come out of the Major League Baseball draft.’ He spun it into a positive.’”
Brown’s words and the entire draft process have coloured Tellez’s approach each day since he signed. Knocked for his defence, he’s worked relentlessly to improve with his glove. Knocked for his body, he changed his diet and transformed his physique.
Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro learned of his dedication when two years ago he sent Tellez an early morning text from Toronto, and got an immediate response from out west despite the three-hour time difference. He was already en route to the gym.
These days, Brown and Tellez talk less and text more. It might be about where his hands are at the plate. Or what’s happening with his lower half. Or about a pattern he’s noticed in how teams are pitching him he’s picked up from the notebook he keeps on his at-bats. Or maybe, it’s just about life.
“Without him I don’t think I’d be in the shoes I’m in,” says Tellez.
His parents see fate in the chance first encounter at the Laguna diamond and their subsequent connection despite their initial misgivings.
“With Dee he knows he’s going to get it real, and Dee’s not going to sugarcoat it. He’s been a really great thing for Ry,” says Lori, fighting back tears. “I didn’t care for him in the beginning, but I love that guy. He truly has made a big difference for Ry and is a big part of Ryan’s success. We’re a little bit. But Dee is a huge part of it.”
And Rowdy is beyond grateful to Brown, for everything.
“He was more than a coach, he was a dad to me, someone I could lean on,” he says, his eyes watering. “He was my best friend and he still is, after all we’ve been through.”