RIP to Will Brunson, a former left-handed relief pitcher and scout, who died unexpectedly on November 23. He suffered a fatal heart attack while hiking with friends in Big Bend National Park in Southwest Texas. The New Braunfels, Texas, resident was 49 years old. Brunson pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers (1998) and Detroit Tigers (1998-99).
The Big Bend National Park posted the news on its Facebook feed:
While backpacking on the Marufo Vega Trail, Mr. Brunson began experiencing symptoms consistent with a heart attack, and his backpacking group called 911. Park Rangers with emergency medical training arrived on scene, and soon after a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter arrived and transported Mr. Brunson to the park ambulance waiting at Panther Junction. While being transported to the hospital, Mr. Brunson lost consciousness. Park Rangers and paramedics from Terlingua Fire & EMS immediately began CPR and administered shocks using an AED, but attempts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful. We are truly saddened by this loss of life, and would like to extend our sincere condolences to the friends and family of Mr. Brunson.
William Brunson was born on March 20, 1970 in Irving, Texas. He was a star pitcher at DeSoto High School, but he quit baseball in his senior year. He really wanted to play college basketball. However, despite his 6-foot-6 frame, he was too slow for a guard and too slight to play inside, according to a 1995 profile. He almost quit sports entirely while attending Eastfield Junior College in Mesquite, Texas, but some friends talked him back into playing baseball.
The Mets took notice of his pitching abilities and drafted him in the 29th Round of the 1990 Amateur Draft, but he declined to sign. He was drafted again two years later, while pitching for and attending Texas State University. He was a first-team All-Southland Conference pitcher in 1992 and was co-pitcher of the year. He graduated with the school records for most wins in a season (12) and most strikeouts in a game (14). The Reds took him in the 21st Round, and he started his professional career in 1992.
Brunson fared alright in the low minors for the Reds, but he really came into his own in 1994 while pitching for the High-A Winston-Salem Spirits of the Carolina League. He won 12 games, which was tied with Chad Fox for the team lead, and his 3.98 ERA was second-best among the team’s starters.
“He’s proven to be one of the best pitchers in the league. Every pitch he stays focused and battles,” said his manager, Mark Berry.
Brundon was traded over the winter to the Dodgers for pitcher Ben VanRyn. He started 1995 in AA, but after three poor starts, he was sent down to High-A San Bernardino. There, he turned in a perfect 10-0 record in 13 starts with a 2.05 ERA, striking out 70 batters in 83-1/3 innings. He also helped loosen up a club that was in competition for the California League first-half division title. During the clinching game, he helped break the tension in the dugout by putting on a batting helmet and asking manager Ron Roenicke for an at-bat.
“Not in a mean way, but he’s a goofy person. He keeps the team on its toes,” said teammate Chad Zerbe.
A profile on Brunson in the San Bernardino County Sun also pointed out that the southpaw took his game very seriously, keeping a book on all the league’s opposing batters.
“I pride myself on making adjustments. You’ve gotta go in there with an idea,” he said. “Any edge in the game helps.”
Brunson spent most of the next three seasons shuttling between AA San Antonio and AAA Albuquerque. Along the way, he made another key adjustment by changing his delivery to a submarine style. The conversion from a standard overhand delivery helped him have better success against left-handed hitters. He also began to work more frequently out of the bullpen, though he still made a few starts.
Brunson started 1998 with the Albuquerque Dukes and went 5-8 with a 4.65 ERA. The Dodgers called him to the majors on June 21 when the team put Bobby Bonilla on the 15-day disabled list. The 28-year-old rookie was joined in the major leagues by his AAA manager Glenn Hoffman, who was named interim manager after Bill Russell was fired the same day.
Brunson made his MLB debut on June 21, 1998 in Colorado. He threw 2 scoreless innings of relief, giving up 2 hits and striking out a batter. Two days later, he gave up 3 earned runs on a hit and two walks in 1/3 of an inning against the Angels, taking the loss. He was placed on waivers and was claimed by the Tigers. He was perfect for Detroit in 8 appearances, although he threw just 3 innings scattered across those games. Those 3 scoreless innings lowered his ERA from 11.57 with the Dodgers to 5.06 for the season.
The Tigers started Brunson in AAA to begin the 1999 season but recalled him on May 21 to add a second lefty arm to the bullpen. He was thrown into action as soon as he arrived, and he struck out the Indians’ Kenny Lofton in the 8th inning with two runners on base to preserve a Detroit win. Brunson picked up his only major-league win on June 7. Pitching in relief for starter Jeff Weaver, he threw a scoreless 6th inning. Karim Garcia hit a 2-run homer to give the Tigers a lead and Brunson the win.
“You’ve got to be happy for Will,” Tigers manager Larry Parrish told the Associated Press. “This kid has been through battles. He maybe didn’t figure to ever get that big league win.”
Brunson, for his part, chalked it up to luck.
“It feels great, but I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. That’s really all you can say when you only pitch one inning,” he said.
He was then asked if he might still think about that first win when he was 50 and retired.
“I probably won’t remember it at all,” he said. “I’ll be worrying when I’m going to catch my next fish.”
Brunson finished 1999 back in the minor leagues and spent two more seasons in AAA, pitching for the A’s and Angels organizations. His professional career ended after the 2001 season. He won a total of 61 games over 10 seasons in the minor leagues. For his 2 years in the majors, Brunson had a 1-1 record and 5.71 ERA in 27 games, all in relief. He struck out 11 batters in 17-1/3 innings and walked 9.
After baseball, Brunson worked as a car salesman and a salesman for the oil industry. He got back into baseball in 2017, joining the Phillies as a South Texas area scout. A GoFundMe has been organized by his brother John. All donations will go to his wife, Dana, to help with bills and the education of their two children. To donate, go to https://www.gofundme.com/f/will-brunson-memorial-fund?utm_source=customer&utm_medium=copy_link&utm_campaign=p_cp+share-sheet