Memories are made of moments.
As great as Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg was - a consistently good hitter and spectacular fielder - during his 15-year Cubs career, he will always be remembered by most Cubs fans old enough to remember for his exploits on a single afternoon. On June 23, 1984 at Wrigley Field, Sandberg hit game-tying home runs off Cardinals relief ace Bruce Sutter in the ninth and 10th innings of a game that the Cubs eventually won. It has become known as the "Sandberg Game."
The memory of great Cubs players like Sandberg, Kerry Wood, and Gabby Hartnett have been enhanced by their exploits in a single game or - in Hartnett's case - a single at-bat. Even lesser players like Willie Smith, Don Cardwell, Dick Drott ,and Burt Hooton are remembered in a favorable light because of a single, fleeting accomplishment.
But this enduring fame has an ugly flipside.
While writing a recent post about the amazing 1908 National League pennant race in which the famous "Merkle's Boner" game was the central event, I thought about how unfair it was that a fine ballplayer and, by many accounts, a better human being like Fred Merkle could forever be branded a "bonehead" because of a single event from a game he played in when he was 19 years old.
Merkle was the starting first baseman on five NL pennant winners and hit .273 over 16 major league seasons - including four with the Cubs (1917-20). I recall that several of his teammates - Al Bridwell, Rube Marquard, Chief Meyers, and Fred Snodgrass - were interviewed in Lawrence S. Ritter's The Glory of Their Times (HarperCollins, 1966) and all four men held Merkle in high esteem.
Brant Brown, who performed adequately with the Cubs for 2 1/2 seasons, is among several modern-day players (Bill Buckner and Leon Durham are among some others) who will always been regarded in a negative light - all because of a single mistake.
Brown was playing left field for the Cubs on Thursday, Sept. 23, 1998 in Milwaukee when he dropped a routine fly ball with two outs in the ninth, allowing three runs to score and causing the Cubs to lose to the Brewers, 8-7. The Cubs were tied for the NL wild-card lead with the New York Mets heading into the season's final weekend and the disastrous loss seemed to spell doom for the team's postseason hopes.
Brant Brown drops Geoff Jenkins' flyball on Sept. 23, 1998, costing the Cubs a devastating 8-7 loss in Milwaukee.
It is one of the Big Three traumatic events in my experiences as a Cubs fan. The others were the loss to the Padres in Game 5 of the 1984 NL Championship Series and the stunning defeat against the Marlins in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. All three events shook me to my core and in one case drove me to tears.
I didn't cry after Brown dropped that ball, but I came pretty damn close.
I recall it being a brilliantly sunny, autumn-like cool day and as the game progressed, I was in the process of moving from an apartment around the corner from Wrigley Field to new digs in the Bridgeport neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. As I made two trips back and forth between my old and new homes, the game progressed. I listened to most of the game on my car radio as I traveled up and down Lake Shore Drive and caught other bits and pieces on TV. I remember that boxes were scattered throughout the living room in my new apartment and that I had the game on a 16-inch TV placed on a stack of milk crates in the middle of the room with Pat and Ron's radio call blaring from a radio in the kitchen.
The Cubs, who were on their way for a season-ending three game series in Houston against the first-place Astros, appeared to have the game well in hand. Sammy Sosa hit his 64th and 65th home runs of the season and the Cubs led 7-0 after six innings.
Closer Rod Beck came on in the ninth to protect a 7-5 lead. I continued to haul boxes from my car to the apartment as Mark Loretta reached on an infield single and advanced to third on a Jeff Cirillo double. Jeromy Burnitz was intentionally walked and the strategy seemed sound after Marquis Grissom popped out to third baseman Jose Hernandez.
I was carrying a box of books from the kitchen to the living room when Geoff Jenkins lifted his fateful fly to left. The contents spilled on the floor as I heard the following:
Pat Hughes: Two down, the Brewers have the bases loaded, and a 2-and-2 count on Jenkins. Here's the pitch. Swung on. Fly ball to left field. Brant Brown going back. Brant Brown (pause) drops the ball!!!
Ron Santo: Oh nooooo!!!!!
Hughes: He dropped the ball!
Hughes: Three runs will score, and the Brewers have beaten the Cubs.
I'm not sure, but I may have screamed too as I watched on the small television screen as Loretta scored, Cirillo crossed the plate with the tying run, and Burnitz dashed home with the winning run.
I recall sitting on my couch in silence for close to two hours, thinking that a possible postseason berth that I had invested so much of my emotions into could be so cruelly dashed.
But my distress during those hours paled in comparison to what the 27-year-old Brown was experiencing in the visitor's clubhouse at County Stadium.
"When I dropped the ball against the Brewers, after the game I was crying in (manager) Jim Riggleman's office," Brown told WGN Sports executive producer Bob Vorwald in an interview Vorwald posted on his Chicago Baseball Stories blog. "It was so upsetting to me, because I am such a perfectionist. I wanted to go to the playoffs more than anyone and I certainly didn't want that to mean that we weren't going to go to the playoffs."
On a lighter note, Hughes shared the following story in the Santo documentary, "This Old Cub":
"After the game, I go down to the clubhouse and there (Santo) is with Riggleman.
"I saw something that probably has not been ever seen before in a big league clubhouse. I saw the manager trying to cheer up the broadcaster after the game."
Despite the error, the Cubs reached the postseason. But that one play is what Brown, now the hitting coach for the Frisco Rough Riders, the Texas Rangers Double-A affliate, continues to be asked about.
Never mind that he hit 14 homers and hit .291 in 124 games for the '98 Cubs - a season that included a walkoff 12th inning homer against the crosstown White Sox and a three-home run game against the Phillies. He was so highly thought of by my brother, Ron, that my sibling often sported that season a Cubs gray road jersey with Brown's number 37 stitched on the back.
While I was growing up and watching Cubs games with my father, Dad always said that I should never fault a player for a physical mistake. Ballplayers are, after all, human and people make mistakes. What I should fault a player for, Dad taught me, were a lack of hustle, poor fundamental play, a lack of concentration (hello, Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano), and a lack of preparation.
Brown was not guilty of any sins.
Even in the aftermath of that play, I never felt hatred for Brown. I felt sorry for him then and I continue to feel pity for him today.
"I don't talk about it much and to be honest, I hate it," Brown told Vorwald. "But it's a part of my life and I'm not going to say it didn't happen. I ran over there and the ball hit my glove. It's not like I wasn't paying attention and it's not like I wasn't trying hard."