"Honestly, if I didn’t change my arm angle, I’m certain I would have been out of the game in a year or two.”
BallNine has always been about giving a platform to baseball players so they can share their stories. For the most part, those stories are fun tales from the dugouts and bullpens across different eras of the sport; the guys who were tough outs, influential coaches, good teammates and the highs and lows of being a Major League Baseball player.
This installment of Spitballin’ is quite different.
Sure, we have the amazing story of a pitcher who was drafted low as a young high schooler who worked his way through five different organizations in the minor leagues over eight years who also had stint in Independent Ball and a total change in pitching style before he made the Majors.
That’s all great baseball stuff and in and of itself, and it makes said story inspirational.
But that’s not all we’ll cover in a special two-part Spitballin’ with Brandon Puffer.
Today in Part I, we’ll discuss his long and difficult path to the Major Leagues. In Part II, which will run next Friday, you can expect there to be little, if any, baseball talk.
On the morning of September 12, 2008, Puffer drove to the ballpark as a member of the Texas League South Division Champion Frisco RoughRiders. The following morning, he woke up in an orange jumpsuit in County Jail with little recollection of the events that happened the night before.
Puffer ended up serving three and a half years in prison and has some harrowing tales to share about it. Not only does he do that here on BallNine, but he also does that in his very forthright new book, From the Bullpen to the State Pen.
In his book, Puffer details the events that led to his arrest and how, through the strength of God, he has turned the event into one in which he spreads positivity and encouragement. He also goes well beyond that, all the way back to his childhood and to discuss the demons he has dealt with his entire life. His book is brutally honest and his message is clear: he wants to use the platform he has now to encourage people who are going through difficult times and help others to not travel down the path that led to his arrest.
Through his tale, Puffer comes off as a humble, remorseful person who genuinely wants to leave a positive impact on each person he encounters. He has a clear love and appreciation for his family and the youth baseball players he coaches today. It is quite a story of redemption and you can’t help but wish for strength and nothing but the best for Puffer in his journey.
Today, let’s go back to see how that journey started as we go Spitballin’ with Brandon Puffer.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Puffer. We really appreciate you sharing your message and story with us. We have a lot to talk about between your baseball career, your arrest and how you have used that to create a positive impact in the world through God. Let’s go back and start at the beginning though. What was baseball like for you as a kid?
I grew up in Downey in Southern California. I grew up closer to where the Angels played, but my dad grew up in Los Angeles so we were big Dodgers fans. I have great memories of sitting next to my dad’s chair and watching Kirk Gibson’s home run in ‘88. That was a lifetime memory. My dad and I tore the living room up. Some of my favorite players were Orel Hershiser and Pedro Guerrero. I started out playing in in North Mission Viejo Little League in Mission Viejo, California. I was younger than the age you were allowed to start, but my dad coached so they let me tag along and play. I held my own and fell in love with the game. I was fortunate that my dad coached me. He was part of the board at the Little League, so we spent every night at those Little League fields.
Whether I was playing or watching other people play I just loved baseball. We’d hit the ball around or even just play in the gutter. Wherever we could play ball, we would do it. My whole life revolved around Little League baseball for that season. In my mind, it was a storybook Little League baseball upbringing. All of my friends were in the league and it was just awesome. My love for baseball was fostered very early. When I was between the ages of 9-11, we realized I had a lot of talent for it, so we started thinking more long-term. I figured I wanted to do this forever!
When I showed up in Ft. Myers, there were so many good ballplayers. I didn’t know what to expect. It was my first taste of experiencing that everybody was the best player where they came from.
You were drafted out of high school in the 27th round by the Twins. Can you take us back to your experience being drafted?
In 1994 I was a senior at Capistrano Valley High School. I talked to some scouts and thought there was a possibility I could be drafted. At that time, there wasn’t the coverage that we have now, so I was pretty unsure. The draft happened and I was at school that day. They actually announced it over the loudspeaker at school and that’s how I found out. They came on the intercom and said, “Congratulations to your classmate Brandon Puffer, he was drafted by the Minnesota Twins!” It was really cool. I heard it and had to do a double take. They called me down to the office and my parents were there and we were very excited. Things happened very fast from there. Graduation was still a week away, but Rookie Ball had already started. They wanted me there ASAP. I said that I needed to stay and graduate. I asked about going on my Senior trip to Mexico and they said, “Nah, no chance.”
That’s a great way of finding out you were drafted! What was your first experience in Rookie Ball like?
The day after I graduated, I ended up in Ft. Myers, Florida in Rookie Ball for the Twins. I got all dressed up and wanted to make a good first impression, but nobody was there to pick me up. I just kind of pulled into town a scared puppy, all dressed up with no place to go. I called the hotel and got a shuttle. I had to figure things out pretty quick. That was my first awakening to professional baseball with the Twins.
SAN FRANCISCO - June 23: Brandon Puffer #38 of the San Francisco Giants pitches during the game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at SBC Park on June 23, 2005 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Don Smith /MLB Photos via Getty Images)
In your book, you detail your minor league experience and what a grind it was on the way up to the Majors. You were drafted in 1994 but didn’t make your Major League debut until 2002. Can you talk about that minor league experience?
When I showed up in Ft. Myers, there were so many good ballplayers. I didn’t know what to expect. It was my first taste of experiencing that everybody was the best player where they came from. Now you were gonna find out what was going to separate you from everyone else. I didn’t take things as serious as I should have. I was having a lot of fun with my freedom and new teammates. I spent eight years in the minors and had to go all the way down to Independent League Baseball before I got my first callup. A lot of that was about opportunity. I wasn’t a high draft pick; I wasn’t a prospect by any means. But a lot of the problem was my own choices and not working as hard as I could to take advantage of my opportunities. About five years in, I started taking things more seriously and I changed my arm angle. Then things clicked for me.
I saw that the Independent Ball team you played for was the Somerset Patriots, which is right in my own backyard. What was it like playing for them?
It was such a great experience for me. I didn’t know what Independent League was at the time. I had asked for my release out of A Ball and my agent said he was going to try to get me the opportunity with Somerset instead of just sitting around. There were so many veterans and the level of play was actually better than I had seen to that point. It helped catapult me when I got back in affiliated ball. It was a beautiful area and I was actually the first person to play for the Somerset Patriots to make the Majors without having been a Major Leaguer before.
Wow that’s an awesome bit of trivia! The BallNine crew and I are mostly based out of New Jersey, so I have to ask what your experience was like living there.
What I remember most, and being very forthright, my first thought was, “Jersey?” But that area was gorgeous. It was green and really nice. Anything I had thought about New Jersey was totally different. I didn’t stay far from the stadium and that was my first taste of the beauty of that area. The team had a great following. I actually just did a radio show with our old announcer from the team who had reached out to me. It was awesome.
SCOTTSDALE, AZ - MARCH 2: Brandon Puffer of the San Francisco Giants poses for a portrait during the San Francisco Giants Photo Day at Scottsdale Stadium on March 2, 2005 in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
What was that first call up to the Majors like after such a long journey?
In April of 2002, I was in AAA with the Astros and knocking on the door. I had been to Big League camp and things were getting pretty real. I thought I had the opportunity to really do this and I got a call that I was going to meet the Astros in Cincinnati. I flew out there to meet the team and walked in the Major League clubhouse for the first time. I saw all these jerseys hanging up in the lockers. Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and mine was right there with them. That’s when it hit home that I was living that dream of being a Big Leaguer. I knew there was a long road ahead though. It didn’t mean I was there for good, but it was nice to have that quiet solitude in the clubhouse before anyone showed up to take it all in.
Are there any coaches who were influential to you on your journey to the Majors?
Definitely. I had the opportunity to play for many great coaches. One that really stands out to me was Andre Rabouin and we still keep in touch. Andre had never made it to the Big Leagues, but made the most of his experience. He had changed arm angles in the minors, went to Mexico, went to Taiwan. He did all the things you do when you love the game and never want to let it go. I had some great pitching coaches who were long time Big Leaguers, but they had been there and done that. They were helpful for sure. Andre was more of the grinder, the way I was. He was the one who changed my arm angle to sidearm in 1998 while playing in West Virginia for the Charleston Alley Cats in the Reds organization.
Honestly, if I didn’t change my arm angle, I’m certain I would have been out of the game in a year or two. I would have been a five or six year A Ball guy. I was an average over-the-top guy who competed, but didn’t really have the stuff. Once I changed my arm angle, things happened pretty quick. I had more movement and it was a different look. I was much more deceptive. I give Andre credit for everything. When I made it, he reached out. I said, “Andre, if you didn’t have the courage to take that on, I wouldn’t have made it.” He was the biggest influence on me. I had Jim Hickey in AAA and he’s gone on to be one of the best pitching coaches in the Majors in this era. He was very good with the mindset and how to fix each individual. He was a very hands-on instructor. Sometimes in pro ball, everyone is really talented, so there isn’t a lot of time spent on development, but Jim Hickey was really good about that. Those two stood out to me.
HOUSTON,TX - MAY 19: Brandon Puffer of the Houston Astros pitches against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Minute Maid Park on May 19, 2002 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)
I thought this was one of the more interesting things about your journey. You were a member of the historic 2004 Red Sox team for a couple of days that September and didn’t appear in a game. What was that experience like and where were you when they won that World Series?
My offseason had already begun, so I was out in California watching it like anyone else. It was early September of 2004 and they called me up, but a day and a half later, they needed an extra outfielder so they sent me out. I never ended up pitching a game. I was watching that World Series as an excited fan like everyone else. When they won it, I had no inkling or idea that I’d be considered for a World Series ring or anything like that. I didn’t contribute and didn’t even pitch for them. I was with the Padres earlier that year and faced them in an interleague game and we got our butts kicked, so I joke that I contributed in that way. The next Spring Training I was with the Giants, I was enjoying a storybook comeback and not thinking anything about the World Series when they called me out of the blue and asked me for my ring size. I was fortunate that they hadn’t done it in so long that if anyone was there for five minutes or threw some peanuts out in the concession stand, you were getting a ring. I was super excited for the team and to see the comeback, but I was not thinking I was a part of it by any means.
I have one more baseball question for you and then we’ll get into the rest of your story next week. You mentioned being a member of the Padres in 2004. What was that like to go back to Southern California and pitch near where you grew up?
It was the inaugural season of Petco Park, which is gorgeous. It’s an amazing park and it was really cool to be a small part of its first season. Plus it was a pitchers park too. I had a little condo close to the beach. It was wonderful. Growing up a Dodgers fan, I wanted to pitch for them, but never had the chance. Pitching for the Padres was the next best thing because I was close to home and had a Big League uniform on. Then I got traded to the Red Sox. They said I was going right to Boston, which was great because they were contending. But instead, they sent me to AAA, so I went from pitching in the Big Leagues close to home, to pitching in Rhode Island for Pawtucket. That was a little bit of a bummer at first, but then I figured I had to get back to work and get myself to Boston.
Join us next week for Part II of our interview with Brandon Puffer when we discuss the events leading up to his incarceration, how he persevered through God, the lessons he learned and how he uses his transgression to encourage and support others. Puffer’s book, From the Bullpen to the State Pen, is available through Amazon, through his website, coachpuffpositive.com and other places books are sold. You can follow Brandon Puffer on Twitter @CoachPuffPositiv as well.