Branch to open Surge’s homestand

Stafford Branch, pictured enjoying the warm weather on his porch Tuesday afternoon in Saranac Lake, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Saranac Lake Surge’s home-opening baseball game Thursday at the Petrova Avenue field. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

SARANAC LAKE — “I haven’t chickened out yet.”

That’s what Stafford Branch said Tuesday morning when asked if he’s still throwing the first ceremonial pitch at the Saranac Lake Surge home-opening game on Thursday.

Branch, a Saranac Lake native and longtime resident, agreed to be a guest of honor at the Petrova Avenue diamond when the Surge plays its first home game in the Empire Professional Baseball League on the Fourth of July against the Road City Explorers.

Branch, who will turn 68 next month, was a standout pitcher for some dominant Scotia-Glenville high school teams during the late 1960s. He was drafted three times in a span of a year, twice by Major League Baseball organizations, and then finally by the United States Army.

As a senior in high school, Branch was originally drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the club wound up bypassing him after receiving word that he “tweaked” his arm, which turned out to be a minor issue that he figured could have been caused by pitching in some cold, damp April weather. Branch was then drafted in the winter of 1970 by the St. Louis Cardinals organization in the winter of that year, and the following summer, he was on the way to seeing a dream come true when he played rookie ball for the team.

Branch has a successful run competing in 1970 summer baseball in Florida in the Gulf Coast League, but that turned out to be the final time he would play.

“The funny thing is, I got drafted on January 18, 1970 by the St. Louis Cardinals, and on January 18, 1971, I went into the military,” Branch recalled. “Exactly a year to the day. I got my draft notice in early December of ’70. I saw my number picked on TV, and I saw my birthday come up and my number was 91. They were taking about 180, so I kind of knew I would be in there.

“I can’t say I was too excited about it,” he continued. “When you got drafted, it was just a two-year stint, and I was told there was a good chance you’d go to Vietnam. They had drawn down, but they were still sending guys over for whatever reason.”

Branch explained there were options. He said he could have joined for three years and maybe played baseball in the Army, or even be in the National Guard for six years and be a “weekend warrior.” In the end, he chose the two years.

“That sounded like the deal,” he said. “I’ll go wherever they send me, and then I’ll go back. I’ll stay in touch with the Cardinals, and we did.”

Branch said he only served 16 months in the Army, adding he was released after spending nine months in Vietnam as a radio operator.

“I got orders to ship out. I figured I’d have to do some time stateside to finish my two years, but they let me come right home,” he said.

With the Army behind him in 1972, Branch again turned to baseball.

“They (the Cardinals) continued corresponding with me, and when I got out, they didn’t contact me. It was late April or May, and they already had their teams established that year. All their leagues were getting ready to start. I went back down the next spring, in 1973, trying to make a team and sign a contract.”

Unfortunately, Branch was one of the final two players cut that year.

“It wasn’t good stuff going through my head,” he said of not making the cut. “I thought I was doing great. I was in there, and actually called my mother the night before saying things are looking good. It was tough. You’ve been a star all your life. You’ve stuck out above everybody else since you were probably 11, and now they’re telling you you’re not good enough to play baseball anymore.”

The following winter, he took one more shot at big-time baseball. Along with his friend, Bert Hough, Branch hitchhiked from New York to Florida, hoping to join up with the Mets at spring training as a walk-on. Knowing a contact from that organization gave Branch hope, but they fizzled out when he was told that the Mets weren’t taking walk-on players anymore.

He moved back to Saranac Lake and wound up playing for a few years in the Champlain Valley Baseball League, and also played for a number of years in the local Black Fly Softball League.

“It was a lot of fun,” he said.

Branch explained that about a week ago, he was contacted by Saranac Lake Mayor Clyde Rabideau and was asked about tossing out the first pitch. He was originally going to join his cousin as a spectator on Thursday.

Branch said his cousin, Craig Wilcox, asked if he could pass his phone number on to the mayor.

“The Mayor was looking for a local ball player,” Branch said. “The Mayor called me, asked ‘How would you feel about throwing out the first pitch?’ I said ‘I’d be honored to.’ He caught me off guard.

“Since you asked, yeah, sure, why not?” Branch continued. “My wife (Janice) is all excited. She thinks I’m going to Yankee Stadium.”

Branch said it’s neat that any kind of baseball is being played in Saranac Lake this summer.

“Watching baseball in the summer is great any time the sun is out,” he smiled. “It’s good.”

Branch said he’s been warming up this week playing catch with the neighborhood kids.

“I told Clyde on the phone ‘I have to be close to whoever I’m throwing the ball to,” he said. “I said because I will not bounce it. I will not be able to live it down, and I do not want to throw it 10 feet over anyone’s head. I can throw it. I’ll get it there. I’ll get it there right from the mound.”