ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — If you’re a Cincinnati Reds fan, you certainly will remember Jeff Branson, an infielder who spent most of his nine-year major league seasons in the Queen City.
Before a recent Tampa Bay Rays-Pittsburgh Pirates matchup at Tropicana Field, Branson took a brief timeout with this columnist and discussed his baseball career.
Now the hitting coach for the Pirates, the 47-year-old Branson had several memorable moments of his career while playing for the Reds from 1992 to 1997.
One such moment was the 1995 National League playoffs when Branson — who was a second-round draft pick by the Reds in 1988 — stole home as part of a double-steal with Lenny Harris in Game Two against the Atlanta Braves, recording the first-ever steal of home in the NLCS history.
In addition to his first MLB game and at-bat in 1992 in Houston (where he struck out at the Astrodome), Branson remembers his first big league home run (a two-run shot), which came off Atlanta pitcher John Smoltz, a future Cy Young Award winner, in front a large crowd of nearly 50,000 fans.
“It was at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium,” recalled Branson of his 1993 homer. “My parents happened to be there in Atlanta to see it. And the funny thing about it when I went up to the next at-bat I took that same bat up and it was broken. So I’m not for sure what (happened). I know I didn’t break it on the (home run) swing so I don’t know. I think the catcher got mad and stepped on my bat, snapped my bat. So that was definitely a memorable moment.”
At Cincinnati, Branson played for four managers — Lou Piniella, Tony Perez, Davey Johnson and Ray Knight. Some of his Reds teammates included pitcher Tom Browning and shortstop Barry Larkin, among others.
“You know we had a pretty close team,” said Branson, who had a lifetime batting average of .246 (383-for-1,555), 34 home runs and 156 RBI in 694 games.
“I don’t think there was one guy that I spent the majority of my time with. (We had guys like) Barry Larkin, Hal Morris, Chris Sabo, Paul O’Neill, Joe Oliver, Rob Dibble. We had a close team that there wasn’t any separation and that’s the reason we were successful. We had a lot of good years there. So when you have teams like that everybody gels together, and it’s not about an individual, you are going to have a pretty good season.”
Another highlight was meeting his future wife, Chastity, in Cincy and they eventually found a place to live in Union, Ky., in Boone County where they still reside with three children.
Branson, who grew up in Alabama, also pointed out his wife and her dad are huge Kentucky Wildcat fans.
“My wife did attend UK (before transferring to Northern Kentucky University) and is also a big UK fan,” he said. “My father-in-law bleeds blue.”
The Pirates coach mentioned that Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari was back in his former hometown of Pittsburgh recently to watch the Bucs, but Branson didn’t get a chance to meet him. On Facebook, Calipari and NL All-Star Josh Harrison posed for a picture at PNC Park.
In 1997, Branson was traded to the Cleveland Indians during the season and ended up playing briefly in the World Series against manager Jim Leyland’s Florida (now Miami) Marlins. It took Florida seven games to defeat Cleveland for the World Series title.
Branson said “probably the seventh game of the World Series” is the most memorable contest that he’s had as a player.
“We ended up getting beat in the 11th inning with Craig Counsell scoring the winning run,” he said. “So that was being able to play in a Game Seven of a World Series which is obviously what everybody wants — a chance to be a part of the World Series. It came up short but that was very memorable.”
Branson’s Indians also played for the American League title in the following season of 1998 but they dropped to the New York Yankees in the AL championship series
And, as it turned out, his last MLB team as a player was the 2001 Los Angeles Dodgers, batting .286 (6-for-21) in 13 games.
Branson later joined the Pittsburgh Pirates organization in 2003, coaching and managing different farm teams over the years. He served as the minor league manager for five years. In 2012, he became a Pirates coach for manager Clint Hurdle.
Asked if he would like an opportunity to manage in MLB in the future, Branson smiled, “At this point and time, no, but who knows down the road. It would definitely be a challenge and an experience that you would definitely take — if you get the opportunity.”