SABR

Mark Brown

This article was written by Jeremy Rosenberg.

It's September 30, 1984, an early autumn Sunday afternoon in Boston's Kenmore Square. The trees are already tinged with red, yellow and orange; soon the Green Monster will be the only thing still green. Inside Fenway Park, a righthander is warming up in the visitors' bullpen. He's built like a ballplayer -- 6'2", 190 lbs., according to his baseball card -- and wears his tri-colored cap stiffly, with little curve in the brim. He's got his road grays on, with "Orioles" stitched across his chest in orange script. His black Nike cleats have swooshes so visually loud they're practically flourescent.

In the bottom of the sixth inning, the bullpen gate opens and the righthander heads for the mound. He's a struggling rookie, still winless after eight major league appearances; now it's the last game of the season, his last chance to pick up a victory. In the stands, his father takes in the moment, thinking about how the two of them used to come each summer to this very place, a mere three-hour drive from home.

Two innings later, Jim Rice is standing frozen at the plate and the righthander is sprinting off the field, afraid to look back. If he does, he's sure the umpire will wave him back, tell him there's been some sort of mistake; rookies aren't supposed to get any breaks, especially when facing future Hall of Famers. But in this case the rookie threw the exact same pitch twice in a row -- a nasty slider on the outside corner. The first time the umpire called it a ball, in deference to Rice. But not the second time.

In the top half of the inning, the Orioles scored twice on a Wayne Gross single to break a 3-3 deadlock and take the lead for good. Nate Snell and Sammy Stewart come on to finish the game for Baltimore, and the rookie's pitching line in the box score that appears in the next week's issue of The Sporting News reads: "Brown (W 1-2) 2 1 0 0 1 2." As a souvenir, pitching coach Ray Miller gives Brown a game ball. Written between the stitches is the date, the score, the teams, the time and the glorious words "First Major League Win."

There is something else significant about this game, something unwritten on the game ball and discoverable only in hind-sight. If you look up Brown in Total Baseball, you learn that his full name is Mark Anthony Brown, that he was born in Bellows Falls, Vermont, on July 13, 1959, and that this win at Fenway Park on the last day of the 1984 season proved to be the one and only win of his major league career.

If there had been a maternity ward in North Walpole, New Hampshire, Mark Brown would have been born there. That was not the case, however, so Mark Brown's mother crossed the Connecticut River and gave birth to her second son in the hospital at Bellows Falls. Crossing the border between the Twin States would be a theme in the lives of all members of the Brown family. For example, Mark's father, who worked his way up from mechanic to management with St. Johnsbury Trucking, commuted mainly to Vermont hubs like Bellows Falls and White River Junction. Mark went to school in New Hampshire but played organized sports in Vermont.

Mark Brown comes from a family that is well-known in local baseball circles. Some say his older brother, Frank, was a better pitcher than Mark. "I was always in his shadow," says Mark, "and up there I probably always will be." Dave, the youngest of the three brothers, was drafted in 1989 by the Baltimore Orioles, pitching one year in the New York-Penn League for Erie, where his pitching coach was Mark. "Dave was wild," says the brother-cum-pitching coach. "When he came into the game, everybody would see me go for the Tums." Mom was their number one fan and dad their first pitching coach (his philosophy was "grip it and rip it," according to Mark). Even Mark's uncles were involved in baseball, serving locally as umpires.

Before Mark Brown there was another baseball player with a similar pedigree -- born in Bellows Falls, raised in New Hampshire. And in the small world that is Vermont baseball, it should come as no surprise that this other player has an unusual connection to Mark Brown. The other player? Carlton Fisk. The connection: while in grammar school Brown served as Fisk's batboy.

In 1965 Fisk was the star player for the championship Bellows Falls American Legion team. Mark Brown's uncles umpired his games. They brought Mark to the field with them, and the six-year-old was charged with retrieving the bats. Did the two future major leaguers ever speak? Brown doesn't think so. "I was a little kid," he says. "To me [Fisk] looked like a giant."

Brown does credit Fisk for opening doors. He says Fisk was the one who brought scouts and fans to the area. "It all started with Pudge Fisk," Brown says. "Here he was, some big old hick from the Twin States, playing for Bellows Falls Legion Post Five. Then he gets to the Vermont State Championship, and everyone saw the guy and said, 'Wow! There are actually some guys who can play.'" As Brown relates this, a smile crosses his face. "That gave guys like myself an opportunity," he says.

While it's great that Brown pays his compliments years later when both players are retired, did the two Prides of Bellows Falls ever meet in the major leagues? Their careers overlapped chronologically, after all, and both were in the American League. The answer, as Brown tells it, is yes and no. Yes, Brown was with the Twins in 1985 when they played Fisk's White Sox at Comiskey Park. And no, he couldn't get up the courage to approach Fisk.

"Logistics got in the way," Brown says. "[Fisk] wouldn't come out of batting practice until late, so it was hard to see him." Also, Brown says, "He was always kind of tough to approach -- kind of standoffish and a very tough guy. A nice guy once you get a chance to know him, but he won't let you in, that type of guy. A typical New Englander."

Then, afraid he is sounding too harsh, Mark Brown backpedals a little. "I should have tried to break down the barrier and say hi," the pitcher says. "I didn't do it. I wanted to say hi to him, but I didn't do it."

It was clear from the start that Mark Brown would turn out to be an exceptional baseball player. While he was still a teenager his fastball was clocked at 88 miles per hour. During the first of his two seasons playing for American Legion Post Five (the same team he'd served as batboy), the team would have won a state championship, claims Mark, if his brother Frank hadn't hurt his arm. After two years at Fall Mountain High School, Mark spent his junior and senior years at the prestigious Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut. In two seasons in the New England Prep School League, Brown pitched 80 innings, allowed 30 hits, struck out 157 batters and was 8-2 with a school record 1.35 ERA. He also pitched a no-hitter during his senior year of 1977.

Following his freshman year at the University of Massachusetts, Mark joined the semi-pro Saxtons River [Vermont] Pirates. In the midst of an extraordinary multi-year run, the Pirates compiled a 33-6 record in the Twin State League during the summer of 1978, then went 38-11 after jumping to the newly revived Northern League in 1979. A quick perusal of newspaper clippings shows that Brown pitched some gems: a no-hitter and 15 strikeouts against the Burlington A's; a one-hitter against Hartford, New York; a 17-strikeout performance against the Burlington Expos; 18 more in a win over Essex; 17 k's again, this time against the A's. Two-thirds of the way through the 1978 season, Brown's numbers were almost as impressive as his prep-school stats: a 7-2 record and 108 strikeouts in 55 innings pitched.

In Brown's two losses he allowed a grand total of one earned run, and even that he did with style. The date was July 11, 1978, and the Pirates were taking on the Brattleboro Maples in a night game played at Brattleboro's Stolte Field. Pitted against Brown was Dave Klenda, a former Tidewater Tide who had joined the Maples the previous week after seven years in the minors. Expectations were high, and for once the hype held up -- for eight innings Brown and Klenda matched zeroes. Saxtons River had managed a couple of singles, but Brown was no-hitting the Maples. Three outs later, Klenda closed out his line: nine innings, two hits, zero runs, 12 strikeouts and four walks. In the bottom half of the inning, Brattleboro's Pete Campbell stepped to the plate with one out and nobody on base. He hit a 365-foot, game-winning home run.

As time passed, the legend of that night grew, and so, according to Mark Brown, did its legacy: a revival of interest in the local hardball circuit. "It was such a big night for baseball," Brown says. "[The fans] saw that it was really good baseball, not some beer league, with good pitching, good hitting and good fielding. And the game was such a thriller." The Rutland Herald called Campbell's game-winner a "story-book finish to a fine ball game." Officially, the Brattleboro Reformer spoke in more muted prose, citing a "dramatic end to a well-played contest." Off the record, though, reporter Ken Campbell took on a more excitable tone, according to Saxtons River coach Dave Moore. "He told me it was the best game he'd ever seen," Moore says. Of course Campbell would say that -- it was his own son who hit the home run!

All in all, the loss wasn't really a loss as far as Mark Brown was concerned. "Even though I gave up the winning home run, I'll never forget that night as the time baseball took off," he says.

Besides that epic pitchers' duel, Brown has many fond memories of life in Vermont's summer leagues. Sometimes the stories are about baseball, but oftentimes they're not. There was the time Saxtons River participated in a so-called "international" tournament at Centennial Field. "There were two teams from Canada that were supposed to be awesome," Brown says. "Our guys, meanwhile, were hungover and drunk." No matter. The Pirates took two out of three and a large chunk of the prize money. And what did they do with the loot? Give it to some charity? Perhaps use it to pay umpires? No, says Mark Brown with a big grin and a stage whisper: "We had a big party."

Other Brown memories revolve around places. The man may have played in major league ballparks, but he still speaks reverently about Burlington's Centennial Field, and the Brattleboro field where chickenwire screens protect the dugouts still makes him chuckle. Brown has also constructed a hypothetical ballpark in his mind, a catch-all place to capture memories of baseball in Vermont:


I remember, in the summer time, just playing. There'd be one piece of fence in center field, then there'd be a cow pasture in right, then where you warmed up off the bench there'd be another cow pasture, there'd be cow corn growing. Or, behind the backstop, if you lost the ball, it was probably in a tree pit.

All those fields, all those places. Everybody was into it. Even if there were 50 or 100 people and they had to pass the hat to pay the umpire, they were into it.


No matter if a man plays a ballgame at Fenway Park or at Yankee Stadium, hometown sandlots are hard to forget. "It was such a good time, such a good bunch of guys to play with," Mark Brown says. "It would be neat to get all those old guys together, maybe play some old men's softball."

Consider the culture shock Mark Brown experienced during the spring and summer of 1980. He finished his junior year at UMass with a disappointing 4-6 season but still was drafted in the sixth round. He met with scouts at his home in North Walpole and took all of five minutes to accept Baltimore's initial offer of $7,500. Then it was off to a rookie league team in Bluefield, West Virginia (a hick town, Brown remembers), and soon after that to Class-A ball in Miami, Florida.

The cost of living was high in South Florida, and so was Brown's ERA. After 10 appearances, all starts, it stood at 4.73 -- almost a full run higher than it would ever be at any other stop in his minor league career. The pitcher may have had an excuse: a bum shoulder, which the team physician first tried to treat with a cortisone shot. Eventually Brown returned to New Hampshire after the Orioles shut him down for the rest of the season. The injury -- tendinitis, officially -- was slow to heal, forcing him to miss the first part of the 1981 season. "It's kind of a bummer," Brown says, looking back. "You're 21 years old, it's your first full year of pro ball and you're on the disabled list."

Brown still hadn't captured the confidence of the Orioles' front office even when he returned to pitching, and only a trick of timing -- good (his) and bad (a friend's) -- kept him from being released. Baltimore's scouting director, Tom Giordano, had decided to waive Brown, but a scout convinced him to fly to Florida and give the New Englander one last chance. Brown remembers the game well: "It was against the Astros, a team from Daytona Beach," he says. "Mike Alvarez started the game for us, and he was leading the league in ERA, but he got hit pretty good. In the third inning he came out and I came in and just threw really good -- struck out a bunch of guys." The end result was that Brown stayed and Alvarez, despite his league-leading ERA, was released.

Brown says his injury taught him to be a better all-around pitcher, even if it tempered his velocity. He also found himself in a new role -- of his last 135 minor league appearances, 124 came out of the bullpen. His newfound knowledge helped him rise rapidly through the minors. Each time Brown received a midseason promotion, he lowered his ERA. The best example is 1982, when Brown went from A to AA to AAA while his ERA dipped from 3.10 to 2.09 to 1.42. By 1983 he had earned a spot on Baltimore's 40-man roster and his first invitation to a major league spring training.

The good news was short-lived. Assigned to the Orioles' top farm team in Rochester, New York, Brown suffered a more serious injury -- a torn labrum -- and missed parts of June, July and August. The only bright side was that he avoided surgery thanks to a rehabilitation program designed by Dr. Arthur Pappas, the famous sports orthopedist and part-owner of the Boston Red Sox. The next year Brown returned to Rochester and enjoyed an eventful summer. First he got engaged to Sheryl Schwartz. He also pitched well in 44 games. Then on August 9, 1984, Mark Anthony Brown became the 35th Vermonter to play in the major leagues.

The first big league batter Brown faced, Julio Franco, smashed a line drive off his knee. To add insult to injury, the hit went for an infield single, and, worst of all, it came on what Brown thought was a good pitch. "I threw him a real nasty slider on the outside corner and he took it right off my kneecap. [The ball] just trickled over to first base. I hobbled over there and just watched him run to first, and he was safe." Brown pitched on and was hit hard. He gave up another hit, Cal Ripken made an error and a 4-4 tie was suddenly a 6-4 deficit. "I had my first appearance, my first loss and my first sore knee," Brown says. "I finished the inning, then [manager] Joe Altobelli took me out. He thought I might hurt my knee more by throwing for another few innings."

"It was alright, it wasn't really hurt bad," Brown says. "It was funny, I got to the clubhouse and I remember Mike Flanagan coming up to me, patting me on the back, saying, 'Oh yeah, welcome to the big leagues, even the outs here are hard.'" Brown says those words from a fellow New Hampshire resident meant a lot to him, as did the treatment he received during each of his five summers in the Baltimore chain. "They were a great organization," he says. "When I went well, they promoted me; when I was hurt, they put me on the disabled list; when I got to the big leagues they were good to me, they gave me a shot."

Mark Brown pitched fairly well for Baltimore over the last couple months of the '84 season. Appearing in nine games, he gave up fewer hits than innings pitched, struck out more batters than he walked and picked up his first big league win at Fenway Park on the last day of the season. Then Brown and his teammates set off on a three-week, 14-game barnstorming tour of Japan, playing five games against the Yomiuri Giants, another five against the Hiroshima Carp and four more in the southern part of the country against regional all-star teams.

Brown was looking forward to resting a sore shoulder, but the money was good -- $20,000 plus expenses for three weeks of work. Still, he missed Sheryl. "All the guys had their wives with them. It would have been nice if we were married and had a chance to go over together," Brown says. "It would have been like a honeymoon." If he was homesick, at least he felt at home on some of the ballfields he played on. "In Japan we played on a couple of skin fields," Brown says, referring to all-dirt, no-grass infields. "It was just like Vermont -- you could pick up boulders."

The following spring the Orioles, satisfied that they had seen what Brown could do and in need of more balance in their bullpen, traded him to the Minnesota Twins for lefthander Brad Havens. "It was sad to leave the Orioles," he says, "but I thought, hey, it could be a great chance." A great chance, indeed. Baltimore's pitching staff was talented (second in the American League in ERA in 1984) and extravagantly deep, whereas Minnesota's bullpen had a closer (Ron Davis) and a lot of problems. Best of all for Brown, the Twins' new manager, Ray Miller, had been the Orioles' pitching coach. It was a great chance for Brown to establish himself with an emerging team with good hitting, good defense and little pitching.

Brown pitched well at Triple-A Toledo, where he was first assigned by the Twins. The parent club, meanwhile, continued to get shelled. By late June, when Brown was called up, Minnesota's team ERA was a league-worst 4.84. Brown drove all night to get to Minneapolis and the Twins' infamous indoor stadium. "I couldn't wait to get there," he says. "'Gotta get to the Metrodome,' I kept saying." This time the Bellows Falls native decided to take some serious stock of his situation. "It kind of struck me: small town boy makes it to the big leagues. Here I am again!"

Brown got bombed in his first outing, again versus Cleveland, and after two weeks his ERA had ballooned to 11.57. By August he had almost halved it to 6.89, but by then it was too late. Brown was sent back to Toledo, his roster spot taken by the talented but oft-suspended drug offender, Steve Howe. Back with the Mudhens, Brown was united with fellow Vermont-born Len Whitehouse, playing with him for the first time. To his credit, Brown pitched admirably. His ERA was 2.94, his walks-to-innings-pitched ratio at an all-time low and his arm felt great, but basically no one cared. Prematurely or not, fairly or unfairly, Brown's major league career was over.

Of course, Brown didn't know that yet. He went to spring training in 1986 hoping to get one more shot but was sent down immediately to Toledo. Mysteriously, he was converted into a starter, threw a couple of games and got released. Brown went home to Rochester to be with Sheryl, thinking, "Who's going to pick up a 27-year-old reliever three weeks into the season?" The surprising answer was Baltimore. Brown played out the year at Double-A Charlotte, where he had pitched so well five years earlier as an up-and-coming prospect. Now he was heading the other direction. "My low point came when I got put on the disabled list and I wasn't even hurt," Brown says. "That's when it really hit hard. Here I was, struggling in the minors, and the last two years I was in the big leagues." Then Brown pauses -- perhaps in a rare moment of regret. "It's tough to get there," the pitcher-turned-mechanic says, "but it's even tougher to stay."

Brown returned to Rochester and played in an adult baseball league for a couple of seasons, intending to play first base exclusively but eventually giving in and pitching a few games. He enjoyed playing with his brother Dave for the first time but ended up hurting his shoulder. Today he saves his throws for occasional paid tutoring sessions with local youngsters. Brown also talks to youth groups now and then, supplying baseball cards to increase his credibility. He talks about wanting to share his love for the game, and about how maybe he could help just one kid realize his dream, or better yet, get a better education thanks to sports.

In the end, Total Baseball shows that Mark Brown had but a single major league win. To some that may seem sad, but a dozen years later it did not seem to bother the man himself. "I only got a couple cups of coffee," the Vermonter said, breaking into a wide smile. "But they were good cups."


Sources

A version of this biography originally appeared in Green Mountain Boys of Summer: Vermonters in the Major Leagues 1882-1993, edited by Tom Simon (New England Press, 2000).

In researching this article, the author made use of the subject's file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, local newspapers, and an extensive interview with the subject.

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