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.
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?
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.
In this world of ours, though, it’s tough to find any moment which is truly unspoiled. It seems 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.