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Baseball prodigy Katie Brownell pitching a different kind of perfect

GLASTONBURY, Conn. — Katie Brownell is good. If you remember her name, you knew that already. Or at least you think you knew that, and you’re not the only one.

The president of the United States knew it. The Los Angeles Dodgers knew it. Cooperstown knew it, and so did the folks in Williamsport, Pa., who run Little League Baseball. Ellen DeGeneres knew it, the New York Times knew it, and a whole bunch of boys from her hometown of Oakfield, a farm town just outside Batavia, knew it too.

They all knew Katie Brownell was a good baseball player. She was so good that one spring day in 2005, when she was 11 years old and the only girl in Oakfield’s Little League program, Katie pitched a “perfect perfect game,” meaning she struck out all 18 boys who came to the plate. The exceptionally rare feat – at any level of the sport – created an onslaught of national attention and an avalanche of local jealousy.

Given the attention paid to Little League Baseball at this time of year, with ESPN providing coverage and the Little League World Series set to attract a huge national audience when it is played in Williamsport, it's not unheard of for a preteen ball player to become famous. Witness the social media phenomenon 11-year-old "Big Al" Delia, who rode to instant fame on the heels of the now-viral video of his self-introduction before a game:  “My name is Alfred Delia, at home they call me Big Al, and I hit dingers.”

But before there was such a thing as social media, Katie Brownell went viral and became famous.

That was on the outside. But shielded from everyone’s view – even people in the 3,100-person community of Oakfield, where “everybody knows everybody’s business,” Katie said, and “everybody is always gossiping” – something else was happening. Something not so good.

Near the height of her fame in 2005, Katie Brownell posed on the field where she threw a perfect perfect game. (Bill Bruton/The Daily News of Batavia)

Thirteen years later, it’s better. But it was a long trip here to this good place. Today, Katie Brownell, who now goes by “Kate,” is a 25-year-old fitness trainer in an affluent area of Connecticut that is very different from her rural hometown. She works seven days a week in a bright, spacious, high-tech fitness club called The Edge, where many of her clients are well-to-do professionals who some time ago lost a grasp on their fitness.

Brownell’s job is to help them regain it, mostly by coaching them, but also by serving as an example, which she does unflinchingly.

"Basically give me the kale with some veggies, beets and the chicken, and we’re good,” Brownell said over lunch at a salad shop called B.GOOD.

It’s good, but it’s not simple. Every trainer at the The Edge has a one-page bio sheet; even a cursory scan of Brownell’s accomplishment section indicates something sets her apart from other trainers. Among the items listed: CosmoGirl Top 10 Born to Lead, featured on ESPN, “Good Morning America,” and the “Late Show with David Letterman, and 2005 National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Then there’s her training philosophy: “When you mix visualization with determination, you will see yourself rise above adversity.”

On that one, she’s most definitely good.

* * *

In her baseball days, Katie loved the little things about the game: The dirt crunching beneath her cleats. The Fierce Grape Gatorade her mom brought to nearly every game. Even as an 11-year-old, she approached the game with a level of superstition befitting a pro. She put on her Dodgers uniform the same way before every game: Left sock first, then right, followed by sliding shorts and gray uniform pants with a slight rip below the knee. She wore a long-sleeved Under Armour shirt beneath her No. 3 jersey. Before leaving for the field, she often stole a glance at the poster of her favorite player, Yankees star Derek Jeter, that hung on her bedroom wall. There was also a framed baseball poster with the words “Dream Big.”

On the morning of May 14, 2005, when Katie put on her uniform and headed to the field to play the Little League Yankees, she was about to become big.

After her Little League career ended, Katie Brownell switched to softball and played in college for SUNY Buffalo State. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

She didn’t always enjoy this part. Katie had played against boys for three years by now; early on, it wasn’t easy. She used to endure taunts like, “You’re on the wrong field — softball is over there!” But she had learned to bury those by now. And she was batting .714 and had thrown a one-hitter the previous game.

Clearly, she belonged, and on this day, she owned the game. She kept popping fastballs into the mitt of her catcher, and the boys on the Yankees were touching nothing. By the fourth inning, her mom, Denise, approached Katie on the bench, handed her one of those purple Gatorades and said, “You’re pitching a perfect game, Bug.”

“Uh, OK?” Katie said. She didn’t know what a perfect game was. She was just playing.

“That’s awesome, Bugaboo,” Denise continued. “Keep it going.”

* * *

 Denise Brownell was not happy to learn that she was pregnant with her daughter nearly a dozen years earlier.

"This is a horrible thing to say,” said Denise, who is 54 and grew up in nearby Batavia. “When I was pregnant with her, I used to pray to God to take her, because I couldn’t handle another child by myself. And he didn’t.”

And for that, Katie Brownell’s mother is grateful. Denise Brownell spent much of her life teetering on a breaking point, especially as a mostly single mother already trying to raise three boys. She and Katie’s dad, Mark Brownell, already had two children together: Jon, who is three years older than Katie, and Josh, who is two years older. Denise’s eldest son from another relationship, Justin, is 10 years apart from Katie.

When she became pregnant with Katie, Denise Brownell was not yet married to Mark, who was a truck driver and often absent. When he was in town, their relationship was often rocky. She struggled with money and was grieving: First, her mother died, followed by the death of her sister, Sandy, who left Denise with a promise for Katie. “Before my sister died, she told me she’d look out for her, and watch over her,” Denise said. “And I know she does.”

Katie, who was around 6 when her aunt died, used to go to school every day and cry. One of her teachers often kept her after school to console her. During that perfect game, Denise felt her sister’s presence watching over Katie. “She was here for that game,” Denise said. “Not really, but I know she was. I heard her voice.”

To Denise, the perfect game transformed it all for Katie. “Depression was setting in, and life sucked for her,” Denise said. “That game did change everything.”

It changed the trajectory — but it didn’t erase the challenges. It created new ones.

* * *

Mark Brownell was on a trucking trip when his phone rang with the news: Katie pitched a perfect perfect game. He was disbelieving at first.

“There’s no way,” he said to his daughter, both astonished and proud. “Nobody hit the ball?”

Kate Brownell, and her parents, Mark and Denise. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Katie, in moment of adolescent indignance, insisted she had and said, “Here’s Mom,” handing the phone back to her mother. To Katie, this was simply a game well-pitched. To her dad, it was something more.

It was something more to the rest of the world, too.

Mark Brownell called the president of Oakfield’s Little League and asked if the local paper could be informed. The Daily News of Batavia soon ran a story and the news began to spread. The Associated Press ran a story. So did the Buffalo media, New York Times and multiple national networks. Reporters were showing up at Katie’s school and knocking on the Brownells’ door. A Hollywood type pitched Denise Brownell on the idea of making a movie about Katie. Denise said no.

An official from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown called. Would Katie be willing to donate her jersey? She did. (It’s still on display today.)

Someone called from the Little League Museum in Williamsport, where the Little League World Series is happening this weekend; Katie’s glove is showcased there.

When President George W. Bush came to Rochester to deliver a speech on Social Security, he specifically requested to meet Katie.

Katie Brownell with President George W. Bush in 2005. (Courtesy of Kate Brownell)

“He was chatting with me, trying to joke with me, but I was super-awkward,” she said. “I had no sense of humor back then.”

Brownell recalls the conversation like this:

Bush: “What kind of pitches do you throw?”

Katie: “Just, like, a fastball.”

Bush: “Oh, do you have a changeup?”

Katie: “No. A fastball.”

Bush: “So, you know, I used to own the Rangers.”

Katie: “Cool.” She had no idea who the Rangers were.

Recalling it, Brownell rolls her eyes at her own awkwardness: “One-word answers to the president of the United States,” she says, laughing.

In New York City, Katie did a CosmoGirl photo shoot as part of a “Top 10 Born to Lead.” Among her “peers” in the group was the actress Hilary Duff; they had a conversation about Duff’s movie, “A Cinderella Story.” A Japanese TV crew filmed a story about Katie at a stadium in Staten Island.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, recognizing that Katie, too, was a “Dodger,” flew the family to the West Coast. Katie threw out a first pitch and met legendary Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. She was told that she was about to be invited on “The Ellen Show.”

If we stop there, all of this sounds fantastical, and fully befitting of the “Dream Big” sign on Katie’s bedroom wall.

But it wasn’t so.

Take Ellen DeGeneres’ show: Katie never made it on. Her older brothers, as she recalls, were misbehaving in Los Angeles. “My mom decided, ‘No, we’ve got to go home,' " she said. “So we had to leave and I never got to meet Ellen.”

She laughed and added, “They’re much more mature now, thank God. I can tell you there was never a dull moment though.”

* * *

The Brownells of today are in a steadier place: After a long, off-and-on relationship, Mark and Denise married a year ago. Katie’s brother Jon is a fitness model in Los Angeles. Her brother Josh owns a contracting business in Oakfield. Katie has four nieces and a nephew; the eldest two nieces, Taylor and Maddie, play ball on the same fields where their aunt became famous.

Brownell’s own life path has taken her out of her hometown. After switching to softball in high school at Oakfield-Alabama, Katie was a four-year starter for the Division III team at SUNY Buffalo State. She graduated with a communications degree in 2015 and moved to Massachusetts, where she was briefly engaged to a former teammate. She worked in sports communications and as an assistant softball coach at Amherst College, including during the team’s NCAA Division III World Series run in 2017.

Kate Brownell cheers on the next generation of Oakfield Little Leaguers during a visit to her hometown. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Ultimately, though, she ended her relationship and moved to Connecticut, where she began working as a fitness trainer — the professional culmination of a passion she has shared with her bodybuilder brother, Jon.

“I enjoy training people more than I enjoy training myself,” said Brownell, herself a fitness fanatic who documents her workouts on social media and is hoping to build a broad business as a digital influencer. “Knowing I’m giving somebody else more time on earth is more fulfilling than making somebody hit the ball farther.”

Over lunch with her girlfriend Nicole Palazzo, who is a manager for one of the Edge clubs, Brownell spoke passionately about her clients: There’s man who couldn’t do a pushup for the last two decades; Brownwell helped him drop 35 pounds, lower his blood pressure, and improve his strength enough to do 20 pushups.

There’s a woman who has a birth defect on her hand and could never lift a straight bar. Brownell has her shoulder-pressing a 50-pound barbell. Brownell recently won an Edge challenge by helping a client lose 55.5 pounds in eight weeks, and is consistently ranking high in the company in personal-training billing.

The athlete in her is driven to win, and the coach in her is driven to help people.

“I like to inspire at least one person every day,” she said. “That’s my goal in life: If I can inspire one person every single day, then I’m good.”

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