To a casual observer, George Mason University's Billy Brown looks a lot like any other baseball coach.
He worries constantly about his team, speaks in typically earthy baseball terms, spins a yarn with ease, analyzes every move on the field and chews a plug of tobacco that makes him look as if he has a case of the mumps.
But Brown is distinctly different from his counterparts in at least one respect: At 24, he is a virtual infant in baseball. In fact, Brown is the youngest head coach of any Division I (major college) baseball team in the country.
Such opportunities do not come about by accident. Brown is considered by some baseball followers to be one of the finest young minds in the game.
"He's a very bright young man, a true student of the game," says Walter Masterson, 61, a former major league pitcher who coached GMU for the past two seasons before resigning for personal reasons early last month. "He's well beyond a person of his age in terms of knowledge of the game."
Masterson encouraged GMU Athletic Director Robert Epskamp to hire Brown, who was working as an aide in the athletic department after a steady, if unspectacular, catching career in high school and college.
Brown played at Marshall High School in Falls Church from 1972 to 1975 and received a baseball scholarship to the University of Georgia. He played only a year at Georgia before transferring to Allegheny Community College in Cumberland, Md.
"Things didn't go too well for me (at Georgia)," Brown recalls. "(Baseball) just wasn't any fun."
Since Allegheny is only a two-year college, Brown spent just a year there, too, before transferring to George Mason in 1977, where he caught for two years under coach Hap Spuhler. But Brown credits Allegheny Coach Steve Bozarnic for reviving his enthusiasm for baseball.
"He's the guy who turned the game around for me and made it fun again," Brown said.
After graduating from George Mason in 1979, Brown stayed on as an aide to athletic director Eskamp. Last year, Brown became an assistant coach for the women's softball team and an aide to Masterson, who took over as head baseball coach when Spuhler resigned for health reasons in 1979.
Masterson recalls that Brown never missed a chance to improve his knowledge of baseball, often seeking out Masterson and quizzing him about the game.
"The thing that impressed me about Billy was that everything he asked was situation, situation, situation," Masterson recalls. "Very seldom do you find a youngster who asks what to do in different situations.
"That's what baseball is -- a game of situations and percentages that work in those situations. If you know the situation and the percentage, then you know when to do certain things."
Brown remembers "sitting down (with Masterson) for hours and talking about the game. Walt never came out and told me how to handle a situation. He'd let me think it through and then we'd talk some more about it."
Brown's brother Mike, 22, a minor league pitcher in the Boston Red Sox organization who has helped coach the GMU pitching staff this fall, remembers how his older brother helped him in his career.
"Billy always knew the game," says Mike. "I loved pitching to him. He was a senior at Marshall when I was a sophomore and that was my best season in high school. He knew right where I should pitch.
"I can still remember if I lost control he'd come out to the mound and get me under control. My eyes would get big and I'd listen to him. That's my brother."
That season Mike Brown won nine, lost none and had a nearly unheard of earned run average of 0.00.
Though he is only two years older than some of his players, Brown says he has encountered no negative reaction to his coaching during the fall baseball season, which ends late this month.
Centerfielder Mike Esser, a senior who played under Spuhler, Masterson and now Brown, says there have been no attempts to test the young coach and he doubts there will be.
"Billy keeps things moving smoothly and I think he knows a lot of baseball.
"We almost work harder now than when Walt was here, especially conditioning-wise. Billy works hard, is enthusiastic and he keeps us in the games. It's a comfortable atmosphere."