From The Vault: To Reds fans, Tom Browning was practically perfect in every way

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WATCH Tanya O'Rourke interview Tom Browning in 2008 on the 20th anniversary of his perfect game above.

CINCINNATI - Tom Browning is known in Reds Country as Mr. Perfect, but another nickname could be Mr. Playful. Or Mr. Unpredictable.

Or you could borrow a phrase from "Mary Poppins" and say he was "practically perfect in every way."

Do you know the Reds player who left a World Series game in the seventh inning so he could drive his wife to the hospital when she went into labor? Without telling anybody in the dugout. In uniform, no less. The Reds had to put out an APB for him when they were afraid they’d run out of pitchers.

 

Can you name the only Reds pitcher to sneak out of a game at Wrigley Field – again in uniform - and join a party of Cubs fans on the roof a building across the street?

Quick, name the only Reds pitcher to throw a perfect game and lead the Chicken Dance at Oktoberfest Zinzinnati. He did not wear a baseball uniform for the latter, but he did wear a chicken hat.

The Reds left-hander went down in baseball history when he pitched a perfect game on Sept. 16, 1988 at Riverfront Stadium. It’s a feat so rare that only 23 pitchers have done it in more than 215,000 major league games. 

But Browning’s off-the-field antics earned him a place in baseball lore, which might even be more exclusive.

While we mark another anniversary of Browning’s perfect game, it’s also timely to remember his other headline-making masterstrokes of fun and family devotion.

The Perfect Game

In 2008, the Reds celebrated the 20th anniversary of Browning’s perfect game and he chatted with WCPO’s Tanya O’Rourke before the night in his honor. She asked him to describe what he remembered after the last pitch.

Browning called it as “an out-of-body experience.”

“I felt like I was lifted up above the whole thing and watching down on it,” he said. “I remember Ronnie Oester (Reds second baseman) punched me in the mouth by accident. He went to hug me and I turned at the wrong time and he hit me across the face.

“Scared to death, exhilarated and really couldn’t believe that I just accomplished something like that,” Browning said.

There were only 16,591 fans at Riverfront Stadium that cold, rainy Friday night, but probably 160,000 or more claim they were there now.

Browning was having an outstanding season with a 15-5 record and he was looking forward to facing the Reds’ hated rivals, the Dodgers. But Browning wasn’t even sure there would be a game. The Astroturf field might have been the only thing that prevented a rainout. As it was, Browning’s first pitch was delayed until almost 9:30 p.m. But once the game began, Browning was on a fast track to history.

Twenty-seven batters up, 27 down.

“He pitched a perfect perfect game,” manager Pete Rose said then, referring to Browning’s control. Browning threw a first-pitch strike to 21 of the 27 Dodgers and never got more than two balls in the count. He threw just 102 pitches.

He wasn’t overpowering with his 88 mph fastball, but he didn’t need to be. He still struck out seven.

“I just had great command of the strike zone,” Browning said. “Every pitch I threw was where I wanted it to go.”

Dodgers starter Tim Belcher virtually matched Browning with a no-hitter into the sixth inning until Barry Larkin doubled and scored the game’s only run.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers never got anything close to a hit.

In the ninth, Rick Dempsey flied out to Paul O’Neill in right and Steve Sax grounded to Larkin at short.

With the fans on their feet, clapping and shouting, Browning struck out pinch-hitter Tracy Woodson and pumped his left fist three times at his waist. Then he high-fived catcher Jeff Reed and his teammates mobbed him on the field.

“I wasn’t really an excitable guy,” Browning told O’Rourke.  “I didn’t get too excited out there about anything, but that day I let it go a little bit. I gave it what I call ‘the saw' - that little bump. Pretty cool night.”

While Browning was low-keyed, his teammates were not.

“I never had a thrill like that,”  Reed told The Enquirer. “He was awesome. He was putting everything down and away. He was painting the plate in the ninth just like he was in the first.” 

“This is exciting,” said third baseman Chris Sabo. “We’re all little boys at heart. This is what dreams are made of and he got his dream tonight.”

When Browning came to the ballpark the next day, there was a bottle of champagne in his locker from Johnny Bench and a mink coat for his wife from Reds owner Marge Schott.

The Baseball Hall of Fame sent a telegram asking for a game ball and a cap. Browning said he wasn’t parting with the ball he used to get the last out.

“They ain’t getting my ball,” he said.

But ask Browning today where that ball is and he’ll say, somewhere behind his old house in Edgewood, Kentucky.

“I used to keep it on the mantel and one day my kids used it to play ball and lost it in the woods,” Browning said.

Up on the roof outside Wrigley Field

Five years after his perfect game, Browning pulled the perfect ballpark prank on July 7, 1993.

Wearing a sweatsuit over his uniform, he snuck out of the bullpen during an afternoon game and walked into an apartment building on Sheffield Avenue outside the right field fence.

While the partiers laughed and drank, Browning took off the sweatsuit and casually sat on a railing and watched an inning, dangling his feet over the edge of the roof and waving at his teammates and TV cameras.

Browning said he did it to boost team morale. The Reds were still in a funk over the sudden firing of manager Tony Perez six weeks earlier.

"We got to Chicago and I said, 'I’m going to do something silly today,' “ Browning told the Enquirer's John Kiesewetter. “A buddy of mine, Bob Walk (a Pirates pitcher), once went in the Wrigley Field scoreboard. He said it was kind of cool, so I tried to get in the scoreboard, but they wouldn’t let me in.

"So I ended up talking to the clubhouse guy, and he knew the guy who owned the building (on Sheffield). I called him, and I said I was wondering if it would be OK if I came over and sat on your roof for an inning and watched the game. And he said, 'I’ve never had anyone ask me that. That would be kind of cool.' ”  

So for most of an inning, TV cameras focused on Browning and the reaction of his teammates.

“I thought it was hilarious,” said pitcher Tim Belcher.

But after the game, the new Reds manager, Davey Johnson, hit the roof and read him the riot act, Browning said.

"I told him, 'Listen, this has nothing to do about you,” Browning said. “It’s about those guys in there (clubhouse). I know this deserves a fine. Just tell me how much it is, and leave it at that.' And I threw a few other words in there, and I walked out.

"He said to me the next day: 'A thousand bucks.' And I said: 'OK.' But it worked out. I got some nice laughs. It cost me $1,000, but I enjoyed doing it.”

ESPN and the national media had a field day with the story, but Browning insisted he wasn’t dissing management.

“To think I would go out and try to do this to spite someone is ridiculous,” Browning told the Enquirer at the time. “I got up there and Kevin Mitchell hit a homer that made us win the game. I sparked them. I won’t go that far again to spark us.”  

Congratulations, it’s a boy. Now get back to the ballpark.

The episode at Wrigley Field wasn’t the first time Browning left the ballpark in the middle of a game.

He did it during Game 2 of the 1990 World Series against the A’s at Riverfront Stadium on Oct. 16.

Browning, who was scheduled to pitch Game 3,  was nervous because his wife Debbie was close to giving birth to their first child. She started having contractions when she got to the game, but she thought it was false labor. She wasn’t due for another week.

 

When she realized it wasn’t, she knocked on the clubhouse door, where Browning was resting and watching on TV and never expecting he might have to pitch.

“A clubhouse boy came over and told me my wife wanted to talk to me when we were up to bat in the seventh inning,” said Browning.  “I knew then what it was.”

Browning said he never gave it a second thought and drove Debbie to the hospital. But he forgot to tell anyone in the dugout.

Not long afterward, manager Lou Piniella approached pitching coach Stan Williams  and suggested they alert Browning that he might be needed. That’s when Piniella and Williams found out Browning was gone. You couldn’t have played Piniella’s reaction on the air.

 "I didn't see him in the dugout, so I sent somebody up to the clubhouse to find him,” Williams said.  “The word came back that he was gone. I said, 'He's what? ' I didn't know where he could be. I was shocked."

"Lou said, 'What in the hell is going on? I said, 'Don't ask me.' I had never seen a pitcher walk out of a World Series game before."

The Reds wanted Browning to come back, so they had Marty Brennaman make an announcement on the radio while their staffers called every maternity hospital in town. The game might go extra innings and the Reds might need him to pitch.

Browning got the message but didn’t heed it.

At 12:27 a.m., Browning was wearing a hospital gown over his uniform and witnessing Debbie give birth to their 6-pound, 10-ounce son, Tucker Thomas.

“She was ready to go anytime and I wasn’t going to leave her. What the heck,” Browning said to reporters the next day at the airport. Schott greeted Browning with a hug of approval when the team arrived in Oakland for Game 3.

The Reds didn’t need Browning after all. They won Game 2 on Joe Oliver’s 10th-inning double to take a 2-0 lead on the A’s. Two days later, Browning won Game 3, 8-3,  thanks to two Chris Sabo homers and a seven-run third inning, and the Reds were on their way to a stunning sweep.

 “It was just a great evening," Browning told WCPO the next day. "I sat and watched the end of the game and saw Joe hit the double and a half hour later my little boy was born, so it was really neat."

 

 

There were other highlights to Browning's Reds career. He was a 20-game winner as a rookie (20-9 in 1985) and finished 18-5 in 1988.

But a horrible injury effectively ended his career. His left arm snapped with a sickening pop while pitching to Archi Cianfrocco in San Diego on May 9, 1994. The teams watched in shock as he instantly collapsed onto the field.

Browning tried to come back with the Royals in 1995 but was only able to make two starts.

 

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