Surely it was a surprising development when Pirates outfielder Xavier Paul agreed to sign with the Brisbane Bandits of the Australian Baseball League this season. But his agent dotted the I's and crossed the T's, and Brisbane rolled out the red carpet for Paul to make his debut last week.
Paul was as surprised as anyone to hear this news. He had been sold to Brisbane by a stranger, a minor-league castoff posing as his agent. The Courier-Mail reports on the elaborate scheme by one Breland Brown, career baseball driftwood, with the end goal of getting himself a job.
Brown, who most recently got a look and a "no, thanks" from the Diamondbacks minor league system, used email, text messages, and phone calls to carry on lengthy negotiations with the ABL. Pretending to be Paul's agent, he promised Paul to Brisbane under surprisingly affordable terms, but with one proviso: another American player named Breland Brown would need to be offered a contract as well. That was no big roadblock for league officials, who handle all international contracts. Ben Foster, the ABL's head of baseball operations, told the Courier-Mail that they never even considered the possibility they could be getting scammed.
"He went to extreme and extraordinary lengths to defraud and manipulate the system (to) try (to) get the opportunity to play out here ... it could have come straight out of a Hollywood movie script. There were multiple levels of deception and misleading information that was provided to us."
Paul, who was let go by the Dodgers before being picked up by Pittsburgh, will have to win an MLB job in spring training. (That's the regular baseball spring, not the Southern Hemisphere spring in the fall.) But it's Breland Brown who's the fascinating one.
There are thousands of young men who dream of making a living playing baseball, but aren't quite good enough to do it. They bounce around from New Hampshire to Indiana to Montana, just trying to catch on somewhere. But where the usual washout might eventually go home, marry a girl he went to high school with, and get a real-estate license, Brown showed more initiative.
In 2007 he came out of Northeast Mississippi Community College, no baseball hotbed, and the minor leagues did not come a-calling. His only option appears to have been overseas, and Brown signed with a team in Germany's domestic league. His main attributes, touted by a league that gets close to zero international recognition? He was American, and he had attended an Otis Nixon baseball camp.
That deal broke down under mysterious circumstances. A week later, the German team sent out a terse release announcing they had terminated Brown's contract, saying only that "he made additional unreasonable demands after signing an agreement." Brown then dropped off the map for a year, moving with his family to Harvey, La.
In 2009, he tried to catch on in Independent Baseball, getting a total of 39 at-bats in the Frontier League and Can-Am League. He hit .167.
2010 saw Brown's big break, when he signed a minor-league contract with the Giants organization. Later in the year he signed with the Yankees, and became a brief blog footnote for his outspoken Twitter account. He notably tweeted photos of his contract, and later himself in full Yankee gear. The Yankees had been his favorite team growing up, he said. He never received more than a tryout, though he did tell his hometown newspaper he had two endorsement deals. He declined to specify what they were.
This past summer, Brown finally got the chance to play affiliated minor-league ball. So he shut down his odd, philosophy-light Tumblr, and joined the Diamondbacks' rookie league team in Missoula. He hit .171 and was released a month later.
No one yet knows what was in Breland Brown's mind when he ran the long con with the Australian Baseball League, though MLB has launched an investigation. It's possible, probable, that Brown was out of options and saw his only chance to play baseball was half a world away.
"Sharing this with my family, especially my grandfather, is a blessing," he told a reporter once. "I want to leave my mark on the game like Jackie Robinson did. I feel life isn't worth living if don't make an impact on another person's life."
A roaring success, then: He sold a man he'd never met to Australia.