Kevin Brown

The man whom exasperated managers once regarded as a talented but volatile head case developed into one of the league’s best starters after joining the Florida Marlins in 1996. Three years later — after adding an ERA title, a no-hitter, and consecutive World Series appearances with two different teams to his resume — a record-setting seven-year contract from Rupert Murdoch’s Los Angeles Dodgers made Brown baseball’s first $100 million dollar man. Nobody ever doubted Brown’s ability. Noting his willingness to challenge hitters, former manager Kevin Kennedy once compared him favorably to Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. But until his gutsy performances in the 1997 and 1998 playoffs, many observers felt Brown’s intense competitiveness hindered his progress. When perfection eluded him, the young Brown tended to unleash a temper as explosive as his fastball. It hurt his pitching, it eroded his relationships with his teammates, and it destroyed countless pieces of clubhouse furniture. Over the course of his career, Brown smashed toilets and water coolers across the country, from Dodgertown to Wrigley Field to Qualcomm Park. Upon signing with San Diego in 1997, Brown informed the Padres that he would reimburse the club for any damage inflicted on team property during the season. Manager Bruce Bochy joked to reporters that he hoped Brown would take care of a large, unsightly plastic fish mounted in his office. “There’s nothing he can’t dismantle,” Bochy reasoned. It was the same intense, take-no-prisoners attitude that had established Brown as one of the top college hurlers in the country at Georgia Tech. Brown had originally enrolled in the university as a part-time student, agreeing to work with his father at the local chalk mine every other semester while he pursued a degree in chemical engineering. In high school, he had planned a career as a marine biologist. But before long, Brown was coaxed into joining the baseball team and by 1986 had been named the right-handed pitcher on The Sporting News‘ college All-America team. Taken by the Texas Rangers in the first round of the June 1986 draft, Brown was in the majors by the end of the year, finally moving into the Rangers’ rotation in 1989. In his first full year with the club, Brown went 12-9 with a 3.35 ERA as the number-two starter behind Nolan Ryan. But a disastrous spring-training adjustment the following season hurt his mechanics and threw off his timing, leading to a 9-12 record and 4.40 ERA. Brown also had the ignominious achievement of becoming only the second American League hurler in history to make 33 starts without a complete game. It was clear to Rangers management that Brown’s frustration at small failures was limiting his ability to pitch, and during the offseason the infamous perfectionist underwent therapy with a sports psychologist. In 1992, Brown responded with his finest season in a Rangers uniform. Filling in for a frequently-injured Ryan, Brown blossomed into the steadiest performer on a notoriously uneven Texas staff, becoming the first Ranger to win 20 since Ferguson Jenkins won 25 in 1974. Despite a late-season stress fracture in his ribcage, Brown tied Jack Morris for the league lead with 21 victories and topped the American League with 265 2/3 innings pitched. Brown won 15 games the following season, but his old demons caught up with him in 1994, when he won only seven. His ERA had grown by about a half a run each season. Declared a free agent following the 1994 strike settlement, Brown signed a one-year contract with the Orioles. The fading star rebounded with a 10-9 record and an ERA of 3.60, but left the club as a free agent after the season to become a cornerstone of owner Wayne Huizenga’s ambitious push to put the Florida Marlins in the World Series. 1996 — Brown’s first season in the National League — brought an impressive 17-11 record, a mark surely aided by an understanding attitude from manager Rene Lachemann (“You go ahead and break whatever you want.” Brown was told. “As long as it’s not any of my stuff and you pay for what you break, I don’t care.”) His record might have been much better if the Marlins hadn’t scored only 11 runs in his 11 losses. Florida’s new ace led the league with a 1.89 ERA and three shutouts while surrendering just 33 walks against 159 strikeouts in 233 innings pitched. After the season, Brown placed second to Atlanta’s John Smoltz in the balloting for the NL Cy Young Award. As the young Florida franchise scaled new heights in 1997, so did Brown. Wielding a heavy sinker, Brown was the second-stingiest pitcher in the league when it came to giving up home runs. After tossing a one-hitter against Los Angeles in his first appearance of the season (“he was like a buzz saw,” said Dodgers centerfielder Brett Butler) Brown no-hit the Giants in San Francisco on June 10, striking out Darryl Hamilton for the final out in the ninth. Had Brown not hit Marvin Benard with a two-strike, two-out pitch in the eighth, it would have been a perfect game. “I have never considered myself to be a candidate for a no-hitter,” Brown had told Baseball Weekly two months earlier. “I give up so many ground balls. It’s hard to have a game filled with ground balls and not have one find its way through.” But it was in the 1997 postseason that Brown truly shined. His gutsy, stomach-virus-defying, 142-pitch complete game in Game Six of the NLCS enabled the wild-card Marlins to beat the Braves and reach the World Series. During the game, the flu-ridden Brown nearly went toe-to-toe with manager Jim Leyland to let him continue pitching. Even though his two losses to rookie Chad Ogea didn’t help the Marlins’ cause in their seven-game World Series triumph over the Indians, Brown attracted a great deal of attention from other teams when Huizenga ordered a massive salary dump after the season. He was eventually traded to San Diego for minor-leaguers Steve Hoff, Rafael Medina, and Derrek Lee. “Kevin Brown pitches like Kirk Gibson ran the bases,” former manager Jim Leyland later recalled, dubbing the shared trait “aggressive tenacity.” By trading for Brown and hiring the equally focused Dave Stewart as their new pitching coach, the Padres hoped that some of that fire would inspire a middling collection of starters that had intimidated no one in 1997. Indeed, the Padres pitching staff improved tremendously. Second starter Andy Ashby (17-9, 3.34) and closer Trevor Hoffman (53 saves, 1.48 ERA) both posted career years. Stewart helped Brown add a forkball to his arsenal and the results (18-7 record, 2.38 ERA, and 257 strikeouts in as many innings) helped the Padres reach their first World Series since 1984. For Brown, intensity was no longer a dirty word. True, he continued to lash out at times. In April, he had to be restrained by Padres coaches Tim Flannery and Rob Picciolo after being ejected by home plate umpire Joe West while batting against the Cubs’ Steve Trachsel. Brown was also particularly incensed when the Padres set off fireworks in Qualcomm Park to honor Sammy Sosa, who had added to his prodigious home-run totals with a game-winning shot against the home team in a late-season game. But his outbursts were tolerated and his competitiveness began to be hailed around the league as a model of true leadership. Particularly indicative of Brown’s drive was his six-inning win against the rival Dodgers in mid-June — after undergoing a root canal that morning. As the Padres cruised to the division title, Brown called a players-only meeting to refocus the club for the playoffs. His team responded with a five-game, first-round series victory over the powerful Astros. Against Houston, Brown surrendered just five hits in 14 2/3 innings — his first start a gem against Randy Johnson and his second coming on just three days rest. The Padres went on to demolish the Braves in six games (despite a loss in Game Five highlighted by strange relief appearances by Brown and Braves’ ace Greg Maddux) but the National League pennant-winners were no match for the powerful Yankees, who swept to the championship in a one-sided World Series. For the second straight year — in fact, for the third time in four years — Brown entered the offseason as one of the most sought-after pitchers in a thin market. One of Brown’s priorities was being able to spend time with his family, leading to speculation that he would return to Georgia as a member of the Braves. Colorado, Baltimore, and San Diego also pursued the right-hander. But after signing outfielder Brian Jordan, Atlanta couldn’t afford the type of money the Los Angeles Dodgers were prepared to offer. The record-setting contract — guaranteed over seven-years — totaled $105 million, eclipsing the seven-year, $91 million deal Mike Piazza signed earlier in the off-season with the New York Mets. Ironically, the Dodgers had traded Piazza to Florida in mid-May because they were reluctant to meet his salary demands. But under new ownership — Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., who had bid $1 billion for England’s Manchester United soccer team — the Dodger coffers opened wide. Just in case a record-setting paycheck wasn’t enough to erase his concerns about spending most of the season 3,000 miles from his family, the Dodgers also gave Brown the use of a private jet up to twelve times during the season to fly his wife and two sons to the West Coast. A “Star Wars” poster signed by producer George Lucas helped seal the deal, even though Brown was actually a Star Trek fan. Although the high-priced Dodgers endured a disappointing third-place finish in 1999, the blame didn’t lie with Brown. Solidifying his status as one of the few aces left in baseball, Brown won 18 games while ranking fourth in the NL with a 3.00 ERA.