Hall of Fame…The Curious Career of Kevin Brown
Former Rangers pitcher Kevin Brown is eligible for the Hall of Fame for the first time this year. I voted for him. Don’t think many others will.
This is the Hall of Fame season on the internet. Many writers are posting stories and blogs, revealing their votes and explaining why they voted the way they did. There hasn’t been much love for Brown.
Actually there has been relatively little written about Brown compared to other candidates. His career ended abruptly in 2005, he pretty much disappeared overnight and little has been heard from him since. He still makes his home in the Macon area in central Georgia.
The Hall of Fame vote will be announced on Jan 5. Brown will not get the 75 percent required to be inducted. It will be more interesting to see if he gets at least five percent to remain on the ballot. He’ll need roughly at least 25-26 votes to survive the cut.
If not, he will slip further into oblivion. But, before he becomes in danger of doing just that, here is a 4,000 word retrospective on Kevin Brown’s career, written off the top of my head with the help of a few books, web sites and media guides.
It doesn’t explain why I voted for him. I just did.
“A man should be what he can do.”
Robert E Lee Prewitt…From Here to Eternity by James Jones
Kevin Brown was the fourth overall pick of the 1986 draft out of Georgia Tech. The three players taken ahead of him were shortstop Jeff King (Pirates), pitcher Greg Swindell (Indians) and third baseman Matt Williams (Giants). There were only two great players taken behind Brown in that first round. Gary Sheffield went sixth overall to the Brewers and Roberto Hernandez went 16th overall to the Angels.
Brown would have numerous contract difficulties with the Rangers over the years but was a relatively quick sign as a high draft pick. The Rangers signed him on July 17 that summer and he ended up pitching in six games in the Minor Leagues, combining for a 5.06 ERA for Rookie League Gulf Coast and Double A Tulsa. He pitched in three games at Tulsa, a total for ten innings, and allowed seven runs on nine hits and five walks.
Brown made his Major League debut on Sept. 30 and earned his first professional victory, beating the Oakland Athletics, 9-5, at Arlington Stadium. He allowed two runs in five innings. Following in the footsteps of Jeff Kunkel, Oddibe McDowell, Bobby Witt and Pete Incaviglia (drafted by the Expos but traded to Texas), Brown was the fifth straight first-round pick who made his Major League debut with the Rangers without spending a full season in the Minors.
The Rangers have spent a quarter-century rushing young players to the big leagues.
But 1987 was a disaster. He pitched at three levels – Class A Port Charlotte, Double A Tulsa and Triple A Oklahoma City and was 1-11 with a 6.49 ERA. He won Tulsa’s home opener and then lost 11 straight decisions. When the Rangers selected pitcher Brian Bohanon with the first pick of the 1987 draft, the club was asked if this was an admission that Brown was a failure.
The Rangers thought Brown’s problem was he wasn’t pitching inside enough on hitters and giving up too many hits. Whatever the problem, Brown experienced a turnaround in 1988. He pitched at Double A Tulsa and was 12-10 with a 3.51 ERA in 26 starts and was a member of the Texas League All-Star team. Again he was called up to the big leagues in September. In his first start against Oakland was on Sept. 14 and he beat them, 9-1, with a complete-game four-hitter.
The following Spring, I asked Brown if learning to pitch inside was what made the difference in his turnaround.
“No, that wasn’t it,” Brown said. It was the first of many many times that Brown would disagree with a question or somebody else’s opinion.
No matter, Brown was never a problem to cover as a beat writer. Never. He talked after every start, talked whenever you needed him between starts and was always available in Spring Training. He had strong opinions and could often be contrary. He could come across abrasive and possibly even rude to some. He wasn’t afraid to express himself.
Didn’t bother me. He was always good to talk to from the first time I met him in Spring Training in 1989 – my first – until the time he left the Rangers. We shared a mutual extensive interest in the Lord of the Rings triology – the books, not the movies – and that made for some interesting conversations.
We once spent an hour discussing why there were far more superstar players like Boromir than Aragon in baseball, and if you haven’t read the books, there is no use explaining the difference. But it was one of the more unique conversations in my 22 years covering baseball.
Brown was a deep thinker who had an opinion on almost everything and pitching coach Tom House referred to his brain as his “overprocessing coconut.”
Brown would ultimately develop a bad reputation for being terrible with the media but I have no testimony to give to support that.
Brown was not supposed to make the Rangers out of Spring Training in 1989 but won a job in the rotation by going 2-0 with a 3.12 ERA. His rookie season was solid. He went 12-9 with a 3.35 ERA in 28 starts, pitching seven complete games and 191 innings.
One of those complete games was on June 1 in Seattle. The game was 2-2 going into the bottom of the ninth and Brown was still on the mound. Now, 21 years later, it would be unthinkable to keep a rookie in a game that long. Brown was somewhere over 110 pitches when the inning started.
But manager Bobby Valentine left Brown out there. On his 125th pitch, with one out in the ninth, Dave Cochrane belted a game-winning home run for the Mariners.
Brown talked to reporters after the game. He also had bloody knuckles on his left hand. He had taken his anger out on some inanimate object. It was the first sign of his legendary temper that may possibly have no equal in the game.
The top three from his time in Texas: 1. Smashing himself over the head with a metal plate from the bottom of a laundry basket; 2. Kicking out a window pane in the door leading to the Rangers dugout at the Ballpark, a feat that needed no less than five attempts, 3. Throwing a chair or stool or something through a large glass window that separated the visitors training room from the whirlpool at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium.
Brown missed his last four starts of the 1989 season with a strained rotator but was still the Rangers Rookie of the Year, a member of the Topps All-Rookie Team and sixth in the A.L. Rookie of the Year voting won by Orioles reliever Gregg Olson.
Baseball was just beginning to realize what Brown was capable of doing with a 98 mile-per-hour sinker and a mean slider to go with it. The slider was good but Brown’s sinker has often been considered one of the best pitches in the game.
In 1990, Spring Training was delayed and shortened due to the owners’ lockout. When they finally played, the Rangers had just 16 exhibition games. But Brown was outstanding in Spring Training and carried it over to the regular season. He became the first Rangers pitcher to win his first five decisions of the season. A four-game losing streak followed, costing him a spot on the All-Star team but he was still 10-6 with a 3.38 ERA at the break.
He won just two games afterward and missed much of the final six weeks of the season with an elbow injury. He ended up 12-10 with a 3.60 ERA.
One other observation about Brown from the early years: he never had to deal with exceptionally high expectations and/or pressure. That was always reserved for Bobby Witt, who had more pressure and expectations heaped upon him than any Rangers pitcher ever with the possible exception of David Clyde. Always felt that Witt’s presence and being drafted one year in front of him always helped Brown.
The Rangers hoped both would lead them to a division title in 1991. The Rangers had the best offense in baseball and needed good pitching to go with it. But Witt, after getting a big contract extension in the winter, missed half the season with a partially torn rotator cuff.
Brown? Well, his season started out in protest. With less than three years of service time, both he and his best friend Kenny Rogers were not yet eligible for arbitration. So when the Rangers were unable to reach an agreement with agent Scott Boras on a contract in Spring Training, the club automatically renewed their contracts.
Brown and Rogers staged a one-day walkout from camp, a move that did little except irritate the normally calm general manager Tom Grieve. Also noteworthy that Spring Training was the Rangers released Incaviglia. That was noteworthy for many reasons, one of which was he was the player representative. In other words, he was the chief contact between Rangers players and the union.
Brown replaced him and would grow into one of the most fervent union warriors within the Players Association.
As far as pitching, Brown did make it through the season healthy. Brown made 33 starts and pitched a career-high 210 innings. But he was 9-12 with a 4.40 ERA. The Rangers won 85 games but finished third behind the Twins and White Sox in the A.L. West. Without Brown and Witt – a 17-game winner the year before – pitching as expected – the Rangers missed their best chance of winning a division title in the Grieve/Valentine era.
With three years of experience was eligible, Brown was now eligible for arbitration the following winter and Boras did take him to an arbitration hearing against the Rangers. The club was offering $750,000 while Boras was asking for $1.2 million.
The Rangers expected to win. Brown was coming off a mediocre or worse campaign and had made $355,000 the year before. His salary was being more than doubled. But the Rangers didn’t win.
Boras, with a blizzard of statistics, explained to the arbitrator that Brown actually pitched quite well in 1991 but was the victim of bad defense, a bad ballpark and every other possible reason. Everybody and everything was at fault except Brown. The arbitrator agreed. Brown won his case while the Rangers were furious at the outcome.
Thrilled and elated, Brown showed up in camp in a wonderful mood and proceeded to have his first great season. He was 21-11 with a 3.32 ERA while leading the league with 265 innings pitched. He was the starter for the American League in the All-Star game and finished sixth in the Cy Young voting. Much of his success was attributed to the arbitration victory.
Brown, despite the fantastic season, then went out and lost his arbitration case the following winter. He still pitched well for the Rangers, going 15-12 with a 3.59 ERA in 34 starts and 233 innings. Many of his ratios were similar to his 1992 season. For example, his walks and hits per inning pitched was 1.272 in 1992 and 1.296 in 1993.
It would fly up to 1.575 in 1994 and his ERA went to 4.82 as his time in Texas came to an end.
Brown, with one year to go before being eligible for free agency, actually reached an agreement on a one-year deal for 1994 with the Rangers without an arbitration hearing. The Rangers also tried to sign him to a long-term contract as well. But they didn’t get anywhere on that. Brown and Boras were determined to go to free agency.
This was also the strike-shortened season of 1994 when the players walked out in August and did not return. Brown, at this point, was on the union executive board and in the middle of everything. The Rangers, as a club, were torn up by the whole labor dispute. Brown and Will Clark were labor warriors while Juan Gonzalez wanted nothing to do with it.
Brown, perhaps distracted by the whole thing, was terrible, going 7-9 with the 4.82 ERA in 26 games as the strike approached. He had also worn out his welcome with the Rangers, particularly with managing general partners Tom Schieffer and Rusty Rose. They were completely fed up with Brown and he was huge part of a major shift in organizational philosophy.
Schieffer basically announced that the Rangers weren’t winning and they weren’t having any fun. So from that point on, Schieffer said, the club would only be interested in players who wanted to be in Texas and were considered to be team-oriented and of strong character. Brown was the primary object of their displeasure. Far and away.
Basically that meant, when the strike finally came to an end, Brown would unceremoniously leave Texas with the Rangers having nothing to show for it. New general manager Doug Melvin made absolutely no effort to re-sign him.
Brown was still unsigned when the strike ended on April 2, 1995. He was one of a number of unemployed players who attended Spring Training in Homestead, Fla. in a camp run by the Players Association. Players could work out there until somebody signed them.
Brown signed a one-year deal worth $4,225,000 million with the Orioles and went 10-9 with a 3.60 ERA in 26 starts in 1995 while missing time with a broken pinkie finger on his right hand.
Brown, as a sinker ball pitcher, induced many ground balls and a number of them went back to the mound. He had a bad habit of reaching for them with his bare hand. But, considering some of the other abuses he inflicted on his body, he was available to avoid serious injury due to this for most of his career. This is a guy who once pitched a complete game despite getting hit in the head by a line-drive.
It was the beginning of the best five years of Brown’s career, the zenith of his 19 seasons in the big leagues, when he definitely pitched as a true Hall of Fame candidate.
During that time, Brown was 82-41 with a 2.51 ERA. He pitched 1,209 innings in that stretch, the most in the Majors. Only four pitchers won more games. Only Pedro Martinez had a lower ERA. Brown led the league in ERA in both 1996 and 2000.
Brown was 17-11 with a 1.89 ERA in 1996, finishing second behind John Smoltz in the Cy Young voting while throwing the only no-hitter of his career. He was 16-8 with a 2.69 ERA in 1997. The Marlins entered the playoffs as the Wild Card team and, in their fifth year in existence, ended up winning the World Series.
Brown won two games in the NLCS against the Braves. He won Game 1 with a 5-3 victory and then pitched a complete game in Game 6 despite dealing with the flu. The Braves scored three runs off him in the first two innings but Brown stayed in all the way despite throwing 140 pitches and allowing 11 hits.
At one point manager Jim Leyland wanted to take him out but Brown refused to come out. He was shown on television in a rage screaming at his manager. Brown was 0-2 with an 8.18 ERA in two World Series starts against the Indians but the Marlins still won in seven games.
The Marlins then broke up their great team in the off-season with a series of trades. Brown, one year away from free agency, was traded to the Padres for three players including first baseman Derrek Lee and pitcher Rafael Medina. That deal worked out for the Marlins because Lee was with them for six seasons and helped them win the World Series again in 2003.
Brown, in his only season in San Diego, was great for the Padres, going 18-7 with a 2.35 ERA. The Padres won their division title and went into the playoffs to face the Houston Astros in the NLDS. Game 1 featured Brown vs. Astros left-hander Randy Johnson.
In perhaps his finest moment as a Major Leaguer, Brown beat Johnson, 2-1, in a dazzling pitching duel. The victory helped the Padres take down the Astros in four games.
Brown followed that up with a three-hit shutout against the Braves in Game 2 of the NLCS and the Padres ended winning that series in six games. For the second straight year, Brown was in the World Series on the National League pennant winners.
Brown, opening up the World Series, had a 5-2 lead against the Yankees through six innings in Game 1 in New York. But the Yankees scored seven off him and relievers Donne Wall and Mark Langston and went on to a 9-6 victory. Brown also lost Game 4 in San Diego as the Padres were swept by the Yankees. He allowed three runs in eight innings while Andy Pettitte threw a shutout and was last seen walking off the mound and screaming at home plate umpire Dana DeMuth.
He was also headed for free agency and baseball history.
In December of 1998, at the Winter Meetings in Nashville, Boras reached an agreement with the Dodgers on a seven-year, $105 million contract for Brown. It was the first $100 million in baseball history and was widely criticized. Sandy Alderson, the former Oakland general manager then working in the Commissioner’s Office, said he was “alarmed” by the contract.
The Dodgers also threw in 12 round trips a year on a private jet to fly Brown’s wife Candace and their children in from their home in Georgia.
“The money you can make is obviously important, but the competitive edge, the chance to win year in and year out, has always been the most important thing to me in the game,” Brown told the Los Angeles Times. “The Dodgers also were very committed to doing some things to help me be with my family, and all of that combined made the decision a lot easier.”
Brown would only spend five of those seven seasons with the Dodgers. He was 58-32 with a 2.83 ERA, averaging roughly 175 innings per year. The Dodgers did not go to the playoffs once in his five seasons there. Injuries started catching up to him. He had a sprained elbow in 2003 and finished 3-4 with a 4.81 ERA in 10 starts, seven relief appearances and a career low 63 innings.
He did bounce back in 2003, at age 38, by going 14-9 with a 2.39 ERA in 211 innings. After the season was over, Brown was traded to the Yankees for pitcher Jeff Weaver.
Brown’s time with the Dodgers would be noteworthy for one other significant reason. Brown would end up being mentioned in the Mitchell Report. Brown, according to the investigation conducted by former Sen. George Mitchell into baseball’s steroids problem, purchased steroids and human growth hormone for a 2-3 year period of time from former Mets clubhouse employee Kurt Radomski.
Radomski was one of Mitchell’s primary sources in the report as he admitted to distributing steroids to dozens of Major League players. Brown was among the most prominent and successful players mentioned in the report.
The Yankees, having lost to the Marlins in the 2003 World Series, were hoping Brown still had enough to be the ace of their staff. But he was bothered for much of the summer by a bad back and an intestinal parasite in his stomach.
Then there was a start against the Orioles on Sept 3. Brown allowed three runs in six innings. But after getting struck in the right forearm by a run-scoring hit in the sixth, Brown stormed to the clubhouse and blew up emotionally. He punched a concrete pillar with his left hand and broke it, forcing him to come out of the game and miss three weeks.
“That’s the most selfish thing I’ve ever seen anybody do,” Yankees manager Joe Torre said.
Torre, in his book, The Yankee Years written with Tom Verducci, said, “At that point he was so demoralized. He was never a fighter. He never wanted to fight you. Neither was Randy Johnson for that matter. The difference between Kevin Brown and David Wells is that both make your life miserable, but David Wells meant to. I don’t think Kevin meant to.”
Brown made two starts for the Yankees at the end of the season and was in their rotation in the playoffs. In the ALDS, he held the Twins to one run in six innings for an 8-4 victory in Game 3. Then came the famous ALCS in which the Yankees won the first three games and then lost the next four to the Red Sox.
Brown started Game 3 and allowed four runs in two innings. The Yankees still won, 19-8. They lost the next three games and had no choice but to go back to Brown for Game 7.
After Game 6, Torre walked into the clubhouse and sat down with Brown. He looked at his pitcher and said, “You tell me: Can you pitch tomorrow? I don’t need a hero. I need somebody who can do the job. I need a pitcher tomorrow. You’re one of my choices. I’m not going to give you the ball unless you understand what we need to do here. You need to look at me and tell me.”
Said Brown, “I’ll take the ball.”
It was noble but didn’t do the Yankees much good. Brown allowed five runs in 1.1 innings and the Yankees lost, 10-3, to complete the worst playoff collapse in baseball history.
One year later, Brown completed his seven-year contract. He was 6-9 with a 6.50 ERA in 13 games while dealing with more back problems. He was 40.
On July 18, 2005, he allowed six runs on ten hits in 4.1 innings against the Rangers at the Ballpark in Arlington. The Yankees still won, 11-10. He allowed seven runs over 31/3 innings in his next start, an 8-6 loss to the Angels.
That was his last Major League game.