Do you know what you just did! Huh, do you? You just threw a ------- perfect game! A perfect game!
- Teammate Ron Oester face-to-face with Tom Browning at the bottom of the pile of celebrating players that formed after Browning pitched the first perfect game in Reds history
As Tom Browning recalled it, the pitch to the Dodgers' Tracy Woodson was "forehead high," and the videotape of the pitch confirms it. But Woodson, the 27th and final batter to face Browning on the night of Sept. 16, 1988, swung and missed. And that forehead-high fastball sent Tom Browning into the history books. He had just pitched the 13th perfect game in baseball history and the first in the history of baseball's oldest professional team.
Sept. 16, 1988 is a date that will live forever in Reds lore as the night at Riverfront Stadium that a durable workhorse of a pitcher, whose manager and teammates affectionately compared to a bulldog and referred to as "Puggy," attained a piece of baseball immortality by accomplishing one of the game's rarest feats. Announced attendance for the game was 16,591, but a two-hour and 27-minute rain delay sent many fans home early. Not that you would know it by the number of fans who say they were at the game. Based on that number, the capacity at Riverfront Stadium would have to have been in the hundreds of thousands. Such is the allure of perfection. So infrequently does it occur, that when it unfolds in our midst, our desire to have a share in it alters our recollections and fills the empty seats at the old stadium on that improbably magical night.
Tom Browning was drafted by the Reds in 1982. Soon after, he learned how to throw a screwball, the pitch that helped get him to the big leagues, and that became his signature delivery throughout his career. Not gifted with a blazing fastball, Browning learned early on that, in order to succeed, he would have to rely on his wits as much as his arm. After a successful series of starts in September of 1984, Browning had made a strong impression on the Reds coaching staff and was a favorite to make the 1985 rotation.
Browning not only earned a spot in the rotation in 1985, but put together one of the great rookie seasons ever enjoyed by a Major League pitcher. His 20 wins were the most by a rookie since 1954 and the most by a Reds rookie since 1899. He finished in the league's top 10 in wins, starts, innings pitched, strikeouts and shutouts. His performance merited a second-place finish in league Rookie of the Year voting and won him The Sporting News Rookie Pitcher of the Year Award. His picture appeared in Time magazine. He followed his remarkable freshman season with a year that was statistically in keeping with his rookie campaign but that lacked the impressive won-loss record.
Browning remained a fixture in the starting rotation for the next nine years. He led the league in starts four times and pitched more than 200 innings in six different seasons. He anchored Reds pitching staffs that helped the club to four consecutive second-place finishes and a world championship. His work ethic centered on taking the ball whenever it was given to him and finishing what he started. Being removed from games before he felt it was necessary rankled him. He pitched quickly and was not afraid to pitch inside. His tenacity and fearlessness led his teammates to liken him to a bulldog when he was on the mound.
As aggressive and stubborn as he was on the mound, Browning's ability to inject levity into life off the field remains one of his most endearing qualities. From his first Spring Training with the Reds when he performed a memorable Babe Ruth impersonation, Browning made it clear that he would bring an element of lightheartedness to the proceedings. Of course, nothing exemplified this spirit more than his infamous rooftop sojourn during a Reds game in Chicago in 1993. In the midst of an otherwise forgettable game in an otherwise forgettable year, Browning snuck out of the Reds dugout and worked his way to one of the rooftops that overlook Wrigley Field. As Browning, in full uniform, waved to the crowd, Kevin Mitchell blasted a two-run home run in a game the Reds won, 4-3. "You have to enjoy this game as much as you can," Browning said. "You're only here for a little while. I got up there, and [Mitchell] hit a homer that made us win the game. I sparked them."
For more than a decade, Tom Browning was inextricably linked with Cincinnati and the Reds. From his stellar rookie season to his unannounced departure from Game 2 of the 1990 World Series to see the birth of his son, Browning has given Reds fans a host of memorable moments. But for all of the memories he created here, none resonates more than the night he was perfect. "[After the last pitch,] I remember [second baseman] Ron Oester tackling me and after that, it honestly felt like an out-of-body experience. It was like I was 15, 20 feet above the [celebratory] pile and looking down at it," Browning remembered.
The game of Sept. 16, 1988, has become an out-of-body experience for a great many Reds fans who recall it with such clarity, who treasure the memory of it so deeply, that they have come to feel like they were there, basking in the glow of perfection, jumping on that celebratory pile.