(You can listen to this episode of Delmarva’s Own podcast by clicking this link.)
“To be honest, I don’t even watch Major League Baseball. I think it’s boring.”
The above quote was a surprising answer to a somewhat out of place question from me. We were interviewing the head coach of the Salisbury University baseball team for the first episode of the 2022 season of the Delmarva’s Own podcast. We were there to talk about the recent championship team and Brohawn’s experience coaching the team, so my question about the MLB lockout was somewhat off-topic. But I was curious about the feelings of a former MLB player who would have an informed opinion I didn’t usually have access to.
If I had been asked to predict his answer, “I think it’s boring” probably would have been towards the end of my list of possibilities. As I’d discover however, his answer had less to do with his feelings about MLB than it did his feelings about college sports. It wasn’t so much that he doesn’t like Major League Baseball. Rather, he is enveloped with a passion for college sports, which is appropriate given his current profession. People who know Coach Brohawn better than I do probably would have seen his answer coming. The fact is, his passion for college sports – particularly college football – was influential in setting the stage for the trajectory of his life.
Troy Brohawn lives with his wife and children in Dorchester County, in Vienna, just south of where he was born and raised – Cambridge, Maryland. He grew up on and around the diamond, much of that time watching his parents excel on the softball field. According to Brohawn, his father is enshrined in the Softball Hall of Fame as a modified-pitch softball player. Modified pitch softball – for the uninitiated – is a form of softball where the pitcher may pitch the ball as fast as possible without using a windmill delivery. There’s slightly more to it than that, but that’s essentially what “modifies” it from its slow-pitch and fast-pitch counterparts.
I sometimes wonder if slow-pitch softball was created for pretend athletes like me. You know, people who weren’t particularly adept at hitting a fast ball hurtling towards them. Hitting a slow pitch is easier. While modified-pitch changes this a bit, it might be argued that it is still a hitter’s game, just with more challenge in the batter’s box. It leads me to wonder if somewhere down deep, this might be the reason Brohawn took a liking to hitting a baseball rather than pitching one. Psychologists will tell you that boys with a healthy relationship with their father is important, and that boys often want to emulate what they see in their dad. So, given that Brohawn’s father was a standout player in a hitter’s game, Troy grew up with an affinity for doing what he saw his father do well.
The irony here is that Brohawn’s 12-plus years in professional baseball were as a pitcher. Even so, his aspirations in baseball were to be a great hitter. Brohawn told us he found hitting to be more challenging than pitching. “…Especially in a small town. You threw hard; not many people threw hard. [So] it wasn’t as challenging.” He was a good pitcher throughout his school years, and was mainly recruited out of Cambridge-South Dorchester High School as a left-handed pitcher. But even as he verbally committed to play for LSU, an athletic department known for baseball as well as football, it simply wasn’t what he wanted to do. He wanted to hit. And finally, he found someone who would commit to him that they wanted him as a hitter and fielder rather than a pitcher.
As iy turns out, University of Nebraska Head Coach John Sanders had something else going for him too. As mentioned above, Brohawn is fanatic about college sports – particularly college football – and the opportunity to be an athlete at Nebraska in the mid-1990’s was too much to turn down. At the time, Nebraska had twice been NCAA Division I college football champions and was building into a state of dominance during the 1990s. They’d win three national titles in the ‘90s, and Nebraska athletics was all anyone in that part of the country cared about. According to Brohawn, it didn’t matter what sport, Nebraska fans would pack the house by the thousands, and it was just the atmosphere he wanted to be a part of. So Nebraska it was.
Coach Sanders was true to his word, and Brohawn played the outfield for Nebraska his freshman year. But, as sometimes happens, injuries were making things challenging for the Huskers and forced the coach’s hand. Early in his sophomore year the team’s first baseman lost two teeth when he was hit in the face with a pitch. Coach Sanders moved Brohawn from the outfield to first base. But the injuries kept coming and began piling up for the pitching staff. Knowing Brohawn had a successful history of pitching in high school, Coach Sanders took a chance and asked Brohawn if he’d take a turn pitching until some of his teammates began to heal up. Team player that he was, Brohawn answered the call and took the hill. That’s when talent – and perhaps a bit of fate – stepped in. Troy Brohawn would never do anything but pitch from then on, and for good reason.
In his first year pitching for the Huskers, Brohawn ended up an All-American with a 13-0 record. Hindsight is easy here, and even Troy will tell you he was lucky to overcome his own “stupidity” in his refusal to pitch. “I mean I was a left-handed pitcher throwing low-90s coming out of high school and I didn’t want to pitch.” Fortunately, destiny had other ways of working things out.
The San Francisco Giants selected Brohawn at #116, in the fourth round of the 1994 MLB Draft. He’d soon learn professional baseball was a different reality than what he’d experienced to that point. He wasn’t a hard-throwing lefty in a small town anymore. He was one of thousands of professional ball players trying to make it to their big league clubs. It would be seven years and multiple Tommy John surgeries before he’d finally crack the big leagues after being included as the “player-to-be-named-later” in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001. That was the year he finally made his major league debut, and the year would be memorable for him.
There was nothing that particularly stood out about Brohawn’s rookie season, at least from a performance standpoint. He served as a middle-relief pitcher with a serviceable record in 59 game appearances. Being a left-handed pitcher, he was primarily utilized to get left-handed hitters out. Eventually, the Diamondbacks met the New York Yankees in the World Series. Brohawn watched most of the series from the bullpen until was finally called upon in game six to close out a 13-run lead. The Diamondbacks won game six and would go on to do something nobody had done in the previous three years – defeat the New York Yankees in the World Series. When called upon, Brohawn did his job, and in so doing, set in motion a pattern of winning which would, in some ways, be unmatched by anyone else in the history of baseball.*
Someone with more time and energy than I have for the research may be able to offer insight as to how often players spend three or less years in the Majors and take home a World Series ring. My hunch is that it’s not many. But that’s the way it was for Brohawn as nagging injuries finally got the best of him. He was out of professional baseball in 2004 and would take some time away from the game.
At the insistence of his mother, Brohawn returned to college to finish his degree in physical education and found his way to Salisbury University for the first time. He wasn’t all that familiar with the school, even though he’d lived less than an hour’s drive away for most of his life. While there, his old high school football coach, Doug Fleetwood, who was now coaching football and baseball at SU, asked if Brohawn would help coach the SU pitchers, which he did. After earning his degree in 2009, Brohawn returned to his high school alma mater and served as the baseball coach, leading them to a state title in 2013. On the heels of the Championship, SU came calling again, this time offering Brohawn the head coaching position.
It’s worth stopping for a moment to consider what Brohawn was taking over, because it was significant. The historical data provided on the SU athletics website begins in 1964 and shows a record of steady improvement over the years. When Fleetwood took over the coaching helm after the 2000 season, the team’s historical winning percentage was .560. This is an admirable record, particularly given wins were hard to come by in the first few years.* In Fleetwood’s 14 years as coach, he amassed a record of 476-149-5 for a winning percentage of .710, a significant improvement. SU had played in the NCAA Tournament 15 straight years, and under the leadership of Fleetwood, established themselves as a perennial powerhouse in the Division. They had hosted the NCAA Division III Regional Championship, and appeared in the Division III World Series tournament four times, but had yet to secure their ultimate goal.
The program hadn’t won the ultimate prize yet, a National Championship. At the time, Fleetwood was also part of the coaching staff for the SU football team and had second-givings about multiple coaching commitments. According to Will DeBoer, Assistant Director of Sports Information at SU, Coach Fleetwood, “felt like the baseball program deserved a full-time coach and decided to step away.” SU didn’t have to look far to find a coach they believed knew how to win a title.
Brohawn, having won a World Series Championship and a High School Championship previously, was just the person to take over the helm. The idea that he knew something about winning was correct, and he continued to improve upon the Sea Gulls’ traditional winning ways. And, as hoped, he’d finally bring the long-desired National Championship victory in 2021. Since his first season in 2015, Coach Brohawn has compiled a record of 205-58-1, rounding to a .777 winning percentage.*
Upon winning the title at SU, Troy Brohawn became one of only two people to have both a World Series ring and a Division III National Championship as either a player or coach. The other is Scott Brosius who won three World Series titles with the New York Yankees and coached his own alma mater, Linfield College, to its own Division III National Championship in 2013. Somehow, if useless trivia is of any interest to you, this little fact gets even more interesting.
As mentioned previously, Troy Brohawn only played in the major leagues for three years. He was fortunate enough to play in the World Series in his rookie season, when he made one appearance. He made three outs, the second of whom was, you guessed it…Scott Brosius, who unceremoniously popped up for the second out of the inning. It’s not all that big of a deal, unless you consider the trajectory of Brohawn’s life and where we find him at this stage of his career.
As my podcast co-host, Randy, and I met to record the intro to the Brohawn episode, we reflected on our first impressions of the man. We agreed he was an “all business” type of personality, at least when it came to baseball. There wasn’t much joking (no matter how hard Randy or I tried) and he was quick to praise those around him. He was humble and straight-forward without a hint of the grandiosity someone might expect from a person who’s experienced as much success as he has.
But we shouldn’t be surprised, should we? After all, he is one of Delmarva’s Own. He knows his roots, where he came from, and that he’d be nowhere without what Delmarva made him through the years.
*Other Stuff I Just Have to Mention
- While Brohawn joins Brosius as the only other person to own a MLB World Series ring and Division III National Championship ring, he is the only person to have also won a state championship in baseball having done this in 2013.
- It seems worth noting that in a conversation we had with Dr. Kirkland Hall about Negro Leagues baseball on the Eastern Shore, he mentioned his desire to play ball at Salisbury University after high school. While the coach at the time wanted to have him there as a player, he was told that Salisbury wasn’t ready for a black ball player on its team. One wonders if SU’s early records would have been better with the talent they’d been refusing, because it’s only gotten better after integration.
- As to Brohawn’s winning percentage through the 2021 season (.777) – Religious scholars will note that the number “7” has significance throughout many religious traditions. It is associated with the genesis of all things and with goodness and perfection. Seems an appropriate winning percentage for a coach who brings the first title to SU.
- Perhaps my favorite tidbit from my research for this piece…
The 2021 team went 34-4 on their way to their National Championship. One of those losses stands out. On May 7 they lost to Southern Virginia University. The game was 23 innings long, was played over a two-day period and was the longest game in NCAA Division III recorded history.
SVU ended their season with a record of 1 win and 25 losses.
You can’t make this stuff up.