Many players on GGC’s Baseball team have interesting stories, but no other player here has taken the path to college baseball that catcher Michael Branigan has. The scars on his fingers and leg, the 29 credit hours passed in one semester, getting a check to play the game he loves – all these things are part of a crazy journey that continues to develop every day for the 22-year-old catcher.
“The Diamondbacks select Michael Branigan, a catcher, Forsyth Central High school in Cumming, Georgia,” said the draft announcer.
“Mom and Dad started crying. I was pumped. It was surreal seeing my name on the screen,” Branigan said.
The 22nd round of the 2014 MLB draft changed Michael’s life, but the decision to forego his college eligibility and begin playing professionally wasn’t an automatic one.
In the NCAA, the moment a player is paid to play for any sport, that player’s college eligibility is gone no matter what happens after the player signs a contract.
So, when the Belmont baseball coaches drove hours down from Nashville to Branigan’s Georgia home and offered him more scholarship money, it made his decision a little tougher.
Branigan said that he was strongly considering going to school in Nashville and playing collegiate baseball, which most would consider the traditional path.
But, after area scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks, T.R. Lewis, came and had dinner with Branigan and his family, he asked him what his end goal of going to college was. He asked him if it was pro ball, why he would prolong the ultimate goal of playing professionally.
Truthfully, professional baseball is a dream of many that only a handful of fortunate young men get to see fulfilled, so for most this would be a very stressful decision. But when I asked Branigan how tough it was, he said it was difficult, but never very stressful because he was, in fact, picking between “a good thing and a good thing.”
“All of it just made sense to me thinking about baseball moving forward,” Branigan said. “It was time to put pen to paper.”
Michael signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014, and with that decision, college baseball was no longer an option…or so everyone thought.
Professional baseball brought its own challenges though. One season was cut short after a foul ball to the leg separated the skin and the muscle, resulting in a nasty staph infection. This injury required surgery and lengthy rehab. Branigan then got hit by a fastball from a top prospect on the hand while hitting. Luckily, the clean break didn’t require surgery, just time off.
After rehabbing the hand and getting back, Branigan got crossed up on a pitch and was hit in the knuckles. The pitch ended up breaking his fingers and dislocating the knuckles. This injury required another surgery, his second in his three seasons as a minor leaguer.
“If I had to summarize my career in one sentence, it would be injury at the wrong time,” Branigan said.
After a whirlwind of three seasons in Minor League Baseball that included a career batting average of .225, two personnel overhauls by the Diamondbacks organization, and three significant stints on the disabled list, Branigan was released. It was then that he decided to re-evaluate his future path once more.
Branigan talked about how at the end of his third season, T.R Lewis had a meeting with him. That’s when the idea of salvaging one last year of college eligibility per the NAIA came up as a potential option.
Georgia Gwinnett College athletically is an NAIA institution, which stands for National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. Many people think that means the skill level is inferior to NCAA institutions, but they are sadly mistaken. Plenty of people that have been drafted before play in the NAIA, and some have also been drafted out of the NAIA. It just has its own set of regulations and rules, separate from the NCAA.
Because of the NAIA rules and regulations, there was a daunting list of things that Branigan would have to do to be able to play his senior year for a school. Both Michael and Grizzlies head coach, Brad Stromdahl, were willing to take on the challenges to try and get Branigan back into college baseball.
“He (Strom) called me on a Friday, I was in his office that Monday,” Branigan said. “He set out the plan of what was required. This was a new thing for both of us… guys had talked about it, but no one had really been committed to putting in all the academic work.”
“I was excited for sure. To have someone with great baseball experience and knowledge is a tremendous asset to a coach and a young team, so we were very happy to have him choose to come to school here,” Stromdahl said.
The research that the GGC Athletics department did on behalf of Branigan suggested that to be eligible, he needed to make up 72 credit hours in one calendar year, making up the three years of college he had missed while in pro ball.
“He also had to serve one year of full residency in order to play the subsequent semester,” Stromdahl said.
The first semester back, Branigan got right to it. He enrolled in 17 hours at GGC, and 12 at University of Phoenix online through a partnership with the MLB. 29 passed credit hours later, and Branigan was an eligible college baseball player again.
His coaches and teammates are elated to have Branigan on an already talented team that aims to return to the World Series for the second straight season, no one more excited than Michael himself.
Assistant Coach, Jeff Moyer, who often works with the catchers, said that “He just sees things differently.”
Fellow senior, Brandon Frazier, backed that up by saying, “He has advanced awareness. He just sees things unfolding before they happen.”
I asked Coach Stromdahl if he thought Branigan could get drafted once again, and he said he definitely has a chance. He told me that Branigan is a special player and teammate, and that really showed when talking to pitchers about how they like Michael as their catcher.
“He’s overcome injuries that most people can’t bounce back from… when I’m on the mound I know he is going to give me everything he’s got. He makes me a better pitcher,” said Tucker Plouffe, a senior right-hander.
The next chapter in this saga seems to be the common goal of everyone on the GGC baseball team, to have a championship ring on their hands at the end of this season. As for Branigan’s baseball career, he wants to continue to build upon his journey by being a part of this year’s upcoming draft.
“I want to have that story to tell. Drafted, played, came back to school. Drafted, played… I don’t know if it has happened, but I want to be the guy who can say that he was drafted and signed two different times,” Branigan said.