When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
— Yogi Berra
It was 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning as Steve Branche attended his last practice with his college coach, Rob Grow, at the Rochester Institute of Technology fields. He had to pack up his belongings and head back home to New Paltz, as his lease was up. The phone rang; it was a representative from the San Francisco Giants, asking him if he’d like to sign onto the Major League baseball team as a free agent and making him an offer.
Branche asked if he could talk it over with his parents first and give them a call back. “A half-hour later, the phone rang, and it was the Cincinnati Reds,” said Branche, a New Paltz native who started his baseball career at Dressel Field, off Huguenot Street. “They gave me an offer significantly greater than the Giants. I said, Thank you, and that I needed to talk it over with my parents.” As he said goodbye to his coach and headed off the field, the Giants called again. After learning that he had heard from the Reds, they matched the offer.
“I had two identical offers from two great franchises,” he said, “and I explained to both of them that I was packing up my house, had a long drive home, and could I give them an answer by the end of the day after I’d spoken with my parents? Which they agreed to. I had a lot to think about on that car ride home!”
In the end, Branche decided to go with Cincinnati, which landed him in a hotel in Arizona this past weekend, near the Reds’ spring training facility. There he went through a battery of tests by the team’s medical staff, including an EKG, blood tests and range-of-motion exercises. “Anything you can imagine that a physical body can be tested for, in terms of being a professional athlete, I was tested for,” he said with a laugh. “Tomorrow it should be more fitness-focused tests like jumping, throwing, sprinting, strength, agility. It’s been an incredible experience.”
The right-handed pitcher had a good freshman season and even better sophomore year. By the time he was a junior at RIT, he had scouts marveling at his 95-miles-per-hour fastball, his sharpened curveball, and his newly honed change-up. “I wasn’t picked up [by the MLB draft] during my third year or fourth year, and then my last season was canceled,” due to the Covid 19 public health crisis, he explained. “Last week they went from a 40-round draft pick to a five-round draft pick. But they were able to sign as many free agents as they wanted to because of the situation. And that’s where I came in.”
According to the New Paltz High School Class of 2015 alumnus, the rules for baseball, like everything else right now, are being rewritten every day. “Whether you’re drafted or sign on as a free agent, we’re all on the same playing field.” In a normal year, all of these newly signed ballplayers would go to their organizations’ respective spring-training facilities and hope to move up the ranks from the rookie league in hopes of making it to the big game, the majors.
With the novel coronavirus playing itself out, the MLB has currently suspended minor-league play and is grappling with a myriad of negotiations with major league players: how many games will be played, television rights, whether or not games will be played in stadiums with or without a live audience and much more.
In the meantime, Branche said that, once he’s done with his physical in Arizona, he will be outfitted with a bunch of team gear and then fly back home, where he will begin online training with the Reds. “I know that at some point, they’d like to bring me back here – maybe later in the summer – to do real training. And the fall minor league is a possibility; but for now, I’ll work with what I have.”
To that end, Branche has been relying on his old baseball pals, NPHS seniors Aidan Hoffman and Matt Thomas, to help keep him in pitching shape. “I go to the turf field at SUNY New Paltz,” he explained. “Matt’s a catcher and Aidan’s a great ballplayer, and I’ve known him basically my entire life. So, we’ve set up a bullpen, and they’ve just been super-helpful in working with me and allowing me to stay in shape. They were on the high-school baseball team and their season was canceled as well, so it’s been a cool thing.”
Branche stays on a strict running schedule, as well as lifting and strength training in his home gym. How does he feel about joining the Cincinnati Reds? A part of him that still can’t believe it. “I’m able to continue to follow a dream of mine that I’ve had since a little kid,” he said. “I always joked that it was my dream job to be able to get paid to throw a baseball, and now that is my job. I feel blessed, and it’s an absolute honor to represent RIT and New Paltz as I join the Reds organization.”
His first coach was his dad, both at home and in the Little League in New Paltz. He was then coached by Craig Digilio, in high school by Bill Defino and Sam Phelps and eventually by Grow at RIT. What has kept him passionate about the sport throughout his childhood and into college as a now-23-year-old young man, he said, was the competition. “And I love how much of a mental sport it is,” he said. “There’s no other sport like it, when you consider how much thought goes into every pitch at every single at-bat during every single game. Anything can happen at any time, and there are so many variables.” Add to that increased technology and biometrics, and the sport is evolving at all times.
While baseball might not look exactly as it did last year, Branche believes that “it will be different, but it will be back.” For his part, the Paltzonian said that his goal remains unchanged. “I have this opportunity to try and make it to the major leagues. That’s still the dream, and I’m going to give it everything I have.”
With a degree from RIT in mechanical engineering, Branche added, “I think I have a pretty good backup plan.”