(Throughout my life, I have collected and kept “things” from times that I have spent at Crosley Field, Riverfront Stadium and Great American Ballpark. But few compare to the framed stories that I wrote covering Tom Browning’s perfect game and the day that Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s record)
I can still remember the night that Tom Browning threw the only “Perfect Game” in the history of the most historic baseball franchise in the history of the Major League Baseball.
It was late into the 1988 season — a soggy Sept. 16 — when the Reds were scheduled and supposed to play the Los Angeles Dodgers in what was soon-to-be just another game for the Cincy squad. The Reds were about to break a record of 4 straight seasons with a losing record, but were still poised to finish 7 games behind the West Division-leading and eventual champion Dodgers.
A crowd of 16,591 was announced as the attendance. But after awhile there were a whole lot more raindrops than people on the seats.
For nearly 21/2 hours, the game was delayed by a constant and consistent rain that turned the old Riverfront Stadium artificial turf into a miniature pond that looked more suitable for skiing on that playing baseball. The “Zamboni” carpet sweeper was going to get a workout this night, if the players were not. That was the only thing for sure.
Two friends of mine from my hometown of Midway, KY, travelled to the game with me that night. Lloyd Jones and Donald Mitchell — two lifelong baseball buds and former Little League and Adult Softball teammates — wanted to go. So, I got them tickets in the grandstands.
For the entire length of the rain delay we sat; ate a few hot dogs; probably a cup of ice cream or two, that was spilled into a miniature, plastic helmet; and, perhaps, splashed down a Hudepohl or two.
We swapped stories of yesteryear and occasionally wondered aloud if this game would ever be played or not. And, we waited. And, waited. And, waited.
By the time the teams appeared for pre-game warmups, I really thought it would be too late for me to make any deadline for the newspaper that night. So, I went to the press box and made a call to the sports desk and told them that I probably would not be submitting a story, after all. And, I returned to the stands. A cold one was waiting on the armrest.
But after three innings that lasted what seemed like three minutes, I looked to my pals and I said this, almost verbatim:
“I had better get back upstairs. I think Browning is going to throw a perfect game.”
I don’t profess to be a mystique or have super powers of being able to tell the future, but on that night I was right. But not as right as Tom Browning.
The man, who came closer to being like a pitching machine than any other thrower I had ever seen, was in a groove of masterful proportions. As soon as he receive the baseball back from catcher Jeff Reed, Browning was already on the pitching rubber and ready for the next delivery.
Time after time. Pitch after pitch. Throw after throw. Inning after inning.
Browning faced the first 26 Los Angeles Dodgers that night. He and his teammates retired the first 26 Los Angeles Dodgers that night.
Then, pinch hitter Tracy Woodson strolled to the plate. A huge man with a huge swing. Seemed like putty in Browning’s game of hide and seek with a baseball.
And, it was.
Browning struck him out. High fastball that missed a whirling bat by what appeared to be 3 feet.
Woodson tipped his hat. Reed and his teammates raced to the mound, where Browning had already tossed his hat and glove toward the heavens.
Browning had thrown the 12th perfect game in MLB history and the first and only one in the history of the Cincinnati Reds.
I was there. To see. To write. To admire. To celebrate, too.
All the writers raced to the clubhouse that night. We found Browning in his normal cubicle. His hair was drench with a cocktail mix of sweat and champagne. His smile was typically broad. His words, never carefully chosen, spilled like the bottles that were held over his head.
In his greatest moment — just minutes after his greatest athletic achievement ever — Tom Browning was typical Tom Browning and unlike some other professional athletes that occupied the same space.
He was kind. He was generous. He was gracious. He was calm. He was accessible. He was accommodating. He made time to answer each question, even though it may have been repeated several times. He made time for each reporter, even those that were employed by the small town newspapers and radio stations. He was Tom Browning.
That night I wrote the story of how Tom Browning had achieved perfection. I submitted it to the sports desk and they made sure it made the “Central Kentucky” and “City Editions,” thanks to Sports Editor extraordinary Mike Johnson.
And, for the entire road trip home,
Donald Mitchell, Lloyd Jones and I recanted how we had seen history in the making. We all vowed to keep the tickets. We all pledged to have them framed. To keep forever. Alongside the memories of fame.
The next day, I took flight to Cincinnati again. As soon as I entered the clubhouse, I went to see if Tom was there. Sure enough, he was sitting in the same spot where I had left him a few hours previous. He was cleaner. But he was the same.
I presented the printed copy of the story I had written for “The Lexington Herald-Leader” about his perfect game. Tom grabbed a black sharpie and wrote his name over the picture that accompanied the story.
“I didn’t sign over the by-line,” he said to be. “You want to make sure everybody sees that.”
I looked at Tom and I replied. “You could have signed it anywhere, my friend. I am just glad I got to see you pitch last night. I want to make sure everybody knows I got to see that.”
He laughed. And, nodded.
Before that night, Tom Browning and I had had gotten to be “friends” through relief pitcher Rob Murphy. Rob and I were great friends. Were then. Even better now.
After that night, we all hung out socially some. We would go to Barleycorns in Cincy, or another night club or two up at Mt. Adams. We would go to the Blind Lemon to hear Mike Reid play the piano. We would go get a bowl of Cincy’s famous chili.
The relationship between players and writers was so much different in those days. At least it was for me. For me, when the game was over, my job for the day was over. For me, when the guys offered an invitation to tag along and go get something to eat or drink, I tagged along. For me, there were no cell phones or hidden cameras. There were times to write, to be sure. But there were times to be friends, too.
We all had a job to do. We all respected that and the territory that those duties covered. We might not always agree, mind you. But we were able to not be disagreeable. Especially with each other.
Both Tom and I were in Rob’s first wedding. Got a few stories about the bachelor parties that shall always remain between friends.
Both Tom and I were teammates in a golf scramble or two, too. Got a few stories about those rounds, as well. Tucked away for a rainy day. So, to speak.
We didn’t see each other often, but when we did? Both Tom and I greeted each other with a salutations and a warm hug.
I am sure those hugs meant more to me than they did to Tom. But he gave a good effort.
On Monday, Dec. 19, I saw the news like most of you, too. Hard to believe that Tom Browning, at the age of 61, had passed away. Hard to grasp.
Harder to swallow.
Tom had a few demons that he fought along life’s way. No doubts. Like most of us, he wasn’t perfect in some of the choices he made or in some of the life decisions he picked for himself and others.
Life has a way of hitting the best splitter or the most deceiving slider.
But on one rainy night in September of 1988, Tom Browning was something that very few people ever get to experience or say.
He was perfect.
He faced 27 batters.
He and his teammates got 27 batters out.
And, after the game, he was a perfect gentleman and guest. To all. To every single one.
When the final obit is written, there are these things that I will remember most about this amazingly simple, yet complex man.
I will never forget that night.
I will never forget that man.
He was a great pitcher, especially on that night.
He was a greater friend and person, on most every night.
Go rest high on the mound in the middle of heaven’s diamond, my friend. Your work on Earth is done.