Written by Media Relations Intern Austin Hawkins
Baseball is a game like no other, where everybody has a different path they follow, with different people they’ve met and different stories to tell. One RedHawk in particular, starting pitcher Brandon Mann, has a baseball story arguably more unique than all the others.
Mann sits in the home dugout of Newman Outdoor Field, gazing out at the luscious green grass, hiding under the overhang to avoid the harsh sun that goes hand-in-hand with a summer in Fargo-Moorhead. It’s a scene all to familiar for Mann, as he has seen hundreds of different ballparks across the world. This season he checks Newman Outdoor Field off that list.
Growing up in Des Moines, Washington, Mann started playing baseball at an early age. He grew up a diehard Seattle Mariners fan attending 50-60 games a season at the Seattle Kingdome. He idolized Ken Griffey Jr., a larger than life figure to kids roaming the streets of Seattle and beyond, and credits his father and Griffey Jr. for his adamant love for the game.
He attended Mount Rainier High where he didn’t begin pitching until his sophomore season. Mann had always thrown hard, but up until then was just an average player. He blossomed as a junior and senior being named a first team All-State selection in Washington both years as an outfielder and pitcher. Mann was also highly touted for his bat as a senior, with an average of nearly .500 that season.
The left-hander was drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the 27th round of the 2002 draft straight out of high school, and was assigned to rookie ball in Princeton, West Virginia. Mann spent the better half of two seasons there before being promoted to short season Single-A with the Hudson Valley Renegades, where he was teammates with former big league catcher John Jaso, whom is currently in Triple-A Durham with the Bulls.
He ended 2003 in Hudson Valley and began 2004 with the Renegades before being promoted to Single-A Southwest Michigan for the 2005 season where he continued to play with Jaso and became teammates with longtime Rays’ pitcher Andy Sonnanstine.
One level at a time, Mann found himself moving up the ladder. In 2006 he left Michigan for California where he joined the Visalia Oaks in Advanced-A ball. With the Oaks, Mann was teammates with big leaguers Evan Longoria and Aubrey Huff. However, it was in 2006 that his love for baseball began to dwindle. He went 4-9 with a 5.64 ERA in 29 games (24 starts) that season. Of that season, Mann says, “It was a really up and down year for me in a lot of different ways, and I really just wanted to see what life without baseball was like.” So at the conclusion of the 2006 season, he stepped away from the game.
Mann returned home to the Seattle area and decided to go back to school for some higher education. Without a major in mind, he enrolled in Highline Community College going for his Associate’s Degree. It was also in 2007 that he got married to his high school sweetheart who he had been with since his sophomore year of high school, whom he is no longer with.
One season off was too much and the love for the game returned. He re-signed with Tampa Bay in 2008 and they assigned him to Single-A with the Vero Beach Devil Rays. While in Vero Beach, he was on a pitching staff that featured some soon-to-be premier pitchers in the majors. David Price, Ryan Reid, Matt Garza, Scott Kazmir and Jeremy Hellickson were all members of the staff in Vero Beach. The roster also featured Ben Zobrist, Carlos Pena and Willy Aybar. Mann was part of a Tampa Bay organization that was on the rise, and he was right in the middle of it battling for his shot at the show.
What amazed Mann the most was how down to Earth these future stars were. On the composure and grace these players carried themselves with, Mann commented, “I’ve played with really high-round (draft pick) guys before that are all about themselves. But that’s what made Tampa so great a few years ago is that their scouting department picked character guys.” One of those character guys was David Price. Mann has nothing but the utmost respect for Price, saying, “Playing with him (Price) was awesome. He was one of the most humble guys, he would sign autographs for anybody. He didn’t care he was the best player in the nation at the time coming out of Vanderbilt. He lived out of his car and roomed with five guys sleeping on their couch.”
Mann went on to say that guys like Longoria and Price seemed like big-leaguers while in Double and Single-A and that he learned a lot from simply talking to them. “They seemed liked big leaguers when in A-ball with me. Their presence and the way they talked, you just knew those guys were going to be in the big leagues soon.”
In 2009 Mann continued up the ladder. He was assigned to Double-A Montgomery with the Biscuits. He recalls Montgomery as one of his favorite minor league destinations, saying, “I love it there. Beautiful place, great atmosphere, great baseball, it was a great year for me.” Playing alongside the likes of Pat Burrell, Jose Lobaton, Jason Isringhausen and Alex Torres, Mann went 7-9 with a 4.44 ERA and was released at season’s end by Tampa Bay.
Having just finished up an entire season in Double-A, he didn’t get signed. Only one team came calling. Mann took a tryout opportunity with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He jumped on a plane and flew to Arizona with a chance to get back into affiliated ball. Mann threw one pitch and the Dodgers offered him a spot in their organization. He inked a contract and was off to Inland Empire in High-A with the 66ers in San Bernardino, California.
Mann made 37 appearances out of the bullpen that season with Inland Empire going 3-0 with a 4.12 ERA before being released. He had a 1.64 ERA going into the All-Star break, but had two rough outings in a row after the break. He signed with the independent Southern Maryland Blue Crabs of the Atlantic League to end the 2010 season.
That offseason the majors did not come calling, but somebody did. While in Southern Maryland they put him back in the rotation, and after a couple rough outings things started to click. One day there was a Japanese scout sitting in the stands looking at another lefty on the team. The scout approached Mann after a game in which he threw eight innings of one-run baseball against Bridgeport and offered him a chance to tryout in Japan. Mann went to the tryout and pitched well enough to receive a contract offer with the Yokohama Bay Stars in the Japanese Central League, one of two major leagues in Japan. He signed with Yokohama and embarked on a new chapter in his career.
Mann found out quickly that baseball in Japan is a world away from baseball in the states. The fans are passionate beyond imagination, playing drums and singing songs for each batter that steps to the plate. Mann says, “It doesn’t matter if you are a bench player and have not played all year. They have a song ready for you when you step to the plate.” Mann describes each game as an unbelievable atmosphere, playing in front of a crazed crowd of 25,000-30,000 plus on average with a sound so deafening it makes the ground under one’s feet shake.
Something else that makes baseball in Japan different than baseball in the states is the disregarding of pitch counts. Pitchers hurling up to 150 pitches per game is nothing out of the ordinary. Mann credits his overall arm strength to his time in Yokohama. In Japanese baseball they use a six man rotation rather than a five man, and in between starts each pitcher would throw two or three 120 pitch bullpen sessions as hard as possible trying to build up arm stamina. He says, “I truly believe Japan taught me how to know my body better. I now know how to throw with a sore arm. Me going out there and throwing 130 pitches now is no big deal.”
Mann pitched in the Tokyo Dome a couple times in front of crowds amassing over 50,000 people. He also had the chance to pitch at Koshien Stadium in front of 57,000 people. He cites his favorite baseball memory as his first professional win in Japan. That game he pitched six shutout inning against the two-time reigning champion Tokyo Giants in front of nearly 55,000 people in the Tokyo Dome.
After two seasons with Yokohama, his overall record was not impressive. Yokohama was one of the worst teams in the league, he went 3-9 with a 4.27 ERA and was released.
He came back over to the states at the start of 2013 and was in spring training with the Washington Nationals. It was his first experience in a big league camp. With the likes of Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and others, Mann had two outings with the Nationals that spring. He did okay, but was sent to minor league camp and was released on the last day of cuts in favor of a different left-handed pitcher. Opportunities presented itself in the states, but he wanted to try to continue his career in Japan. He signed on with the Shinano Grandserows in one of the Japanese independent leagues for the 2013 season.
Fresh off a two-year stint in the Japanese major leagues, Mann got rocked in the Japanese independent leagues. He started off 1-9 with an ERA resembling football scores. He called it the most humbling experience of his entire career. However, a pitcher named Akinori Otsuka helped him flip it around. Otsuka was a closer for the San Diego Padres and the Texas Rangers from 2004-2007, and joined the Grandserows for the end of the 2013 season. He worked on changing arm slots with Mann and eventually he went from throwing the ball over the top to a ¾ arm slot. Shinano put him in the bullpen and his velocity began to increase. He went from topping out at 89 miles per hour in his Tampa days. By season’s end Mann was touching 94 miles per hour for the first time in his career, and in 21 innings of work out of the pen he gave up one run with 35 strikeouts.
With a revitalized arm Mann came back to the states at the conclusion of 2013. He was throwing a bullpen session in November and a scout from the Pirates happened to be looking on at the facility. Mann had a tryout scheduled with a Japanese major league team in two days, but Pittsburgh offered him a contract that same night. Mann flew to Japan anyway and performed well enough to receive an offer from the team, but he opted to sign with Pittsburgh and came back to the states.
He began 2014 in camp with the Pirates. He pitched well in camp, even striking out David DeJesus with Russell Martin catching for him. Though he was solid in spring training, he was optioned to Double-A Altoona with the Curve. Mann went 1-4 with a 2.91 ERA and was released after 14 games in Altoona. A few days after his release he signed with Lancaster and finished the season with the Barnstormers in the independent Atlantic League where he went 2-2 with a 4.09 ERA.
To begin this season Mann had opportunities to play in Japan. Affiliated teams believe he is too old at 31 to be a reliever in Double-A or Triple-A. Now he is in Fargo-Moorhead. He starts tomorrow night vs. Sussex County with a 1-5 record and a 4.57 ERA. One may ask, what keeps him playing? He says, “I think my stuff is playable anywhere. If you look at it this way I’m not to far removed from a high level of ball. ’11 and ’12 in Japanese major leagues, ’13 and ’14 in big league camps, this year is maybe a year that I’m just in between. I feel like I’m still at that level, I just didn’t go there this season. “
He loved his time with Tampa Bay, but feels if he would have been with a different major league organization he might have made it to the show. “To be perfectly honest, I feel if I wouldn’t have been with Tampa Bay at that time I might’ve had a chance to go up there (the major leagues).” Guys like Wade Davis, Jake McGee, Price, Hellickson, and Sonnanstine were all on their way to the majors, and he was in a system that was at the time an up and coming powerhouse in professional baseball. He understood why Tampa did not re-sign him after 2009, and his journey continued on elsewhere.
Looking at his record, one may say it’s time to hang it up. Dig deeper and a baseball mind would say otherwise. He’s a wily veteran that has topped out at 94 miles per hour. He’s left-handed and is tied for the American Association lead in strikeouts. He believes that his arm and his stuff has the makings to still give him a shot at playing in the big leagues, whether that be in the states or Japan. With a confident tone Mann says, “I could hang it up and say, ‘Hey, I’ve had my moment, my chance.’ But as the saying goes, I’ve gotten better with age. The stuff I’ve been throwing the last five games shows that. My stuff has gotten better, and if I got back to Japan or a big league camp I believe I could do way better than before.”
For now, he dons the #16 red and white jersey of a Fargo-Moorhead RedHawk. He is still playing the game he loves, at a height he believes could take him to a level he’s never been at before. When his moment comes, you can bet Brandon Mann will be ready for it.