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 Smith-field 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? 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, wildcard 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 die final series of die season. When Brant checked into his hotel, he called Jennifer, then his fianc�e. They were on the phone for 40 minutes, most of diem 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 die TV, see himself and turn it off. The bright spot was a call from Ernie Banks, a mar of epic cheerfulness. Mr. Cub told Brown that life would go on.
Life did go on. Or Sept. 25 the Cubs played the Astros, and Riggleman did something in die 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 die red button on die top of his cap. Brant thought, All right, what's next? Bring it on. I can take it. Then he looked in die 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, die legendary Cubs broadcaster, with a message for Brown that everything would turn out all right.