Duty, honor and curveballs

PEORIA, Ariz. – They asked their parents to send baseball gloves. When time lurched for Cpl. Cooper Brannan and the 12-man squad he led into war, they retreated to their barracks, grabbed the gloves caked with dust like everything else in Fallujah, Iraq, and remembered, momentarily, what home was like, only for the impediment of a 60-pound flak jacket to snap them to attention.

"Talk about bad mechanics," Brannan said Sunday, chuckling, which he could do now because he was at San Diego Padres spring training, and he was here to play for a living, a right-handed pitching prospect among dozens. Two hours earlier he had walked into the Padres' clubhouse and seen a jersey with his name striped across the back.

He wanted to cry. He steeled himself.

Brannan had enlisted in the Marine Corps right after high school, learned honor and courage and commitment and Semper Fi, heard bullets whiz by his head, seen friends die, lost his left pinky to a flash-bang grenade. He had lived "in the Bible times," as he liked to say, so for a moment he allowed himself to appreciate the fortuity of this, him, here, sun and grass, in the uniform of a completely different kind.

"You still remember how to put that stuff on?" said Grady Fuson, the Padres' vice president of scouting.

Brannan nodded. He was weaning himself off "yes, sir" and "no, sir," learning to address his superiors by their first names and nicknames.

The last piece of the uniform was his hat. Brannan, 22, slipped it on nice and snug so it would cover his high-and-tight haircut. Officially, he is still a Marine until he receives his honorable discharge on May 31, so he'll stay clean-shaven and hang dog tags in his locker. The Corps is allowing him to complete his duty with the Padres as an ambassador of sorts, proof that there can be success after war.

"This is about the military," said San Diego CEO Sandy Alderson, a former first lieutenant in the Marines and the man responsible for Brannan being a Padre. "This is about all Iraq veterans. This is about people who are wounded. This is a story that makes everybody feel good. And it's predicated on the fact that he can actually throw the baseball.

"I hope the military sees this as a positive. Because if you look at this, here's an injured Marine in contrast to what's happening at Walter Reed and so forth. After today, he's a ballplayer."

Sixteen months ago, he was just another injured soldier among thousands. Brannan was 20 then and had ascended to squad leader of a dozen men as lance corporal. He was on his second tour of duty, this time in Fallujah, one of Iraq's most dangerous cities.

During a pre-combat inspection before an infantry patrol, one of his charges was short a flash-bang grenade, a device used to stun opposing forces, so Brannan reached into his flak jacket to lend him one.

The grenade exploded, and with it so did his left hand.

Doctors scurried to save what they could. They reattached his thumb and index finger. They could not salvage his pinky, and Brannan needed three major surgeries, three more minor ones and months of occupational therapy to regain use of his hand, which still swells and subsides so often he prefers to wear his wedding band on his right hand.

"I'm pity-partying about a pinky, about my little finger?" Brannan said. "It was then that my mindset changed. I would get better and make a difference.

"I always told my dad I'd make it in baseball. I didn't know how I would."

A mouthy friend, it turns out. On Nov. 10, the Marine Corps birthday, Brannan and Pfc. Jeff Huben were at a San Diego radio station for an event. Alderson showed up, too, as the Padres' military ties go far deeper than just the fatigue-colored uniforms they trot out once a year.

Huben told Alderson that Brannan could really pitch. Brannan begged him off. Huben kept pushing. Brannan had pitched for Highland High in Gilbert, Ariz., and traveled with the All-Marine Corps team, and, hey, there would be no harm in watching him for five minutes, right?

"It didn't take that much to push the right buttons with me," Alderson said. "It was right after they played the Marine Corps Hymn on the radio show. The timing was excellent."

Soon thereafter, Brannan worked out for area scout Brendan Hause. His fastball touched 93 mph. That was enough to convince the Padres to offer him a minor-league contract, and when Brannan went to Petco Park to sign the letter of intent – he is still property of the Corps, remember – he said, "They treated me like a first-round draft pick."

Now, they'll try to think of him as just another prospect. Brannan stands 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds. The Padres like his curveball. They sent him to a pitching coach in the San Diego area to learn how to pitch again. He'll probably stay here for extended spring training, then report to the Arizona Rookie League for his first organized season.

And yet the Padres know Brannan is different, that he slips his ring finger in the glove hole made for the pinky and adjusts the rest of his fingers accordingly, that sometimes he'll go to grip a water bottle and it'll slip out of his hand, that nightmares occasionally stun him awake.

He should be a firefighter. That's what Brannan thinks sometimes. That was the plan upon his discharge. He would serve the public like his father, Linwood, a police officer.

"Your job," said Lindsay Brannan, Cooper's wife, "is playing baseball."

So he left their rented apartment on Sunday morning to do just that. It was the Padres minor leaguers' first official workout, the start of Brannan's new career. He'll make $1,000 a month. He'll sweat through a desert summer. He'll try to distinguish himself again, a face among many in an unfamiliar place.

And he'll do it in another uniform he's proud to wear.

"It's not so much if I make it," Brannan said. "It's when I make it."