The man they called Mr. Perfect, and he disliked that nickname, was found dead in his Northern Kentucky home Monday. He was 62.
He earned the Mr. Perfect nickname because he pitched a perfect game in 1988 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the only one ever thrown by a Cincinnati Reds pitcher.
And it wasn’t easy. Rain delayed the game’s start for three hours and it began at 10 p.m. The announced crowd was 16,591, but due to the rain and the delay, it looked more like 3,000 in the Riverfront Stadium seats.
“But if everybody who told me they were there that night were really there, there would have been 300,000 in the stands,” Browning liked to say.
The Reds won, 1-0, and opposing pitcher Tim Belcher didn’t give up a hit until Chris Sabo singled with two outs in the sixth. Browning’s control was nearly always spot-on, and he could have been called Mr. Perfect for that reason.
On the night of his perfect game, he threw 102 pitches and 70 were strikes. He didn’t go to a three-ball count on any hitter.
In typical fashion, after the game Browning said, “As personal accomplishments go, it doesn’t get much better than that. But to share it with a team and create an atmosphere for everyone to enjoy, well, that’s what makes it so perfect.”
That was one of Browning’s better quotes. Usually, he dealt modestly in fallback cliches. After one game, as old-school Browning sat in front of his locker, a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, a writer said, “OK, you gonna give us something good or the same ol’ crap.”
And if he lost a game, he sat at his locker with the same posture, a beer, and a cigarette in hand, and usually said, “I’ll Just turn the page and move on to the next one.”
While he was Mr. Serious on the mound, his sense of humor was legendary, and he pulled one of the most unforgettable pranks in Reds history.
His pitching opponent for the perfect game, Tim Belcher, was a member of the Reds in 1993. The Reds were in Chicago and Browning was not scheduled to pitch. Belcher bet Browning $200 he wasn’t brave enough to leave Wrigley Field in uniform and make an impromptu appearance outside the stadium.
Browning crossed Sheffield Avenue behind the right field wall, climbed the steps of a Brownstone apartment and sat on the roof with fans, his feet dangling over the edge of the roof.
He won the bet, but manager Davey Johnson fined him $500, so the gag cost him $300.
Cubs manager Jim Lefebvre saw Browning and said, “The way we’re going, if that was one of our pitchers he probably would fall off.”
Browning was pleased and proud.
“What a view, this is what baseball is all about,” he said. “”The people were great. They offered me beer and hot dogs, but I told ‘em I couldn’t take any. They left me alone after that so I could enjoy the game.
“Some people didn’t believe I was a player until I took the warmup off,” he added. “A fine? I don’t care. I’ve been reprimanded before. I had fun today. I thought it would be real cool up there and it was a nice idea to give the guys a laugh.”
What happened in San Diego in 1994 didn’t give anybody a laugh. Browning’s arm was hurting before he took the mound that night in Jack Murphy Stadium to face the Padres.
It was May 9, a night I shall never forget over the thousands of nights I covered Reds’ games. Browning took another perfect game into the sixth inning before he gave up a home run.
He had two strikes on Archi Cianfrocco and told himself, “Just reach back, get a little extra on this pitch.” And he let it go.
Up in the second deck, in the press box, it sounded as if a telephone wire snapped. And Browning let out a horrendous scream that could be heard in Escondido.
“l thought I had been shot and thought my arm was blown clear off my body. I couldn’t feel it,” he said. He had broken his arm, but he worried more about the two runners on base.
When his arm snapped, the ball squirted out of his left hand toward the on-deck circle. Shortstop Barry Larkin ran to Browning, who was writhing on the ground in excruciating pain.
“Lark, did any of those runners score?” Browning asked.
“Yeah, I think both did. Sorry, man,” said Larkin.
And that effectively ended Browning’s pitching career. He did start two games the next season for the Kansas City Royals.
Browning won Game 3 of the 1990 World Series for the Reds against the Oakland A’s after the Reds led the division from start to finish, wire-to-wire.
In 2005, Browning was voted into the Reds Hall of Fame, about which he wrote in his book, “Tales From the Reds Dugout.”
Browning wrote: “One of the first comments (at a press conference) came from Dayton Daily News’s Hal McCoy, one of my favorite old-school scribes.
“‘So, you led the voting from beginning to end,’ almost like he was prodding for a specific response. He always had a way of steering you into the comment he wanted, so I knew exactly what he was fishing for. ‘Yeah, wire-to-wire,’ I joked,” Browning wrote. “We knew each other too well.”
Indeed, we did. And I was better for it.