BravesCenter Exclusive: Russ Branyan Interview

The Braves signed former Red and Indian Russ Branyan to a minor league contract in January. Branyan is a native Georgian, still residing in Kathleen, Georgia outside of Macon. Editor Bill Shanks talked with Branyan as he prepares to head to Orlando for spring training to win a job on the Atlanta roster.

BILL: Russ can you tell me how you signed with the Braves.

RUSS: I played with Cincinnati last year. December 20th is the day where teams have to tender you a contract. I was eligible for arbitration this year. Cincinnati came to me and didn't want to offer me arbitration but wanted to get a deal done before the deadline. I really wasn't willing to do that so after they didn't offer me a contract on December 20th I became a free agent. The Braves were one of the teams interesting in talking with me. Once I found out the Braves were interested you know a couple other teams were interested. I had some financially maybe some better offers from the other teams. We had a concrete offer from L.A. and Colorado was interested. There were some other teams that were interested too. But as far as far as getting some offers on the table, it boiled down to L.A. and Atlanta. (Both offers were minor league contracts). I think Atlanta offers – besides the fact that I'm from Georgia a little bit south of Atlanta – really from the day I graduated high school I was hoping to get drafted by them. That didn't work out. This is the only year I've had where I can dictate my whereabouts for the upcoming season. You know I've always wanted to play for the Braves. I've been a big Braves fan all my life. Besides that I think Atlanta – looking at where I'm at – can offer me that foundation to where they've got a good base over there. Veteran players, up and coming players. To be able to go in and compete with some younger players and some veteran players will be a nice mix for me. The organization is a really solid organization. You know I walked into the clubhouse the other day (during Camp Leo) and it kinda makes you smile. It's all about pitching up there. Pitching and defense and give me a little offense – give me a couple runs a game and we're going to win some ballgames. That's going to be a big change, a lot different attitude than I'm accustomed to over the last few years in Cleveland and Cincinnati – two offensive teams. Taking nothing away from the Braves they've had some powerhouse teams offensively, but really they've been geared and they've been known to have some of the elite pitchers in the game and have strong defense. That I think will help re-direct my attention. It will help me focus on my defense and some of the other parts of the game rather than thinking long ball and so forth. You know I've got to go into camp and make the team, and I think I can compete at third, at first. They've really got two openings there. It's six weeks of spring training and games. I think it's a very good opportunity for me to go in and win a job – not only win a job but possibly win a starting position.

BILL: What did they tell you about the chance you'll have to win a starting job? Did they tell you first and third were going to be up for grabs or that you would fight only for a job on the bench?

RUSS: Well you know I've just spoken with them lightly on that topic. Really you don't know anything until you get into spring training and get a feel for what's going on. The Braves have broken in a young player a year pretty much, and that's how you've gotten the Chipper Joneses and the Andruw Joneses and the Furcals and the guys of that nature. This year is going to be a bit different for them. They're going to have a rookie they plan on playing first and DeRosa is not a veteran by any means and he's penciled in to play third. They've got a rookie who is going to catch. J.D. Drew has been around for a while, but he's had some injuries that have plagued his career. So they've got a lot of question marks. Me looking at that team and that scenario I think I've got a chance to compete at first and third. And they've told me I've got a chance to play a little bit in the outfield, play some third, and play some first base and kind of see how the cards fall. If I have a good spring training – I'm not going to say I'm going to beat anybody out but I think I can definitely get a roster spot and go from there. And that's all I'm hoping for. You see it with guys – I saw it last year with the Reds with Jose Guillen. He came in to compete for a job with us and he won a job outright and they didn't give it to him. Then once we had the injury they were forced to call him up and play him and that kind of motivated him and he took off from there and had an incredible season. Sometimes that little bit of adversity can light a fire underneath a player. It's going to give me a little different perspective on the game going into camp with no certainty that I'm going to make the team. I'm using that to help motivate myself to go into camp and swing the bat well and play good defense. Now's the time for me to show up you know. I know I can play a lot better than I have the last couple of years starting out with Cleveland. I know there's a lot better player inside this body that what I've shown.

BILL: What do you think being in a Braves uniform is going to do for you? Since you grew up a Braves fan, will that inspire you to take your game to the next level?

RUSS: I sure would hope to think so. You know like I said when my agent called and said the Braves were interested money was not the issue, nothing was an issue but having a chance to go in and compete for a roster spot. Growing up my brother and I would go in the back yard and play wiffle ball and we'd try to mimic Claudell Washington and Dale Murphy and guys of that nature. I grew up watching those guys. I think it's going to bring some new life. The Atlanta Braves, as an organization what they've done the last 12, 13 years has been incredible. It's a team that knows what they've got to do to win and it's a matter of just executing. I've been with some teams in the last couple of years that have been searching a little and tell one thing and do another and just playing mind games with you. That's no fun especially for a young player. I got to the big leagues in 98 and I think I was 22 or 23. I've been up and down ever since. It's been kind of a long haul and unsettled, but I think now I'm going into an organization that has a game plan and one that knows what they expect out of their players. I think that type of discipline is what I need. I think it's going to make me a better player. But wearing that Atlanta Braves uniform is another thing in itself you know. There's a lot of history behind that. Being a Georgia boy and being able to play for your hometown team is going to help me a lot.

BILL: What did your brother and the rest of your family think when they heard you had signed with the Braves?

RUSS: He was happy. You know my brother is like the devil's advocate. He wants to make sure it's the right thing and the right decision. But all in all, he's happy for me. It's closer to home, and he's in North Carolina so he'll be able to see some ballgames if I happen to make the club. That's another thing you know my family is close. My sister is a big supporter and she's right there in Chattanooga, which is a short drive for her. My dad is here in town in Warner Robins. He's real excited to see me sign with the Braves. All the family they're pretty inspired. They're pretty excited. I saw an article the other day and it talked about my years in Columbus (including hitting 40 home runs in 1996). That was the last time I played for a professional team in Georgia I had good numbers. I'd like to get back to that. It seems like I've gone on a little vacation there you know. I'm not complaining by any means, but it's tough when you don't get a crack at them everyday. When your name gets called once or twice a week it makes it a little tougher to play this game. But I'm learning and trying to make the most of it. Last year I battled an injury and I'm just trying to come back from that shoulder injury. But I'm keeping my head up and trying to stay positive and also wishing for the best.

BILL: When you look at your numbers it's obvious you've never had a season where you had over 400 at bats. You've got to be curious as to what you could do if you played full time.

RUSS: I do get curious. What makes it frustrating is when you have coaches and when you have managers tell you "You could put up incredible numbers if you played everyday." And my question is, "Why can't I play everyday?" And they're like, "Well you know we're obligated to someone for that position and this and that."

BILL: Do you think the strikeouts have hurt you in getting more playing time?

RUSS: I think strikeouts play a big factor. I know I've got to cut my strikeouts. You know I get aggravated with myself when I strikeout in big situations. You know a situation like a runner at second and third with less than two outs in the eighth inning. There are a lot of guys in the league that do strike out, ones that do have high strikeout numbers. But a guy like myself you got to put up the numbers in the big situations and you can't be walking back to the bench when there's a runner on third base and less than two outs and it's a one run ballgame or something like that.

BILL: Is it more difficult to get into a rhythm when you don't play everyday? Would your strikeout numbers go down if you were getting more consistent playing time?

RUSS: My whole career I've struck out, and if you look at my minor league numbers I struck out a lot. But when I know that I'm going to be in there everyday and I'm going to play everyday and I'm going to get 400, 500 at bats the rhythm – I mean your slumps you don't have those dry spells because you're in there everyday and you're seeing the lefties and you're seeing the righties and your seeing the guys who drop down and throw from the side and you're use to seeing that. It helps out with the consistency. You're still going to have dry spells but they're not going to be as bad. They're not going to be as lengthy as they would if you're in there twice a week and pinch hitting here and there. Next think you know you can carry a 0-for-30 or a 0-for-20 streak and that may be your whole month. When you're playing once or twice a week and you're getting these pinch-hit at bats here and there you may go a month without getting a hit. And that makes it real tough when you look back in a three-week stretch and you haven't put up any type of numbers. It's just devastating to your psyche. But when you're in there everyday and you string together a 0-for-15 or something like that you know you're going to get those four at bats no matter what. You might go 4-for-4 and run off a 10-for-15 streak or something like that. There are some pressures when you're not playing everyday. You may play three days in a row and you might sit five, and then play one and sit another five. So there's just a lot of uncertainty when you're not playing everyday and you're a bench player.

BILL: And you still feel you have the ability to be an everyday player, don't you?

RUSS: Oh definitely. My body starts feeling better when I play everyday. It doesn't feel any worse. I get in there and start getting a chance to play and just start getting into a groove and the next thing you know I'm back on the bench and whoever's place I was taking are back in the lineup. But it makes it tough. I've always wondered what kind of numbers I could put up if I was an everyday player. If when I got called up with Cleveland in 98 or 99 and they said, "Hey we're going to give you 400 or 500 at bats this year and see what you can do." Well I would have liked to have seen what I could have done. But that's not the case. And the case is I'm going into camp with the Braves and I've got to make a ball club. And if I can play well enough I think I can find a starting position over there.

BILL: Well Mark DeRosa is kind of in the same position you are. He's never played everyday and is hoping this is his chance. Does it make it easier on you knowing that there is not an established player at third base and that it may be possible for you to win the job?

RUSS: It doesn't change my thinking one way or another. Those years I was in Cleveland – I think one year in spring training I led the Indians in RBI and homers and I knew I wasn't going to play because Travis Fryman was there, and we had Juan Gonzalez and Kenny Lofton and all of those guys. Jim Thome was at first base, so I knew there was nowhere for me to play. I got a chance to play a lot that spring training jumping around from DH, to third, to first. It shows when I do get a chance to play I put up numbers. You know no matter who I'm competing against or what have you, it doesn't rather influence me one way or another. I just have to go out this spring and play the best I can. And hopefully with the Braves I'll be able to get some at bats this spring training and they'll see it as competition whether I'm competing with DeRosa or if they want to see me at first base. I think if I have any type of spring training like I'm capable of having I can go in and win a position.

BILL: Where are you most comfortable in the field?

RUSS: My natural position is third base. I learned to play first and left field at the big league level. I learned first base in Cincinnati and I learned left field with Cleveland. I remember my first game at first. We were in a pennant race actually and we were in St. Louis. Bob Boone threw me over there at first base. He said, "Have you ever played first before?" I said, "No." He said, "You're going to play tonight."

BILL: You had never played there even in batting practice?

RUSS: Never in my life. And we were neck and neck (in a pennant race). We were in St. Louis and I went out and played that day and turned a double play and stuff. I asked Bob after the game, "Well, what do you think?" And he said, " Well you made three plays tonight I've never seen before." It was funny. Balls to my right I was back-handing them, and (Todd) Walker was looking at me like, "What are you doing? That's my balls." And I said, "I'm getting everything I can."

BILL: Well how do you feel there now?

RUSS: I feel good. I feel real comfortable but I'm still learning. There are some areas around the bag – if you haven't played there all your life it can be tough. You find your ways around there and you adjust. The more I play over there the better I am.

BILL: What about left field?

RUSS: Left field I feel real good. My arm is feeling a lot better now so I can make good throws from out there.

BILL: Well do you think this versatility is what will help you get a job with Atlanta?

RUSS: I think so. Somebody asked me the other day if I was going to primarily play third base or first base, and I really think I'm going to float around. The outfield really hasn't crossed my mind too much, but I'm definitely going to see what their opinion is on it. If I need to go out and take some fly balls in the outfield and work out out there I'm going to do that. I'm a fool if I think I'm not going to be out there taking some fly balls. I think I'll spend an equal amount of time everywhere. Maybe a little more at third than left or first. My main goal is to win a roster spot, and secondarily I'm going to go in and hopefully I can play well enough to win a starting spot. But I just want to get back to the big leagues this year and go from there.

BILL: How is your shoulder and what exactly was the injury?

RUSS: I had a labrum tear. I had surgery on it last December (2002). I'm fine.

BILL: Did you talk with Pendleton when you went up there?

RUSS: Yea we talked a little bit. I just went there for that week. I met Pendleton and talked a little bit. You know I know Clarence Jones, who was Pendleton's hitting coach (in Atlanta). C.J. came to Cleveland after that, and I've stayed in touch with C.J. over the years. He's told me some good things about T.P. but I've never gotten a chance to meet him. I finally got a chance to meet him the other day and we talked. We talked a little bit about hitting. He seems to be positive about it. Six weeks of spring training is a long time for some people and a short time for others.

BILL: When you are a player that has a lot of power but one that also strikes out a lot, do you find there is a lot of hitting coaches coming out of the wood works trying to tell you what to do to get better?

RUSS: Yes. It makes it tough. If you don't make the adjustments they want you to make, then they label you uncoachable. I was thinking up to the last five years I had a lot of hitting coaches. In Cincinnati this year we had two different hitting instructors. (Bill) Robinson got fired. The previous year we had (Jim) Lefebvre) there. He was a guru. He's been around a while. I had come over from Cleveland when we had Eddie Murray, and the year before we had Clarence Jones in Cleveland. I've had a bunch of different hitting instructors and the finest hitting coach I've had so far is Clarence Jones. He was not overbearing. He was not a guy that came up to me and said, "You've got to do this and you've got to do that in order to succeed." He wanted to see what I brought to the table and then he stepped in and said, "Look I want to add to what you got here." He kept me motivated. He kept me confident. If your coaching big league athletes, the only thing you've got to do is keep them positive you know. That's what C.J. was able to do. He didn't have a worry in the world. He didn't panic. C.J. was pretty bright. He knows hitting. He helped me out a lot. It's amazing. The year I got traded from Cleveland they had hired Eddie Murray there. They wanted me to do what he wanted me to do. He wanted me to make a drastic overhaul to my approach, my stance, the way I swung, and everything. And he wanted me to use a bigger bat. They said, "Hey we're going to give you 300 at bats. We're not going to ask questions until you get to 300 at bats. Then we're going to look at your numbers and see how you're doing. Well after 140 at bats I was out of there (traded to the Reds). It was my worse time. I was trying to do the things he was telling me to do, but it was too much to ask a player at the big league level to do. It was tough. I got to Cincinnati and it was a nice fresh breath of air. And I got over there and got to play a little bit.

BILL: Do you think Pendleton will be able to help you improve?

RUSS: I've always hit with an upright stance in my career. I've kind of dilly-dabbled with spreading out a little bit. We talked about that a little bit. He used a wider stance. He asked me what I thought of that and I said, "Well I feel I've got more power when I'm upright. The more I spread my stance, the better I see the ball." He said, "You answered all the questions I need to hear. If you see the ball better and you're a little more wider, we're going to keep you there. You can probably stand on one foot and hit the ball out of the ballpark. The key is putting the head of the bat on the ball." Clarence Jones even told T.P., "Sometimes Russ gets caught up in trying to hit it too far, and you'll see his average drop a little bit." That's the truth. It happens subconsciously. Next thing you know I've gone twenty at bats and I have to re-gather myself. But that's something I'm going to work on this year.

BILL: How did you like the atmosphere up there with the teammates who were there?

RUSS: They've got a good bit of camaraderie. Those guys really get along well. It seems like they've got good chemistry on that team. Pendleton's kind of the ringleader. He keeps them going. I just noticed that the week I was there hitting. Those guys talk and have a good time. It's nice to see.

BILL: It's not like there everywhere else is it?

RUSS: It's not. It definitely isn't. I mean some teams you walk in a cage and there might not be a word said. So it's nice to see that.

BILL: Ok finally can you just talk about what it would mean to wear that Braves uniform since you are a Georgia kid. It would be a dream come true for you wouldn't it?

RUSS: It definitely would. It's one thing to go to Cleveland or Cincinnati and win a big league job, play in the summer, and then come back home. To be able to play for your home state team, the Atlanta Braves, I feel like I'm really, really doing something. I grew up watching them on TV. It just means that much more to me to suit up in an Atlanta Braves uniform and go to bat. It almost feels like I'm playing for my state. I feel like I'm going to bat for my home state. It really means a lot. Like I said when my agent called and said the Braves were interested, I was keeping my fingers crossed that we could get something worked out. The organization is solid from top to bottom. There's a lot of stability in that organization. A lot of great ballplayers come through Atlanta. To be able to play in my home state and do what you love – there's not another better feeling in the world.

Bill Shanks hosts "The Braves Show" during the baseball season. He can be reached at

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