The Perfect Screwball, Tom Browning
"I grew up a Reds fan, so I was Dodgers hater. I didn’t need any extra motivation to pitch against the Dodgers. "
Considering the state of the world we’re living in now, it’s hard to imagine a time when everyone in the country agreed on something. That’s what happened thirty years ago this fall when the whole world knew the A’s would trounce the Reds in the 1990 World Series; and wouldn’t you know it, the whole world was wrong.
The Oakland A’s were expected to waltz to a repeat title over the Cincinnati Reds, a team many didn’t see as a playoff team going into the season. Things didn’t quite happen that way and when the Reds swept the A’s to win their first World Series in the post-Big Red Machine era, it was billed as a David vs. Goliath story as big as baseball had seen in recent times.
Thirty years later, maybe it’s time to reconsider that notion.
Tom Browning, the ace of the 1990 Reds, joins BallNine for this week’s edition of Spitballin’.
Browning made arguably the biggest start for the Reds that season when he took the mound in Game 2 of the NLCS against the Pirates in a series that dripped of 70s nostalgia.
The Bucs beat Jose Rijo in Game 1 and had Doug Drabek ready to start Game 2. Drabek had just won 22 games and would go on to win the Cy Young Award after the series.
The Reds countered with Browning, and if they would have gone down 2-0 at home, their chances of making the World Series were dim.
Browning matched Drabek pitch-for-pitch and the Reds squeaked out a 2-1 win.
The win spurred the Reds on a run in which they won seven of the next eight postseason games to capture the World Series; a buzzsaw that left fans’ mouths agape.
Looking back, the Reds should have gotten more credit.
CIRCA 1990: Tom Browning #32 of the Cincinnati Reds pitches
They were the first National League team to lead a division wire-to-wire in the 162-game era and then disposed of a 95-win Pirates team in six games in the NLCS. They were in the top three in the National League in most pitching and hitting categories and they had some of the toughest, ballsiest players of the era on the roster.
Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin was already a star and Eric Davis was perhaps the most exciting player in the league when he was healthy. You couldn’t find more competitive players than Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton, Randy Myers and Paul O’Neill and Billy Hatcher had proven his clutch in the ’86 NLCS. Glenn Braggs was one of the strongest players in baseball and Chris Sabo was… Chris Sabo. Then they had Lou Piniella in his first season as manager to stir it all up.
The veteran in all of this was Browning, who was just 30 years old. But with everyone in the starting lineup and rotation in their 20s, that’s what happens. Browning was an old school pitcher with a mentality fit for the game’s Golden Era. He was known as the fastest worker in the game, relying on rhythm and a lefty screwball that at times, was right there with Hubbell and Valenzuela.
Browning made his bones pitching in a four-man rotation and led the league in starts four times. He was dependable, fiery and pitched with guts. He was the guy you wanted on the mound with the season on the line and it paid off for the 1990 Reds, a team that deserves more credit than just being a fun Cinderella story.
Tom Browning’s career isn’t defined by one game or one postseason though. If you were a fan of National League baseball in that era, you hoped your team missed him in a series, but they never did. Browning became just the 12th pitcher to throw a perfect game in 1988. He was just the third National League pitcher to throw one in the modern era and he almost became the first to have two perfect games a year later when he lost a bid in the ninth. He also lost a no-hitter in the ninth earlier in the 1988 season.
Browning was the starting pitcher in the game when Pete Rose passed Ty Cobb; he suffered one of the more gruesome pitching injuries you’ll ever see and improbably fought his way back to the Majors. He once left Wrigley Field in the middle of a game to sit with fans, in uniform, on the rooftops on Sheffield Avenue. Browning was the first rookie in over 30 years to win 20 games in 1985 and was in the middle of the famous Mets-Reds brawl in 1986. And when it was all said and done, he was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame alongside Tom Seaver and Lee May, two boyhood heroes, in 2006.
He just might be The Most Interesting Man in the World, or at least the Cincinnati Reds version of him. That gives us a lot to cover as we go Spitballin’ with Tom Browning.
Browning sitting on top of the world
Thanks for joining us for this week’s Spitballin’ Mr. Browning. We also did some work with David Wells, so we now have two perfect game pitchers profiled on BallNine. What are you up to these days?
I’m living in Northern Kentucky, only about 20 minutes from downtown Cincinnati. I still work with the Reds. I coached for ten or 11 years then my wife got sick and I had to step away. I still go down to the stadium and make appearances there and do speaking engagements. I also have six grandkids living with me ranging from 17 down to two. Two of them are pretty active in baseball. So, I’m busy.
Since you’re still involved with the Reds, what were you thinking watching them go through the labor negotiations?
It brought back memories for sure. The owners and players always went at each other. When we got free agency back in ’76, arbitration and all the things that came with it, I think there was a time when the owners were trying to take some of that back or at least back off the acceleration of the salaries. In my day, when you made $3 million dollars you were one of the top paid players, now that’s below average. The negotiations though were typical. I can tell you that the players really did want to play. They don’t want to sit around. The fans want to see some baseball. I’m glad it worked out and I’m excited to see what this 60-game sprint is; it’ll go in the blink of an eye.
Same here. It’ll be interesting to see if teams choose to play a little differently and I guess mostly anyone can win if they just get hot. How do you think the Reds look this year?
I’m hoping they get off to a great start and get into the playoffs. I’m excited. I think our pitching staff is pretty solid. We probably have six guys who can make the rotation. The bullpen seems like it’s been solidified, and I think when young kids get a year of experience under their belt, they come back that much better. There were some high hopes with the team when we started spring training before the shutdown. Some think it could be a championship caliber team. We’re gonna find out real fast.
When you pitched you were one of those guys who had to be dragged off the mound. A tough guy who answered the bell start after start, not afraid to pitch inside. Who on the Reds reminds you of that style?
I like Luis Castillo. He’s a tough one. I like Sonny Gray; I think he’s the best athlete of the starters. Obviously, you have Trevor Bauer who wants to pitch every other day. He wants to do everything that he can, I like that. I pitched in a four-man rotation, I have some history in that and I’m a big believer in it. It’s a matter of having four guys that can fit into that program. If you got a good number one and number two, you’ll see them six out of ten games in a four-man rotation and I’d like our chances. I like Tyler Mahle, Wade Miley came over as well. We got a solid rotation. I like the makeup of these guys. I get to hang around them at Redsfest and things like that, so I get to feel their energy. I usually go to spring training and get a feel for what it’s all about.
We always feel like we have a chance when we broke camp, so I don’t think this year’s any different. They have some good players too. They brought in Moustakas and Akiyama from Japan and I just like what we’ve done. I think they’re tired of losing and I’m looking forward to it. Even though it’s a 60-game sprint, I’m looking forward to every game.
Pitching has changed so much from when you were in the Majors. There are more precautions for pitchers and better care, yet we still see so many arm injuries. You pitched in an “old school” era and coached during this new era. What are your thoughts on the evolution of pitching?
Well, the guys are throwing harder now. They’re taxing that arm and I can see why they run out of bullets by the fifth inning. Our job back in the 80s and early 90s was to take our team as late in the game as possible with the opportunity to win. If you do that often enough, the wins take care of themselves. I loved throwing complete games; I think that’s the greatest feather you could put in your cap as a starter.
We were always taught to throw as hard as you could as long as you could still throw strikes. That means you have to leave a little left in the tank. When I coached, I always told my guys to leave a little left in the tank. Get in your rhythm, I called it getting in that rocking chair, you’re just nice and steady and pounding the zone with command. Instead of trying to throw it 95, you could throw it 92 and hit the spot where you want it.
Even in spring training. My first year in big league camp, they told me to throw live BP. I had no idea what that was, so Dave Parker came and put his arm around me. He’s about 6’6” so when he puts his arm around you, you’re looking up at him. He said, “Listen kid, this is as much for us as it is for you, so don’t try to get us out. You throw strikes and get command and we’ll do our thing. It’ll get us ready” I did that my whole career. It’s different now; pitchers try to get the hitters out every time. They don’t work their way up into season-form like we used to. These guys are cutting it loose from the first day, so I understand why people get hurt.
You were still coaching when some of this started to come into the game. How did you adjust as a coach?
I like some of it, but I want guys to figure out what they’re all about. I don’t want to have them thinking they have to lean on statistics. I don’t want them to have to lean on something off the field. I want them to do whatever they need to do between starts so when that fifth day shows up, they’re at the top condition ready to take the ball. Teaching these guys routines is important. Bullpens are different now. There’s a bullpen count now. You have to throw so many hard ones here, so many sliders there.
It doesn’t matter what statistics you’re throwing out there, the hitter is going to be the barometer. The hitter is going to tell you what you got on any day. It’s going out there and figuring out what you’re all about. Velocity has kind of taken over. Spin rate, Rapsodo, you could bring all the stuff in that you want, but you still gotta go back to the hitter and he’ll tell you what you got. I think some of the new stuff has merit, but I don’t think it should be the only thing used.
But the radar gun lights up the world. Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux were the guys in my day. Roger had four pitches he had command of and was a workhorse. Same with Greg. Those were the guys I enjoyed watching because they just carved up lineups. Roger had that great fastball, but Greg could carve up a team pretty easily too.
Is finding that balance between the old school and new school approach the ideal solution?
I think we’re still always trying to improve the game. We’re trying to use computer models and data, but there is always a human element that will always be a part of this. The game is still the same, pitching and defense will win you championships. But there are now more Harvard guys, brainiacs, than guys who played the game running things. I think the guys themselves like to hear from former players as coaches. They like to hear about the struggles and successes, they can relate to them. I feel like if you buy into the statistics too much, you lose that. But that’s where we are today.
So, onto your career with the Reds. You were drafted in the ninth round out of the NAIA and also played at LeMoyne in Syracuse. How did you get on the radar of the Reds?
Yes, I was picked in the ninth round out of Tennessee Wesleyan. I was at LeMoyne and we went out to the College World Series my junior year. I went out to California and thought I was going to get drafted, so I didn’t pay attention to my scholastics. They wanted me to go to summer school, but I wanted to go play summer ball somewhere, so I did that instead. Then I ended up at Tennessee Wesleyan. I beat Kentucky and Tennessee pitching for an NAIA school and when we beat Kentucky, I think I struck out like 15 of them. The coach, Keith Madison, who has since become a good friend of mine, put a call into the Reds and they came. They drafted me in the ninth round and offered me $3,500, I asked for $5,000. They said $3,500 take it or leave it. I said, I’ll take it.
That’s great. Then it took you just a couple of seasons before you made your Major League debut in 1984.
I was lucky. The Reds were rebuilding after dismantling The Big Red Machine. I went to the Instructional League and I learned a screwball from a guy by the name of Harry Dorish, who used to pitch for the Red Sox. He taught it to me and told me to just to stay with it. So, for three weeks I just got my brains beat in. Then all of a sudden, I got command of the screwball, which was really a changeup. The next year I got through A ball and AA in one year. The next year I was in AAA. I actually could have made the club. They wanted me to be a reliever, but Bob Howsam, the General Manager, said that I was going to AAA to be a starter, which was fine.
I did well and got called up at the end of the year. Lucky for me, Mario Soto’s wife went into labor, so I got his start in LA. As a September callup, you’re just hoping that you get a chance to pitch sometime. I actually got a start and took a shutout into the ninth inning. That got me two more starts in September. At that time, I was wearing number 54 and when I came to spring training the next year and I got number 32, so I thought, “Hey, I got an inside track to make this club!”
You made the rotation out of spring training and then went on to become the first Major League rookie to win 20 games in 30 years. Tell us about that first season.
That year Jim Kaat was pitching coach, his only year as a coach, and he liked the four-man rotation. We broke camp with just nine pitchers, four starters and five relievers. We started the first two months on three days rest. Mario Soto was dealing, but he got a little tender, so we stopped it for a while. Then we went on strike for two days. I was making $42,000 that year, rookie salary. We went on strike and they raised the rookie salary to $60,000 so I got a $14,000 check. After the strike was over, Pete [Rose] came over to me and said I was pitching the rest of the year on three-days rest. I went 15-3 in those 18 starts.
I liked the four-man rotation because we were throwing every other day. Throw in a game, take a day off, throw on the side, take a day off, throw in a game. Your habits get consistent when you do that. But you have to have the guys who can handle that. Most guys want that extra day. To me, it didn’t make any difference. I liked it. I didn’t have to throw heavy bullpens, just a little to stay loose. Back in the old days they used to throw batting practice between starts.
You’re known for a lot of things throughout your career, but your biggest individual accomplishment was probably your perfect game. At the time it was just the 10th perfect game of the modern era and the third ever NL perfect game. Can you talk about that a little?
It was the only one on Astroturf too! I don’t think any pitcher goes into a start thinking they’ll pitch a no-hitter or a perfect game for that matter. It was against the Dodgers and we were still in the pennant race, but almost eliminated. I grew up a Reds fan, so I was Dodgers hater. I didn’t need any extra motivation to pitch against the Dodgers. I got to the ninth inning and I couldn’t feel my legs, but I was pretty calm on the inside. I just really wanted to throw strikes. Tracy Woodson was the last out and I knew how to get him out, I just had to get him to two strikes. Once I got him to two strikes, I was coming up and in because he likes swinging at that and most of the time, he couldn’t catch up to it.
I never considered myself as someone who has the stuff to throw a perfect game, but I almost did it twice. It was just an awesome evening. Timmy Belcher, who I ended up beating, became a very good friend of mine. He took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, so the first five innings took about 45 minutes. It was the only one in Reds history too, so I certainly get a lot of accolades. I get the name, “Mr. Perfect,” and that’s a hard moniker to live up to. The game was almost rained out actually. I thought we were gonna play a doubleheader the next day and I was just sitting at my locker getting undressed at about 9:30. Grounds crew guy came in and said we had a window starting at 10pm, so I was nice and relaxed anyway. The Dodgers didn’t bring their hitting shoes that day.
Buried in all of that, you mentioned that you almost threw two perfect games. You would have been the only player to ever do that. Does that stick with you?
Yea, because I was foolish. But everybody on that Philadelphia team that game hit line drives that everyone caught. I remember walking into the dugout in the seventh inning. Lenny Dykstra hit a rocket up the middle leading off the inning and I somehow got my glove in the way and caught it. Then a couple diving plays after that. I walked in and Pete was looking at me. I thought, “Don’t even ask.” I figured I could keep throwing strikes. In the ninth, Dickie Thon led off and I tried to trick him with a first-pitch changeup and he just hit a bullet to right center field to break it up. To do one was cool, I would have loved to been able to do two, but it wasn’t in the cards.
You had some other great moments to in the Majors, can you take us through a few of those?
I almost pitched a no-hitter earlier in ’88. I had walked Tony Gwynn three times, but then he broke it up in the ninth. I pitched five complete games in a row in ’89 and then Pete got kicked out of baseball. Then we come back home and I’m winning 1-0 in the ninth. I ended up getting taken out of the game going for six. Tommy Helms took me out. That was the only time I didn’t want to come out of a game when they took me out. But he was the manager and I respected the manager, so if he stuck his hand out, I had to put the ball in it.
I pitched the night Pete broke the hits record. I hit a double in that game too. I ride him now because he took me out in the ninth inning and he took me out with a four-hit shutout. He said, “I gotta win this game.” I said, “You don’t think I’m trying?” He said, “Just give me the ball.”
Just being able to start that historic game is incredible and you were just a young kid. What was that like?
Pete tied the record in Chicago and all our starters start looking at the schedule. Ronnie Robinson had the next start and I had the second start. We all wanted it to be on the night that we pitched, and I was just fortunate that I was the guy. He got the hit, they brought out a car and I had to sit around for a while. Afterwards, I said to Pete, “Man, you had me sit around for 45 minutes while they brought out the car, you could have at least given me one more hitter.” It was a full house, just like opening day. Packed house, all cameras going off. It was really cool. To see Pete’s reaction when he got the hit when he started thinking about his dad. Then his boy goes out there; it was a cool scene. One of the last great ones he got to enjoy.
You got to be Pete Rose’s teammate and played for him when he managed. What are your thoughts about Pete’s legacy?
He was such a pro. When he would hit, he would come back in the dugout and he’d see where he made contact on his bat. He always kept his bats clean. That was his routine. He was baseball. You could talk to him about anything. We used to love rain delays because Davey [Concepcion], Pete and [Ken] Griffey would tell Big Red Machine stories. But Pete, Johnny Bench, Lee May, Joe Morgan, those were all idols of mine. I got to watch them as kids and then I got to call them friends and a few of them I called teammates. It was really cool.
I don’t know about the Hall of Fame for Pete though. I sure hope so. It’s hard to say with the way the world is today. Are we doing him a disservice, or did he deserve to be banished? I think he’s responsible for his actions and he suffered the consequences for it. Then the Commissioner dies of a heart attack and I think that is still there. He was a three-pack-a-day smoker, but he still died right after the investigation. That was just a real tough thing.
You didn’t grow up anywhere near Ohio, so how did you become a Reds fan?
Well, in the early 1970s, I was a bowler and I bowled every Saturday with the Junior Bowlers. We started at 11 our time, which was 1pm Eastern Time. That was when the Game of the Week aired. We used to watch This Week in Baseball and then they played the game. In the fall, which was when I bowled, the Reds were always on TV because they were always in a pennant race, so I got to watch them quite a bit. My favorite player was Cesar Geronimo, left-handed centerfielder. That’s what I wanted to be.
I actually saw my very first Major League game in Canada. I saw the Reds play the Expos. I saw Steve Rogers against Tom Seaver. Joe Morgan hit a sac fly in the 14th inning to score Pete Rose for the win. I think it was about the 37th game in that 44-game hitting streak for Pete. We worked our way down to the dugout after the game and said, “Nice game, Mr. Rose.” He said, “Thanks, fellas.” Seven years later I’m his teammate and I get to tell him the story, that’s pretty cool when you think about it. He didn’t really care though. He just kinda grumbled, he was thinking about hitting or something. Once he had a uniform on, he was just all baseball. I enjoyed him.
OK, now onto the 1990 World Series as we’re coming up on the 30-year anniversary. For fans, can you express just how big of an underdog you were to the A’s?
Well, one preview came out and they had the big A’s all over the cover and the little Reds in the corner. That’s how big of an underdog we were. We were a pretty confident team though. I remember hearing a story about Willie McGee because he got traded over to Oakland from the National League that year. He said, “Listen, these guys can play, you better be ready.” We had Jose Rijo and at the time he was the best pitcher in baseball. He was just unhittable at the time and he got two of those four wins. We were confident, but we were real young. I don’t know if we had a chance to get nervous because we were too young and didn’t know what we were supposed to do.
I know one thing. We had our hitting shoes on, and our bullpen was awesome. Starters, all we had to do was go out there and turn it over to Randy [Myers], [Rob] Dibble and Norm [Charlton]. We had a lot of fun. It was such a great bunch of guys.
I’m sure the A’s were pretty confident. They had won in ’89 with the earthquake and they were back with a great team. But we had a really good year too. I think how we handled the Pirates and winning was great because we were evenly matched. That was a great series too. When we won that series, we were full of confidence.
Speaking of the NLCS, you probably had the biggest start in Game 2. The Pirates beat Rijo Game 1 and had Doug Drabek for Game 2. Did you feel like the series was on the line there?
That game was in Cincinnati and it started at three o’clock. At three o’clock in Cincinnati, the sun comes through those little slots in the stadium and the sun was in my eyes. If a guy hit a ball up the middle the first few innings, I never saw it. They called it “The Affair in the Glare.” Eric Davis and Paul [O’Neill] played great. Paul threw out Van Slyke at third base when we were up 2-1.
We just made all the defensive plays and then the Nasty Boys came in and closed the deal. We just really needed to win that game and those guys stepped up for me. I was able to get them through six, which to me was not enough. I always wanted to go at least seven because that meant they wouldn’t have to go through the whole lineup again.
Growing up a Mets fan in the 80s, lefties were always tough on them and I never liked to see you in a series. I have to ask about those great Mets teams of the late 80s.
Back in the late 80s, going into Shea Stadium, that place was awesome. Those Mets fans were terribly brutal. “Hey Browning, you suck,” and all that stuff, much worse. But they loved their Mets. It was an awesome place to play. But yea, I got lucky against them a few times. I remember that Howard Johnson was like 2-for-40 against me but one of them was a grand slam.
I enjoyed playing against the Mets. We had a big donnybrook over here in ’86 with Ray Knight and Eric Davis. That was incredible. I went out there and I was on top of Kevin Mitchell. That was until he got tired of having me there, so he just peeled me off. That was awesome. Everybody going after everybody. Gary Carter, John Denny. Ray Knight and his boxing career.
We didn’t like the Mets because they were cocky, and they were good. They had great players. Keith Hernandez might have been the best first baseman I ever seen. He could do a lot of things. I never saw someone cover bunts like that. You just didn’t bunt it to him, you bunted it to someone else. Carter, I didn’t like him, but he was a great guy to have on your team. That was a good team to play against. And that Tim Teufel, he wore me out. I think he hit a double every time he came up against me.
Browning, Lee May and Tom Seaver being inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame
After your career you get inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame. As someone who grew up a Reds fan, what did that mean to you?
Other than my kids being born, that was the greatest moment of my life. I went in with Tom Seaver and Lee May. So, all those Big Red Machine guys I mentioned, I got a red coat like all of them. Got my name embroidered, “Made especially for Tom Browning.” It was an awesome honor. I don’t think you ever think about accolades until you’re done and even then, I don’t think you think much about them. I just enjoyed the success. I was OK with not getting all of the notoriety.
Perfect example, I threw the perfect game on a Friday night. David Hartman from Good Morning America wanted me to be on TV on Monday. I was excited to be on national TV. I had to get there at five o’clock in the morning and I was scheduled for 6:05. They ran a little late and I got on at 6:08 and by 6:08 and 35 seconds, I was done. I spent 45 minutes getting there and an hour waiting for a 35 second interview. That was OK, it’s fun. I miss it and it goes by so fast. I tell people I would do it all over again without any guarantees because it was such a fun ride.
It absolutely sounds like it was. I thank you for joining us for this week’s Spitballin’, that 90s Reds team was one of the most memorable World Series winners of my youth watching the game. Congrats on the 30 year anniversary. As we leave, is there anything you’d like to say to the BallNine fans?
I enjoy the game to this day, and I try to watch as many Reds games as I can. The game has changed a little bit and I think the money has a lot to do with that. It has changed the outlook. Now you have all these ways to analyze everything in the game of baseball. Really though, if you want to know how your pitchers are doing, the hitters will let them know.