Mark Brown: Two Good Cups of Coffee
Excerpt from the book, "Green Mountain Boys of Summer"
Non-fiction: From "Green Mountain Boys of Summer: Vermonters in the Major Leagues" (The New England Press, 2000). Book anthology featuring profiles of more than a century's worth of professional baseball players. Edited by Tom Simon with art by Lance Richbourg.
If there’d been a maternity ward on the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River south of Claremont, we would have at least two fewer subjects for this book. That wasn’t the case, however, so on July 13, 1959, Mark Anthony Brown, like Carlton Fisk before him, was born in the hospital at Bellows Falls. Crossing the river 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. Though Mark went to school I New Hampshire, he played organized sports in Vermont.
Mark Brown comes from a family that’s well known in local baseball circles. Some say his older brother, Frank, was a better pitcher than Mark. “I was always in his shadow,” said Mark, “and up there I probably m always will be.” Dave, the youngest of the three brothers, was drafted in 1988 by the Baltimore Orioles and pitched one year in the New York-Penn League for Erie, where his pitching coach was Mark. “Dave was wild,” observed his 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 as umpires.
Mark Brown followed the precedent of Carlton Fisk – born in Bellows Falls, raised in New Hampshire. And in the small world of Vermont baseball, it should come as no surprise that the two players had a connection before they took their games to the highest level.
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 eighty-eight m.p.h. 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 Loomis-Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut. In two seasons in the New England Prep School League, Brown pitched eighty innings, allowed thirty hits, struck out 157 batters, and was 8-2 with a school record 1.3 5 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 semipro Saxtons River [Vermont] Pirates. The team 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 ’79. Brown pitched some gems for the Pirates: a non-hitter and fifteen strikeouts against the Burlington A’s; a one-hitter against Hartford, New York; a seventeen-strikeout performance against the Burlington Expos; eighteen more strikeouts in a win over Essex; and seventeen k’s again, this time against the A’s. Two-thirds of the way through the ’78 season, Brown’s numbers were an impressive as his prep school stats: a 7-2 record and 108 strikeouts in fifty-five 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 at Brattleboro’s Stolte Field. Pitted against Brown was Dave Klenda, a former Tidewater Tide who’d joined the Maples the previous week after seven years in the minors, and for eight innings the two pitchers 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, twelve strikeouts, and four walks. In the bottom half of the inning, Brattleboro’s Pete Campbell stepped to the plate with one out and hit a towering home run to win the game.
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 said. “[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 bal 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 said. Of course Campbell would say that – it was his own son who hit the home run.
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 only fifty people there and they had to pass the hat to pay the umpire, they were into it. It was such a good time, such a good bunch of guys to play with. It would be neat to get all those old guys together, maybe play some old men’s softball.”
Despite finishing his junior year at UMass with a disappointing 4-6 record, Brown was selecte6d early in the sixth round of the 1980 record, Brown was selected early in the sixth round of the 1980 draft. 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 in Bluefield, West Virginia, and soon thereafter to Class-A ball in Miami. After ten appearances, all starts, his ERA stood at 4.73 – almost a full run higher than it would be at any other stop in his minor league career.
Eventually Brown returned to New Hampshire after the Orioles shut him down for the rest of the season due to a sore shoulder. The injury – tendonitis, officially – was slow to heal, forcing him to miss the first part of the 1981 season. “It’s kind of a bummer,” Brown said, looking back. “You’re twenty-one years old, it’s your first full year of pro ball, and you’re on the disabled list.” The injury taught him to be a better all-around pitcher, even if it tempered his velocity. His newfound knowledge helped him rise rapidly through the minors.
Each time Brown was promoted 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’d earned a spot on Baltimore’s forty-man roster and his first invitation to major league spring training. After being assigned to the Orioles’ top farm team in Rochester, New York, Brown suffered a torn labrum and missed parts of June, July, and August. The next year he returned to Rochester and enjoyed an eventful summer. First he got engaged. He also pitched well in forty-four games. Then on August 9, 1984, Mark Anthony Brown became the thirty-fourth and, to this date, last Vermonter to play in the major leagues.
The first big league batter 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] 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 knock, 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 said. “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 said. “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 lows 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 well for Baltimore over the last couple months of the ’84 season. In nine games he gave up fewer hits than innings pitched and struck out more batters than he walked. To cap it off, he picked up his first – and, as it turned out, only – big league win on the last day of the season, striking out Red Sox slugger Jim Rice for his final out. Then Brown and his teammates set off on a three-week, fifteen-game barnstorming tour of Japan, playing five games against the Yomiuri Giants, another five against the Hiroshima Carp, and four more against regional all-star teams. “In Japan we played on a couple of skin fields,” Brown said, 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’d seen what Brown could do and in need of more balance in their bullpen, traded him to the Minnesota Twins for lefthander Brad Havens. Baltimore’s pitching staff was talented (second in the A.L. in ERA in 1984) and extravagantly deep, whereas Minnesota’s bullpen had closer Ron Davis and a lot of problems. Best of all for Brown, the Twin’s new manager, Ray Miller, had been the Orioles’ pitching coach. Here was a chance to establish himself with an emerging team with good hitting, good defense, and little pitching.
Brown pitched well at Triple-A Toledo, where the Twins first assigned him. 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. ‘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 and after two weeks his ERA stood at 11.57. By August he’d 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 Len Whitehouse, the two Green Mountain Boys of Summer playing together for the first time. To his credit, Brown pitched admirably. His ERA was 2.94, he reduced his walks-to-innings pitched ration to an all-time low, and his arm felt great. Unfortunately, no one seemed to. care.
Brown went to spring training in 1986 hoping to get one more shot, but he was immediately sent down to Toledo. Then he got released. Brown went home, thinking, who’s going to pick up a twenty-seven-year-old reliever three weeks into the season? The surprising answer was Baltimore. Brown played out the year at Double-A Charlotte, where he’d 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 said.
He returned to Rochester and played in a adult league for a couple of seasons, intending to lay first base exclusively but eventually giving in and pitching a few games. Mark enjoyed playing with his brother Dave for the first time but ended up hurting his shoulder.
Today Brown lives in the Kansas City, Missouri area with his wife and three daughters. He remains an active instructor and mentor for young ball players as the youth pastor and athletic director for his church. He also instructs at Mac-N-Seitz, an indoor facility run by fellow major leaguers Mike McFarlane and Kevin Seitzer. He talks about wanting to share his love for the game, and about how maybe he can help kids realize their dreams, or better yet, get a good 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 doesn’t 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.”
SIDEBAR: ‘Border Vermonters’ Meet
Back in 1965, when Mark Brown was in grammar school, he served as Carlton Fisk’s batboy for the championship Bellows Falls American Legion team. Mark’s uncles umpired Fisk’s games, so they brought the six-year-old to the field with them and charged him with retrieving the bats. Did the two future major leaguers ever speak? Brown doesn’t think so. “I was a little kid,” he said. “To me [Fisk] looked’ d like a giant.”
Brown does credit Fisk for opening doors. “It all started with Pudge Fisk,” Brown said. “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.’ That gave guys like myself an opportunity.”
But did the two Bellows Falls “natives” ever meet in the majors? Their careers overlapped chronologically, after all, and bother 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 said. “[Fisk] wouldn’t come out of batting practice until late, so it was hard to see him. He was always king of touch 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. I should have tried to break down the barrier and say hi, but I didn’t do it.”
SIDEBAR II: A Conspiracy Against Vermonters?
In a cruel twist of baseball fate, when the Minnesota Twins recalled Mark Brown from the minors in 1985, the pitcher he replaced was fellow Vermonter Len Whitehouse. It was a remarkable coincidence, especially considering that only three of the close to 1,000 players active in 1985 hailed from the Green Mountains. Was there some quota on Green Mountain Boys in the major leagues?
Brown remembers the circumstances clearly. “Lenny Whitehouse met me at the clubhouse, and he told me he was being sent down, and it would be really helpful if didn’t have to close out the lease and lose all this money if I would just move into his apartment,” Brown said. “So that’s how I got the chance to meet him. I said, ‘I hate to meet you under these circumstances,’ and Whitehouse said, “That’s all right.”
For his part, Whitehouse has blocked it out of his memory: “I don’t remember anything from ’85 except giving up a grand slam. It was a bad year fro me. But the way I understand it, the guy who replaced me when I wasn’t down was Mark Brown, and not only did he take my job, he also took my apartment. I was only there for a week so I don’t even remember where I was living.”