IN NOVEMBER, on the 231st anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Marine Corps, Cpl. Cooper Brannan and his friend Pfc. Jeffrey Huben were invited to a San Diego radio station to discuss the injuries they'd suffered in Iraq. That's where Brannan, who's done two tours in the war, met San Diego Padres CEO Sandy Alderson, a former Marine who served in Vietnam. "[Huben said] I should tell him I was a pitcher," Brannan, 22, recalls. "I couldn't do it. Imagine how many people tell him they should be playing professionally."
So Huben did the talking, bragging about Brannan, a 6'4", 235-pound, three-sport star at Highland High in Gilbert, Ariz., who briefly pitched for an all-Marines team. Alderson took Brannan's contact information, but, Brannan says, "I didn't think anything would happen."
Alderson, however, followed through. And now five months later, after a tryout and extensive tutoring sessions, Brannan is at his first spring training and will most likely sign a minor league contract once he's discharged from the Marines in May. A right-hander who hasn't pitched a meaningful game since he was in high school four years ago, Brannan has his work cut out for him if he wants to make it to the big leagues, but that challenge pales in comparison to the ones he's already overcome.
Brannan, whose father was a Marine and whose grandmother was a Navy volunteer during World War II, joined the military after graduating high school in 2003, and in February '04 he was dispatched to Hitt, Iraq, where he served for eight months. In September '05 he returned to Iraq and was assigned as a squad leader in Fallujah, site of some of the fiercest fighting of the conflict. "We would do three days of patrol, three days guarding the base and then three days of what we called a quick reactionary force," says Brannan. "You would have to be ready at all times to assist another unit. You'd sleep with your boots on."
On Nov. 1, 2005, Brannan was inspecting his 12-man squad before a patrol and noticed that one of the younger Marines didn't have a flash-bang grenade. When Brannan reached into his flak jacket to give the Marine one of his own, the grenade malfunctioned and exploded in his left hand.
He lost his pinkie, but doctors were able to reattach his thumb and ring finger. After several more procedures and countless therapy sessions the hand has recovered remarkably well, he says. "I thought I wouldn't be able to use it again," he admits.
A future in baseball seemed even more out of reach, but at Brannan's tryout, scout Brendan Hause liked his size and athleticism and referred him to Dominick Johnson, a local high school coach who tutors prospects. Johnson taught him basics, such as how to keep a runner on base, and eliminated the variety of arm angles he used. "He was so eager to learn that it made it easy to work with him," says Johnson, recalling how Brannan once stayed 5 1/2 hours after a lesson to work out one aspect of his delivery.
Brannan has improved immensely, but he remains raw. Last week, while pitching a scoreless inning against Kansas City Royals minor leaguers in Surprise, Ariz., Brannan's fastball was not overpowering. He also has trouble closing his glove, but by adjusting his fingers—he puts his index finger in the thumb slot—he can minimize the problem.
Until he is discharged, Brannan must "keep a clean-shaven face and short, Marine-style haircut," he says, "and conduct myself as a Marine should." But he has begun to view himself as a ballplayer. "I've been keeping a journal lately," Brannan says. "I want to be able to remember all the amazing things that are happening.... It just gets more and more unbelievable every day."
RAW TALENT Despite losing a finger in Iraq, Brannan hopes to become a Padres farmhand.