Tom Browning was (how odd to think of him in the past tense) one of the most recognizable members of the 1990 World Series team, and it wasn’t even for anything he did. It was for where he was. Most Reds fans remember the APB broadcast for him as Game 2 entered a nail-biting stage. He wasn’t in the dugout because he was headed to the hospital for the birth of his son. 

How ironic, then, that Tom Browning wound up in a Florida jail for non-payment of child support twenty years later. Nobody seems to know the details of that situation, and really, we don’t need them. It’s not our business. But when a man pitches a perfect game one decade and is charged with an OVI in a subsequent one, people are going to wonder what on Earth happened to the man.

What happened, probably, had happened to Tom Browning long before he was handcuffed. What happened is what seems to happen to 95% of the famous: The spoils of fame quickly become ruinous, and some understandably collapse beneath the weight of constant deference, the curiosity of millions, and no short supply of obsequious attention. 

Browning achieved an an atmospherically rare feat: In his career, he pitched a perfect game, and played on a World Championship team. The only man who can exceed that claim is Don Larsen, who in 1956 pitched a perfect game in the World Series. Possibly the worldwide attention that rushed upon Browning in the aftermath of his own perfect game is to blame; maybe, if he never touched a baseball in his life and made a quiet suburban living as a data entry specialist, he’d still live such a life which led to that jail cell.

But in the middle of a career that’s brushed up against artists, models, and Hall of Fame jockeys, I can tell you this: Every single person, with every single choice, can go one of two directions. Famous people, however– and the earlier the age at which the person becomes famous, the worse this is– stand before these crossroads with every evil thing in the world pushing at their backs to take the worse-for-humanity path. The rest of us don’t have ready access to barges of cocaine, an endless array willing romantic partners, and the money to buy both, so it’s certainly not for me to cast judgement. Heaven knows I’ve done my worst when there were few witnesses and far inferior temptation.

But how do athletes in this position concentrate at all? How many careers were shortened by these awfully shiny distractions? 

Why do we do this to ourselves– and the people we want to succeed the most?

In a way, the overdoses, multiple marriages, and suicides are a group project, for our celebrities command far too much societal bandwidth. And that wouldn’t be the case if we weren’t constantly asking them for autographs in the middle of the Starbucks line.

Fame tends to narrow a person to a single skill or attribute; every single model I have ever met staggers under a host of emotional and self-esteem problems, for when one is photogenic, there is little need to develop any skills at all. In Larson’s case, he wasn’t just immediately associated with his otherwise-middling baseball career, but a mere nine innings of it. His entire autobiography, in fact, “does little more than chronicle a single game.” 

On the very day Larsen threw his perfect game, his estranged wife filed for divorce and a court order landed in his locker, demanding a portion of his World Series take for child support.

“The imperfect man just pitched a perfect game,” sportswriter Dick Young reported.

Marty Brennaman, filmed today signing a “We’ll Miss You, Tom” banner, stood for a long, long time staring up at his “God Bless!” message. It’s easy to imagine him lost in memories and contemplation of the fleeting nature of life.

“Flawless tribute,” I thought as I watched this unfold.

Brennaman then backed up a few paces, and someone off-camera is heard saying, “All right, then you gotta walk away.” Then he did so.

Maybe Marty now has a director for his Instragram videos. Maybe it was a completely unrelated comment to someone else entirely. Or the Reds asked him to lead off and publicize this tribute with a semi-commercial, and it was arranged to offer a way for we the people to grieve and express our sorrow. And there is no doubt that Brennaman truly mourns the player turned minor league pitching coach. The fans certainly join him, as Browning clearly suffered in his final months and was long hailed as a fan-friendly team alum.

In this world of ours, though, it’s tough to find any moment which is truly unspoiled. It seems that artifice, vice, and commercialization are forever nibbling around the edges. And very often people aren’t who we want them to be, on camera or off.

So this why we cling to baseball: By the numbers, at least, it offers an eternal moment of perfection. It is not subject to fabrication, and it happens regardless of the morals of the man on the mound. And that is a greater grace than perhaps any of us deserve.

23 Responses

  1. LDS

    I’ve met many celebrities in my career, from the lesser to the legends, and with few exceptions, you wouldn’t want to live next door to many of them. Far too many people are defined by what they did, not who they are. It’s particularly sad when one’s life peaked in high school. Merry Christmas to you, the Pilot, and all who visit here to read RLN. [BTW, bandwidth is missing a “d”]

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Corrected (thank you, somehow that slipped past the spellcheck!) and Merry Christmas to you as well 🙂

  2. Melvin

    “But sometimes people aren’t who we want them to be, on camera or off. And that is why we cling to baseball: By the numbers, at least, it offers a fleeting moment of perfection”.

    I think most professional athletes have severe flaws in one way or another as people. Some more than others. Pete Rose is a prime example. However sports, for many people, are a way of escape from “the difficulties of life”. Concentrating on Tom Browning’s perfect game or Rose’s hits, etc. helps us feel better. If we focus too much on an individual and his personal life we will be disappointed to some degree or another no matter who it is.

    • LDS

      +1000 and it’s gotten worse with celebrities feeling the need to be political, virtue signal, etc. I tell my wife constantly to ignore the person and enjoy the performance.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      That’s a good point, Melvin. Maybe pro athletes are more prone to this behavior because their foibles are excused and certain facets of life smoothed over because of their unusual talent– and it all starts when they are quite young.

    • Jim t

      Melvin and LDS I understand the point you’re making but this morning I got to watch a 2 hour PBS special on Ali. His voice was one our country needed to hear. I am glad I got to hear his views. The life’s experiences he endured are worth hearing and were certainly of value to me.

      • Jim t

        Hoping even at RLN have a great holiday season.

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        Ali’s story is indeed truly American. A unique and incredibly talented individual.

  3. Jerry

    Wow, Mary Beth, petty gossip just doesn’t become you. You have written much better articles than this.

    • Gonzo Reds

      But it’s more entertaining than writing about the University of Cincinnati’s football recruiting class. 😉

      Merry Christmas everyone. Maybe Santa will bring us a new owner like the one that just bought the Phoenix Suns for billions. (nope we’re gonna get lots of coal instead)

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        Thanks for the good wishes, Gonzo. What a fall from one season to the next. Still, good wishes for a blessed season.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      No doubt I have, and I am glad you brought this up. I want to address the subject matter. I really hesitated to take this angle because, as I mentioned, I cannot know what this man has been experiencing, and I have myself fallen more than most. But the irony of being labeled “Mr. Perfect” with these moments in one’s past, without apparent redress, was too overwhelming.
      I would define gossip as “rumors that may or may not be true and are passed on due to their salacious nature with no attempt to check validity.” These events are verifiable, unlike various rumors that have long swirled along many members of this organization. And the contrast between these decisions and the potential perfection baseball offers instills hope and a sky-high standard. The prospect of something higher than ourselves–and achievable only when surrounded by teammates– is the star here, not an individual’s misdeeds. I apologize if I didn’t do a better job of bringing that forward.

      • Jerry Tracey

        Tom Browning was labeled Mr. Perfect for his performance in One baseball game. It is not a description of his live outside of his job as a pitcher. Perhaps Mr. Perfect Game, would be a better title, but a retelling of his mistakes in life off the field is none of our business, and of no interest to me.

  4. Mark Moore

    I’m with you again, MBE. I think a lot of it is fueled by a cultural bent to “get noticed” once you’ve been noticed at least once. I have a good friend who was the Hispanic chaplain for the Marlins. I reminded him that, once some of these guys make The Show, they are immediately surrounded by throngs of handlers and people from their past who they somehow believe they need in order to survive. It’s a difficult life and fleeting at best.

    Hope you and Josh have a great Christmas and thank you for constantly reminding us that Baseball is Life … at least for some of us.

    And a very Happy Holiday wish for all my friends out here in RLN land.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I know how messy I’ve voluntarily chosen to make my life, all while hurting others, and I did so as a complete nobody. I cannot imagine making these decisions on an international stage with every worldly comfort possible laid before me.

      Christmas blessings to you as well, my friend.

      • Ted

        Much respect to you for your transparency concerning your self inflicted issues in your life in such a public forum.
        Not an easy thing to do.

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        Thank you, sir. Indeed it’s the least I can do. I can’t take those decisions back, much as I’d like to, but I can be honest about the fact that they happened– that’s one of the best ways of avoiding making them again.

  5. Creigh Deeds

    I think its important to consider the whole person. Pete Rose was one of my heroes, growing up. He , like each of us, is a flawed person. That doesn’t diminish his performance on there field. He maximized his talents. The same can be said for Browning. As a high schooler, I wrote poetry about the BRM. Indeed, they were poetry on the field. The team that Pete built, that Lou Pinella inherited, and coaxed to greatness, also gave us a poetic vision. Tom Browning was a great baseball player. Like each of us, he was not perfect. Still, we thank him for his greatness as a Red. RIP. Thank you for the essay.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Well said. Sometimes we focus on the field output, but that makes us want to know the man who performs them, I’ve found. It’s wonderful that you were moved to write poetry by such powerful and epic teams. There’s a reason why most of the best sports writing is attributable to baseball. Excellent reminders– and I hope you hung on to those poems.

  6. Robert Bell

    Love the humble tone of this article. I have spent a lot of time with athletes in my 59 years on this ball. Have seen much behind what happens when the cameras are off. It is hard for many of them to live a balanced life. The greatest are usually recognized around 13-16 yrs. old. They live a life in a candy store where the candy is always free. I don’t blame Kobe, Tiger, Wilt, Magic, et al for their eating all the candy they can get their hands on. It is how their psyches are trained. I can’t blame the less famous athletes for their anomalous behaviors. They were all brought up in their teens and twenties in a strange world that few of us can appreciate. The true marvel is the Garret Andersons of baseball or the AC Greens of basketball. How they could keep their head down and focus on their craft without ever nibbling on the candy. I saw how those men behaved on the road (where most of the shenanigans happen) I don’t think I could have done it. Massive respect for those who did and do. Merry Christmas.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Many thanks for your kind and perceptive comment. You see where I was trying to come from. In my limited exposure to players when I worked at the HOF, I saw behind the curtain, and it sometimes wasn’t pretty. But sometimes it was inspiring and encouraging, as some of these men were class acts! Sean Casey was one of the few who seemed to be exactly who I thought he would be.

      You are indeed correct that it is almost superhuman to rise above being handed everything a boy or girl could want at a dangerous age. Bless those who figure out how rise above. Merry Christmas and the very best of New Years to you.