I have to be honest. I have never seen the play.
I watched a lot of baseball during my time with the Cubs. But during the bottom of the 9th inning on September 23, 1998, I was in the Milwaukee County Stadium third-base dugout tunnel – waiting for the game to be completed. I was too far back to see anything. I could hear the dugout and the stands, but I didn’t know what was going on.
All I knew was, when I went from the clubhouse to the tunnel, the Cubs had a lead. I could tell that there were two out. Then all of a sudden, the crowd got loud – but not in a home run sort of way – and Cubs personnel started exiting the dugout in a hurry. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a one-time 7-0 Cubs lead had turned into a loss.
This was not good. There were only three games left in the regular season, and the Cubs were in a tight wild-card race.
Before manager Jim Riggleman addressed the media after the game, I had no choice. I had to ask him what happened. “I don’t know,” he said. “He dropped the ball.”
Everyone who saw the play knew what happened. A ball was hit to left field, and Brant Brown didn’t catch it.
After Riggleman talked, I made sure to keep an eye on Brant. He stood there and faced the music. He didn’t make excuses.
At the end of the day, so to speak, the Cubs made the postseason. It just turned out that a Game 163 needed to get played, but what’s wrong with a little drama?
I sincerely hope Brant is remembered for a whole lot more than that one defensive play. For me, when I hear the name Brant Brown, I think of all the big hits he had during that 1998 season. And what stands out are the back-to-back Fridays during a 10-game winning streak May 29-June 8. Brant ended both Friday afternoon affairs with extra-inning homers off lefties, hitting a 2-run 11th-inning homer off Atlanta’s John Rocker and a 12th-inning roundtripper off the White Sox’s Tony Castillo.
And best of all, Brant’s home run trots were of the sprint variety.
Who knows? If Brant didn’t end both of those games, maybe the Cubs would have lost one of them – and not gone to the postseason.
Brant was a key contributor to the Cubs all year, batting .291 with 14 homers in his most extensive big league action. He played for the Cubs from 1996-1998 and again in 2000. He also spent time with Pittsburgh and Florida.
Late last week, I caught up with Brant – who is now the Seattle Mariners’ minor league offensive coordinator. Yes … an offensive coordinator. We obviously talked about his time with the Cubs – and that one specific play – but I did ask him to describe his job to me at the beginning of our conversation.
The title “offensive coordinator” is a different term than a lot of people are used to seeing associated with baseball. Tell me about your role with the Mariners.
Brant Brown: “Instead of having a hitting coordinator, a baserunning coordinator and a bunting coordinator, which are all kind of offensive aspects – since I do all three of them – they just kind of tabbed it as offensive coordinator. I know it sounds footballish. When I say offensive coordinator, I get the eye sometimes, like ‘What?’ Then I'll just be like, ‘I’m in charge of scoring runs.’ I also do the outfield defense as well, so there are a few different things on my plate to help out the Mariners in our minor league organization.”
I know you began your coaching career in the Texas Rangers’ minor league system – and that Scott Servais was the person who hired you when he was in charge of that team’s player development department (Brown and Servais were Cubs teammates from 1996-1998). How did it all go down?
“I was actually in Bakersfield (Calif.) after my playing career, and I was running a facility there called the Bakersfield Swing – where we gave lessons. There was a place next to us where the kids could develop fitness and get treatment, and we had a couple travel teams. This one day, I went out to Sam Lynn Ballpark – which was the High-A California League affiliate of the Texas Rangers. Scottie was the farm director of the Rangers at the time, and I saw him there. We just got to talking. About that time, it was about my fourth year of running the facility. I just said, ‘Hey man, if anything ever pops up, I would love to interview for a position in professional baseball.’ I was ready to get elevated above the level where I was and get back into something that I loved.
“It just happened to work out. After that season, for whatever reason, they needed a minor league hitting coach. Scottie called me and got me together with their hitting coordinator, Mike Boulanger, and we talked. I flew out to Arizona and did some work before spring training and then I got hired. It was kind of nice to be able to live in the town that I was working in for my first two years, and then I ended up spending six seasons with the Rangers at multiple levels as a hitting coach.”
It must have been neat reuniting with a former teammate.
“Yeah. We were teammates for three years. We were locker mates for three years, so he was right next to me at home. Obviously, I got to know him well; I'm not going to say more than most, but we were side-by-side a lot of days for three years. We were both Packer fans so we had that in common. Actually, we went to a Packer game against the Bears after our playoff season of ’98. I really respected him. I got along with him, and it was just kind of a fortunate event to be able to run into him at that time and point in my life.”
Was there a point as players, just sitting around the clubhouse, that the topic of coaching after you were done playing came up?
“No. To be honest with you, I could always see Scottie as a manager, because most catchers – they're so involved with every aspect of the game. That's why they're usually so good at managing. You see a lot of them as managers. I never really had any thoughts of what I was going to do afterward. I did have a love of hitting. Even when we hit in the off-season, before video and breaking down of the swing was really a part of teaching hitting, my friends and I would always do it in the off-season. So I did have a passion for it. I just never really put it together until after my playing career was over.”
You mentioned the 1998 season. If you don’t mind, let’s get the elephant out of the way. Obviously, there was a dropped fly ball in Milwaukee. How long did it take to get over it? I know the reality was “no harm, no foul” – because the Cubs made the playoffs anyway.
“Yeah. You know, it was the most difficult time in my career for sure. To be honest, I don't really look back into my career a lot. I didn't really save a lot of stuff. I'm not really a dweller or someone that kind of opens up the yearbooks. I saved a couple things that I liked, but other than that, that's about it. But that was a really tough time. I mean, we were in the hunt. I know that we went to the playoffs anyway. As many questions as I got on it, I tried to play it off as, ‘Hey I got us an extra game in Chicago and made a lot of people a lot of money with that extra game and us winning that game.’ But it was a really tough time. It took me a long time to shake that off, and then I was traded (to Pittsburgh) that off-season.
“To be honest with you, I probably should've sought out some help because I had some issues with catching a fly ball after that – which I didn't really admit to anybody – and it really kind of cost me in Pittsburgh. It cost me my starting job in center field. They had to take me out. I had to take a couple games off, and then I ended up going to rightfield, kind of changing the angle. It afforded me the ability to get back on defense. I'm such a perfectionist, and it was really, really tough for me to let that go.”
You just said you should've sought help. Obviously, you’re able to talk about it. Does knowing that you needed to talk something out help you psychologically when you're working with minor league players?
“Yeah. If a kid is struggling, I make sure to let him know that it's better to talk about the problem than just to say that everything is OK. You can't really solve a problem unless you admit that there is one. In my coaching career, there have been a couple cases where the kids have had trouble with fly balls or whatever. I've kind of done a couple things drill-wise and skill-wise to help them get them through that because I was there. I just ended up solving the problem on my own. But it probably could've been a little bit expedited if I would have had some help.”
You played parts of five years in the majors. Looking back, what would you have liked to have known that you now know?
“I would probably say if there was a genie in a bottle … this is best case scenario for me. Put me right back in Chicago in ’98 right after the Philadelphia series in June where I had four home runs in two days. From that point on, if I could take what I know now, I think my career would've probably been a lot longer. The catch was a big incident for me; I never really recovered from my spiral with that.
“I had better numbers when I started than coming in and pinch hitting, but that would've also been something to go into because I’ve learned how to become a better pinch hitter or bench player. That comes from all this stuff that I talk about as a hitting coordinator with our guys – about controlling the zone. Laying off bad pitches and hitting good pitches. If I had known more about that, it probably would have helped me.
“I was kind of a high-energy guy. If I could've learned a little bit more about yoga and breathing and all this stuff I do now, I think things would definitely have been a little bit different. But, I get to use all those cases and scenarios to assist now and help the Mariners player development be the best that we can possibly be – and helping all these kids to make them better players and better people.”
Last question … what was the bigger major league highlight for you – the three-homer game against Philly or those back-to-back Fridays earlier in the year when you hit game-winning extra-inning home runs?
“Back in my old days, without thinking about things and kind of the right way of thinking, I would have definitely said the three home runs. That was awesome because it was one to each field. But the two walk-offs were just unbelievable. Especially hitting one off of John Rocker; I can't even remember seeing that baseball. They were both off of lefties.
“But truthfully, the point in which we beat San Francisco and we were able to run out on that field knowing that we won the wild-card game and we were going to the playoffs. For me, that would probably be the best moment. The people in the stands and the city afterward. That's definitely something that Chicago experienced more after winning the World Series last year, but it was just so nice for our players – to give back to the fans and the city of Chicago. To be able to put together a winning team. For me looking back, that would be the finest moment of my career.”