Their story wasn’t supposed to end this way; not at this time and not in this manner. A major league marriage fitted for a storybook tale was one that ended with a family split up in despair, finalized by the abbreviated life of its main character.
Marshall “Mark” Brownson was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in 1993 in the 30th round out of Wellington High School in Wellington, Florida after he helped lead his team as a senior to the Class 4A State Championship game. He signed with the Rockies in 1994 as a draft-and-follow pick after spending one season at Palm Beach Community College.
Not blessed with the overpowering stuff that propelled many of the Rockies pitching prospects, Brownson slowly ascended the ranks due to his command, ultimately becoming a full-time starter in 1997 at Double-A New Haven. Buoyed by his pinpoint control, as he matured on the mound he learned to use his ability to spot the ball to his advantage.
“It wasn’t until ’97 that I started learning how to set hitters up better,” Brownson said to the Denver Post.
The door finally opened for Brownson in 1998 and he knocked it down in a major way. When Rockies starter John Thompson got hurt, they called up Brownson for an emergency start. And the mark he left is still talked about to this day by Rockies fans.
Unfazed by the almost 30,000 people in attendance and the lineup of the league-leading Houston Astros—which included future Hall of Famers Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell—Brownson dominated. He flirted with a no-hitter into the sixth inning, and finished his first Major League game with a four-hit shutout en route to a 5-0 victory.
“I can’t imagine delivering that performance in your first game in the big leagues,” said Rockies manager Don Baylor to the Denver Post after the game.
While his performance might have surprised his manager, Brownson on the other hand had an eerie level of trust in his stuff that evening. Even if the Astros hit the ball, he felt it would find its way into a glove for an out.
“For some reason I had confidence out there,” he remarked to the Post. “I could feel that they were going to hit it at somebody if I just throw strikes and it worked out, you know?”
Well after pitching a shutout in your first Major League game, surely the road is paved directly to super-stardom, right? Think again. Many pro careers have been derailed due to a string of bad luck, declining skill, injury, and the vices of life away from the clubhouse. Brownson’s tale is a mixture of all of the above. One that turned a rising star towards a vicious vortex that swallowed his life whole.
Alongside Brownson to manage the peaks and valleys of his career was his ex-wife Stephanie. They met in 1998 while he was with the Rockies and quickly became an item.
“He was my prince charming,” said the former Mrs. Brownson in an exclusive interview a week after his death. “He came and swept me off my feet. I literally met him at a bar during the day. He told me that he was a plumber. He was sitting there with agent and his financial advisor. We sat there and talked and he told me that was in construction. I said, ‘Construction, I thought you said [plumber].’ It was cute; they went and got a newspaper and he was on the front of the sports page.”
Brownson was sent back to the minors after making one more appearance with the Rockies in 1998. During his second trip to the mound, he couldn’t quite recapture the magic he had in his debut. Which, in turn, may have led some to believe that he caught lightning in a bottle his first time around. As he returned to beating the bushes, Stephanie went along with him.
“He was up for a short time and then he got sent down to Colorado Springs and I went with him,” she said. “We were pretty inseparable from that time on. I was his buddy. We had so much fun. I used to go on the road with him. I was the wife that wasn’t supposed to see the things I saw. We had such a good time.”
The Rockies gave Brownson an extended look in 1999, bringing him up for seven starts during the middle of the season. He posted unimpressive numbers, averaging just over four innings per start with a 7.89 ERA. At the end of the season, the Rockies waived him, which gave him the opportunity to sign with the Phillies.
During his time with the Phillies, it was at Yankee Stadium that Brownson was able to have his last hurrah on hallowed grounds. While he took the baseball world by storm in his debut, his ex-wife said it was his appearance at Yankee Stadium that he savored the most.
“His favorite baseball moment was when he was pitching with the Phillies,” she said. “It was the first time the Phillies had beaten the Yankees in Yankee Stadium in a long time. He was the pitcher and he kept having to put his head down because they were chanting, ‘Let’s Go Yankees.’ He was like ear-to-ear grinning. He kept going to put his head down and he was smiling like they were applauding him.”
Trying to take advantage on the new lease of his baseball life, Brownson pitched the entire 2000 season with an undiagnosed torn labrum in his right shoulder. He struggled through four more minor league seasons, bouncing between affiliated teams and independent ball looking to recapture his form. Sadly, it never returned.
“His baseball career was over before his career was over,” she said. “He pitched with a torn labrum for a year in 2000 and it just never got better. The doctor who fixed it left a drill bit in his shoulder. They couldn’t read MRIs after that.”
At 30, with his pitching career behind him, Brownson struggled with the transition from the only occupation he knew. Professional athletes commonly experience difficulty finding their path once the regimens of reporting to the clubhouse and playing in front of the fans are gone. To Stephanie, the difference was immediately noticeable once he could no longer put on the uniform.
“Once baseball was over, he was never the same,” she said.“He was so lost; he had no identity for a long time because all he knew how to do was play baseball. He didn’t know how to mow a lawn, change a tire, all he knew was baseball. The first year, year and a half, was really hard for him; he was so depressed. … It was a sad process. We saved up some of the money that was left from baseball, but there wasn’t a whole lot left because it was expensive to play, especially when you’re up and down.”
Together, the couple opened a pool cleaning business in Florida and then later relocated the business to Arizona. During that time, Mark and Stephanie became parents, giving birth to their first daughter Madisyn, who is now 11.
“He was an incredible dad,” she said. “We didn’t have kids until after baseball. He loved that girl [Madisyn] more than anything in the world.”
Even though Brownson was invigorated by his newly found fatherhood, the pain in his arm continued to throb. The complications from his first surgery left doctors unwilling to open him up again just on the suspicion that something might be wrong.
“It was just a struggle,” she said. “His injuries never got better. We think he re-tore his shoulder again, but without the ability to read MRIs, there were not many doctors that were going to go in. The bone grew back around that drill bit. We never knew; his shoulder hurt him all the time. He had tendinitis in his arm. They gave him a lot of pills for it. They gave him a lot of medication.”
Brownson’s history with using pain medication dated back to his days in professional baseball. Stephanie noted that while he was active, he was provided with whatever medication was necessary to get him to toe the rubber. It started a vicious cycle of using drugs to dull the pains that come with playing through injuries.
“It all started with injuries and went downhill from there,” she recalled. “I remember him playing with the Phillies and his arm hurt so bad and they would give him cortisone, pills, greenies … and he would take all this stuff to play and that was okay. The minute you weren’t with that team—when you come out of that, that’s how you’re taught how to handle that [the pain].
“I’m angry because if somebody else could be taught something different, then maybe this wouldn’t happen. You are an asset and you need that asset to be the highest of its capabilities at any cost. Once you’re there you’ll do anything to stay there. That’s just it; you’ll do anything to stay there without thought to anything else.”
As Brownson’s drug use increased, his ex-wife did her best to hold the family together. They had a second daughter, Aliah, in 2010, but his addictions were making it increasingly difficult for the union to remain solvent.
“She’s six and I think he’s seen her under ten times,” she said. “After she was born, I left within a year. He got into heroin and I left pretty quickly.
“It was no secret; Mark’s arrest records are online. It’s so sad. We tried to move from Florida to Arizona to have it be better, then we moved from Arizona back to Florida and it didn’t get better. It’s so sad and part of the reason why I wanted to talk to someone.”
After divorcing in 2012, Brownson started to lose control over his addictions. After multiple arrests, he lived a vagabond lifestyle that included alleged bouts of homelessness.
“He hasn’t seen his kids in a couple of years, but my husband and I, we didn’t ask him to pay child support,” she said. “We just wanted him to call his kids once a week. He was able to talk to his daughter a couple days before he passed. He wasn’t well. It was sad because he didn’t have any recourse. He was staying with his mom; his dad wouldn’t let him in his house. He struggled with that. I wish that more people would know. He went from having a good life to being homeless in Florida.
“Within a week of his death, he slept on a park bench. I know for a fact because he called me the next day. Then his mom let him in. Nobody cared about him like that. He was living with this girl Amanda [Marsh] who was living in Lake Worth. Then he was in a trailer that didn’t have windows. We spent a lot of time worrying about him. We’ve been calling him to see if he was okay. We sent him little bits of money for food and whatever.”
Amanda Marsh passed away from a reported heroin overdose a week prior to Brownson’s death, further clouding the final days of his tragic end. During their last conversation, Stephanie’s increasing worry was that Mark was going to have the same fate as his brother Travis, who died from an overdose in 2004.
“My last conversation with him, I begged him, ‘You cannot die on these kids.’”
While his ex-wife has remarried in attempt to move her life forward, the collateral damage is Brownson’s two daughters, both who will live their lives without the presence of their father. His oldest daughter has found the strength to become an anti-drug advocate.
“My 11-year-old has spent more hours worrying about him in the last five years that she hasn’t been able to talk to him,” she said. “She is so anti-drugs because of this. We do speaking at a women’s shelter for domestic violence. We had some of those problems. We speak how drug use in the home can affect everybody and my 11-year-old will talk about it.”
Reflecting on his life and passing, his ex-wife tried to find how telling the depths of his unfortunate journey could benefit others. His story is a cautionary tale of how athlete’s struggles often go unnoticed once they are out of the spotlight.
“Here’s another story of an athlete, who when he played, everyone was behind him and everyone would do everything that they could for him,” she said. “When he got hurt, it was, ‘We’re going to pump you full of drugs and cortisone.’ When he was on the 25-man roster, we had a team that gave him steroids, and then he ends up on the McLaren Report [sic] when he signs with a new team! When it was over, there was nothing; that was the toughest part.
“They go in at 17 and there is little wonder when they get out at 30, that they have no direction. Everyone thinks that with athletes that there is this great life and it’s just another story of falling apart. He was culpable in it too. He bought into all of it and it was really hard. It bothers me because he struggled for so long. He was arrested in Arizona and he was arrested in Florida, and nobody cared.”
Mark Brownson died February 1, 2017 in Lake Worth, Florida; he was just 41 years old. He leaves behind two daughters who will have to find their own way to put the context of his death into proper perspective.
“I want his death to mean something to somebody, even if it’s not in the greatest light. … My daughters in some way have been set free for they don’t have to sit up any longer and worry about where he is.”