Fresh Start In Pittsburgh Brant Brown's error didn't kill the Cubs, but people won't let him forget it

February 22, 1999

When the general manager calls you at home in the middle of the
off-season, it means one thing: You're moving. The G.M. might
mouth words--A change of scenery will do you good.... Hey, don't
take it out on us when we play you.... We're giving up quality
to get quality--but that doesn't register with you. You're just
waiting to hear where you're going. For Brant Brown the call
came on Dec. 15, while he was at home in Clovis, Calif., healing
from arthroscopic shoulder surgery for which the Chicago Cubs
had paid. Brown, the 27-year-old outfielder--best known for
dropping...hey, can we discuss this later?--had been with the
Cubs organization since 1992. Now he was a Pirate. Next stop,
Pittsburgh.

That's where Brown was a month later, attending something called
PirateFest, a three-day confab organized annually by the ball
club in an effort to convince the citizenry that this year's
team will be better than last year's team, and you should buy
your tickets now. While the fans were getting to know the new
and improved Pirates, Brant and his wife of two months,
Jennifer, were getting to know their new city. Brant learned the
way to the Pirates' weight room at Three Rivers Stadium, to the
Showcase Cinemas North in North Hills and to the Barnes & Noble
on Smithfield Street.

That's where he was on a Saturday in January, in the back of the
bookstore, sitting in a chair designed for a five-year-old. His
knees were in his chest as he thumbed through the hefty Baseball
Encyclopedia. He was looking up a player he wanted to know more
about: his new father-in-law, Buzz Stephen. There he was, on
page 2,402: Louis Robert Stephen, born July 13, 1944, in
Porterville, Calif., the same farming town where Brown had been
born and raised. The son-in-law went down the single line
devoted to Stephen's two games in the bigs, in 1968, when he was
a September call-up for the Minnesota Twins: one win, one loss,
4.76 ERA, 11 1/3 innings pitched, 11 hits, seven walks, four
strikeouts, three at bats without a hit, one putout, two
assists, one error. "Huh," Brown said as he reached the end of
the line. "He made an error."

The errors don't disappear, even after the ballplayer banishes
them from his brain. More than 30 years later Stephen has no
memory of his error, but there it is in the Baseball
Encyclopedia, recorded for all time.

So it will be for Brown. Unfair but true. No matter what he does
the rest of his days, some people will forever remember him for
the error he committed in Milwaukee on Sept. 23, 1998, at 4:38
p.m. It came when the Cubs were trying to qualify for postseason
play, wild-card style. In the bottom of the ninth they were
leading the Brewers 7-5, with two outs and the bases loaded. One
more out and Chicago's lead in the wild-card race would be half a
game over the New York Mets and three games over the San
Francisco Giants. The Cubs were looking good.

Brown was playing leftfield, having entered the game in the
eighth inning for his defensive skills, which are excellent. Rod
Beck was pitching. Geoff Jenkins was batting. The count went to 2
and 2. Jenkins lifted a fly ball to left. You'd call it a lazy
fly were it not for the afternoon glare and the fickle breezes
swirling through County Stadium and the hint of line drive on the
ball. Brown moved slightly back for it, got himself into
position, put his glove up. He didn't do this with the casual
nonchalance of an outfielder trying to earn style points. Brown
is a perfectionist and a workaholic, and he does everything
earnestly. Some of his teammates started taking a few steps
toward their dugout. All was safe. Brown was on the case.

It was the type of fly ball a player of Brown's ability could go
years without missing. But it was also the type of fly ball that
is missed once a day by somebody somewhere in the majors. The
ball bounced off the heel of Brown's glove and fell limply to
the soft outfield grass. It was a wretched sight, regardless of
your rooting interest. In an instant, three runs scored. The
Cubs had lost. The wild-card race had heated up. Brown sprinted
for the dugout, his head down, his cheeks red and hot, his mind
jumbled. Up in the Cubs' radio booth, team announcer Ron Santo,
a former Cub, was yelling mournfully into a microphone:
"Noooooo! Noooooo! Noooooo!"

The next days were a living hell for Brown. In the clubhouse
after the game he was the model of composure. He answered every
question from TV and radio reporters and beat writers. Excuses
were volunteered to him--the sun, the wind, the importance of
the out--and he rejected them all. His teammates, using
baseball's ancient gesture of support and affection, thwacked
him on the backside. The apologies Brown offered to them were
rejected. His manager, Jim Riggleman, said to him, "Brant, we
wouldn't be here without you." Those words were true. Brown was
rounding out a season in which he hit .291 in 347 at bats, drove
in 48 runs, hit 14 home runs, stole four bases and posted a .963
fielding percentage. But the skipper's words gave him little
comfort.

After the game the Cubs flew to Houston for the final series of
the season. When Brant checked into his hotel, he called
Jennifer, then his fiancee. They were on the phone for 40
minutes, most of them silent. Jennifer had been a top swimmer at
USC. She knew about the agony of defeat. But what could she say?
What could either of them say? Nothing. The next day was the
longest day off in Brown's life. He would put on the TV, see
himself and turn it off. The bright spot was a call from Ernie
Banks, a man of epic cheerfulness. Mr. Cub told Brown that life
would go on.

Life did go on. On Sept. 25 the Cubs played the Astros, and
Riggleman did something in the long-term interest of one of his
young, promising players. He put Brown in the lineup. Once again
Brown had an adventure in the outfield. An Astrodome pigeon
attacked him, pecking at the red button on the top of his cap.
Brant thought, All right, what's next? Bring it on. I can take
it. Then he looked in the bullpen, and his teammates were
laughing. A spell had been snapped. Later, Billy
Williams--Banks's old teammate, now a Chicago coach--told Brown
the pigeon was a reincarnated Harry Caray, the legendary Cubs
broadcaster, with a message for Brown that everything would turn
out all right.

Everything did turn out all right. The Cubs finished the season
in a tie with the Giants for the wild-card spot, beat them in a
one-game playoff and played October baseball for the first time
since 1984. After the win over the Giants, Ed Lynch, Chicago's
G.M., said to Brown, "All is forgiven, all is forgotten--don't
ever do it again."

The Cubs promptly got smoked by the Atlanta Braves in three
games in the Division Series, but that's not the salient fact.
The Cubs, defying their gloomy history, had caught a break and
so had the guy who made the error. Brant Brown was not going to
be the Bill Buckner of the 1990s.

But he's something.

One night during PirateFest, while Brown was signing autographs,
a man came up to the new Pittsburgh centerfielder and said,
"You're a fine young player, and we're glad to have you, and I
don't want to talk about the catch, but don't worry about it."
Brown smiled at the man, signed an autographed picture for him in
his swirling script, said thank you and thought, I'm not worried
about that play, and you are talking about it. Is that really
necessary? There were several similar occurrences during the
90-minute signing session.

"It bothers me that it keeps coming up," Brown said later. "To
me, it should have been over and done with the second we won the
playoff game with the Giants. What effect did the dropped ball
have on the final outcome of the season? None. We were the
wild-card team. If we hadn't won the wild card, then you'd
always wonder what would have happened if I had caught that
ball. But we did win it."

In the off-season Lynch went looking for pitching for the Cubs.
He was not looking to move Brown. "Brant is a homegrown player,
he's like a son," Lynch says. "As bad as I felt when we lost
that Milwaukee game, it was 10 times harder for Brant. The only
way we were going to give up Brant Brown was if we could get a
pitcher." The Pirates--rich in pitching, in need of an every-day
centerfielder--offered righthander Jon Lieber, well suited to
Wrigley Field. They wanted Brown.

Minutes after Lynch told Brown of the trade, Brown heard from
Pirates manager Gene Lamont. "Welcome," Lamont said. "We're gonna
get you 500 at bats." That would be 153 more at bats than Brown
had last year, his first full season in the majors.

Later, Cubs first baseman Mark Grace called Brown. "They're
doing you a favor," Grace said of his own club. "The Pirates
will give you 500 at bats."

That's what Brown was thinking about when he flew off to
PirateFest last month. He was leaving a team and a city he
loved, but he was going to a place where, for the first time, he
would be an every-day player. The move would be another step
away from "the mishap in Milwaukee," as Brown sometimes refers
to it.

When Brown reached the Westin William Penn in Pittsburgh, he
signed in as Will Hunting, borrowing the name of the movie
character. (Brown is a movie buff. When he played minor league
ball in Des Moines, he reviewed movies for an AM radio station
on a program called Brant Brown's The Big Show.) Brown used the
pseudonym because he knew what hot-stove league weekends in
Chicago were like. They drew the fanatics. "In Chicago, they'd
find you," he says. But PirateFest turned out to be different.
Friendly, civilized, mellow. It's been a long time since
baseball in Pittsburgh created any frenzy.

Brown knows that in Chicago the hot-stovers are playing "what
if" to pass the winter away. What if the Cubs had not won the
wild card and Brown had returned to Chicago? Would the Bleacher
Bums have adopted him in a display of irony? Or would they have
run him out of town? Could Brown have recovered? Brown says it's
futile to think about such things. He committed a single error
that could have haunted him for the rest of his life. Then he
was granted a reprieve. End of story.

Except for one thing. The error, in subtle ways, changed him.

"I'll never know why, at the single worst possible moment, I
missed a fly ball I've caught thousands of times in batting
practice," Brown says. "Sometimes I ask myself, Does the big guy
upstairs have a plan for me? Did he think I was becoming too
cocky or too arrogant? If it was a message, it worked. Missing
that ball has made me a better person. I feel like if that's the
worst thing in the world that ever happens to me, I'll be fine.
The whole thing has made me stronger. I can handle failure now."

In baseball, as in life, this is a most useful attitude.

COLOR PHOTO: CHARLES CHERNEY/CHICAGO TRIBUNE The ball bounced off Brown's glove and fell to the grass. It was a wretched sight. COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO "It bothers me that it keeps coming up," Brown says. "It should be over."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)