Starkey: Greg Brown living the dream in Pirates' booth
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Greg Brown often fields the same question from fans, some of them teenagers looking for a shortcut to the big leagues.
“How did you get here?” they wonder, as if Brown had been magically transported to a seat beside Steve Blass in a broadcast booth.
Imagine their surprise when Brown tells them his tenure began not with the raising of the Jolly Roger but with the raising of a toilet brush.
That's right, his second job in the organization found him scrubbing toilet bowls and jock straps for the Pirates' Instructional League team in 1979-80 — and that was after a stint as the second-string Pirate Parrot.
The man's story is a phenomenal case study in how to chase a dream.
But let's rewind to a time a before Brown, 52, became the dramatic voiceover to this remarkable Pirates season, before he coined the club's unofficial victory declaration — “Raise The Jolly Roger!” — and before he accompanied home runs with a rousing “Clear the deck! Cannonball comin'!” (a phrase suggested by his barber).
Let's go back to his boyhood home in Mechanicsburg, where, when he was too young to participate, Brown would sit on a hillside by himself announcing softball games involving his six older brothers.
“It was unbelievable,” said Charlie Brown, one of the six brothers. “We'd always think, ‘Man, this guy is just nuts.' ”
(Yes, the name is “Charlie Brown.” He is an attorney Downtown and exceedingly good-natured about the name. He even parlayed it into throwing out the first pitch at PNC Park on Charlie Brown Bobblehead Night a few years back.)
Greg Brown grew up close friends with another future Pittsburgh broadcaster, John Fedko. The two would recreate and announce sporting events they'd attended. Brown spent countless hours listening to Pirates games on KDKA radio.
“We shared a room, and at times, I couldn't get in the door,” Charlie Brown said. “He'd be in there with radios and antennas all over his desk, headphones, trying to pick up every Pirates game. He'd imitate the broadcasters. Milo Hamilton, he had him down pat.
“It'd be like Milo Hamilton was standing right next to you.”
The family had deep Western Pennsylvania roots. Brown's father, the late H.B. Brown Jr., was a coal-industry lobbyist from Connellsville. Brown's mother, Marcella, 89, is from Greensburg, and her father, Gus Kelley, was a U.S. Congressman from Westmoreland County.
Once-a-year visits to Pittsburgh, beginning in 1970, sparked Brown's love affair with the Pirates. He would roam the Hilton hotel lobby looking for visiting-player autographs while his father worked in town.
Later, the two would wait outside Gate A for Pirates players. One time, Roberto Clemente signed Brown's pad but accidentally kept his pen.
“That was a story I told everyone,” Brown said. “ ‘Roberto Clemente has my pen.' ”
At 18, Brown envisioned himself working for the Pirates, but he needed a way in. While taking classes at Harrisburg Area Community College (he would later attend Point Park) in January 1979, he found one, albeit a long shot. The Pirates were unveiling a new mascot, the Pirate Parrot, and were seeking applicants.
So how does one go about chasing a dream? He writes the kind of three-page letter Greg Brown wrote to the Pirates, beginning this way: “You need look no further, your Pirate Parrot is here.”
One of several hundred applicants, Brown wore an “I Hate The Phillies” T-shirt to his interview. His audition included a dance routine in the Parrot costume. He used a dramatically sped-up version of Leo Sayers' “Long, Tall Glasses” and jumped around like a maniac (yes, he was excitable even then).
The judges loved it. Just not enough. Brown will never forget the good news-bad news phone call, which went something like this: “You didn't get the job, but would you be interested in serving as the backup parrot and doing an internship?”
Heck yeah. That's a golden ticket when you're in the dream-chasing business.
Brown never did get to wear the parrot suit for a Pirates game, but he remembers causing a ruckus in it during a Penn State football game.
“I took some kid's tuba or trumpet and started marching around with it,” he said. “The director went crazy — ‘Get him off the field!' ”
The internship made Brown a super utility man in 1979, which, if you'll recall, was a pretty good year. He worked in the video scoreboard room at Three Rivers Stadium, pressed the button that set off fireworks and brainstormed promotional ideas.
During games, Brown worked next to legendary organist Vince Lascheid and was the first person to play the Sister Sledge hit “We Are Family” at the stadium (Brown would later book the group to play Three Rivers).
There are numerous stories as to how “We are Family” became the Pirates' anthem. Brown insists his is the correct one: Having heard the song in the clubhouse, he asked his brother Hank to buy the 45, and during a big moment in a game, spun it. Willie Stargell loved the song. The rest was history.
Which brings us to the toilet brush.
Then-Pirates assistant GM Joe O'Toole had been impressed with Brown's now-expired internship and offered him another golden ticket: A job as clubhouse attendant for the Instructional League team.
It wasn't pretty, but all the while, Brown kept his eyes on the broadcast booth. And nearly got fired along the way.
After landing work at KDKA to complement his Pirates' duties, Brown went against company rules by entering a contest to become “Pirates Announcer For A Night” next to Lanny Frattare.
The name Brown used to enter the contest? “Carl Spackler” from Greentree. That, of course, was Bill Murray's character from Caddyshack.
Brown won the contest. The name appeared in the newspaper. The bosses went crazy.
Hence, the following item appeared in the next day's paper: “Due to an illness, Carl Spackler will not be able to participate.”
Brown rebounded and soon found himself producing Pirates pregame and postgame shows and traveling with the high-profile KBL broadcast team: Steve Blass and Mike Lange.
Lange, whom Brown calls his mentor, gave the 26-year-old Brown a huge break in 1986.
Brown recounts the story by busting into a dead-on Lange impression: “He comes up to me and says, ‘Kid, we got a doubleheader next week against the Mets. There's no way I'm doing 18 innings. You better be ready.' ”
Sure enough, late during the Pirates' 7-1 victory in Game 1 on June 6, Lange took off the headset, turned to Brown and said, ‘Good luck, kid.' ”
“I knew he was ready,” Lange recalls. “It was time to give him a shot.”
Brown called two innings. The higher-ups weren't thrilled with Lange's maneuver, but Lange knew a fellow dream chaser when he saw one. He'd spotted in Brown an “unbridled passion to be a broadcaster.” The two remain close and exchange notes on each other's work.
From there, Brown took necessary detours through Youngstown (weekend sports anchor) and Buffalo (color analyst for Bills games, including three of the four consecutive Super Bowl losses).
He applied and was rejected for the Pirates play-by-play job. The same thing happened in Detroit, where he would have followed the iconic Ernie Harwell.
Finally, in 1994, Greg Brown's vision was realized. He won over the Pirates and team president Mark Sauer on his second try and was named as the replacement for Kent Derdivanis.
Twenty years later, Brown and the Pirates are in their glory.
If it's true that the team's play over the past 19 years has not often matched Brown's I-just-won-the-lottery enthusiasm, nobody can make that claim this season.
As Carl Spackler might say: “It's a Cinderella story outta nowhere.”
Not that Brown has ever apologized for his fervent style.
“I remember my brother relaying a message from his buddies: ‘You get a little too excited,' ” Brown recalled. “I said, ‘I get too excited? You tell your buddies to stick it.' I said, ‘It's OK for Myron Cope to scream when the Steelers score a preseason touchdown or for my buddy Mike Lange to get excited when the Penguins score, but the minute a Pirates guy gets excited about Pirates baseball … you tell your buddies to stick it.'
“I will never, ever, apologize for that.”
Brown lives a life of perpetual motion, most of it at baseball stadiums. That is, when he's not at home in Leet Township with wife, Kim and, son, Ryan, 14, or at one of an endless string of speaking engagements. As broadcast partner Bob Walk says, Brown agrees to pretty much everything.
Does he have a call planned for win No. 82 or a possible playoff-clincher?
Not at all.
“I'm not going to look down the road,” Brown said. “I'm going to enjoy the moment. This is unbelievable stuff.”
It's a dream, actually.
A living dream.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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