ANAHEIM, Calif. — This season marked the first time that Houston Astros’ outfielder Brandon Barnes was able to play at Angel Stadium, against the team he always grew up watching.
But the Big A wasn’t the field he expected to ever play on. While at nearby Katella high school, the Orange native thought he would be playing about 45 miles away at the Rose Bowl for UCLA.
In order to get to the major leagues and the stadium that he used to skateboard to as a kid, he had to give up his first love: Football.
Education was the driving factor, as he learned that his skills on the gridiron were more likely to land him a scholarship than his skills on the diamond. The prospect of a prestigious education at UCLA was enticing, so Barnes gave up baseball his senior year of high school in order to put all of his efforts into football. It paid off – he signed with the Bruins as a safety.
“My parents didn’t have money to send me to college,” Barnes said. “I wanted to go get an education. Baseball, I was all right at it in high school but football was opening the doors to an education.”
It was a far different path than the one he would ultimately take.
The departure of former head coach Bob Toledo and the entrance of Karl Dorrell left Barnes in recruiting limbo and UCLA decided not to honor his scholarship. Barnes enrolled at Cypress Junior College in the hopes of transferring to a Division I program.
But at the insistence of a friend, he went back to playing baseball.
“I was going to junior college to keep playing football, to pursue football,” Barnes said. “But I played in a baseball tournament with a bunch of my buddies and they talked me into trying out for the junior college team at Cypress and that was it.
“I just called the football coach and told him I was going to transfer to play baseball.”
A year later in 2005, the Astros drafted Barnes in the sixth round. It would be easy to say that he never looked back – but he did.
Far from an instant success in the minor leagues, Barnes hit just .200 in his rookie season and only improved that average by 20 points the following season.
Long bus rides and cheap motels made Barnes wonder what the cushy conditions of a Division I program might feel like. And long seasons away from his wife, daughter and football made him wonder if he had made the right decision in pursuing baseball.
“I always said if it doesn’t work out, if I get released, I’ll go back to playing football,” Barnes said. “The first three years of pro ball I thought about quitting a couple times.”
But Barnes he never quite found it in himself to leave the game. And a funny thing happened: He improved, and steadily at that, renewing his passion for the game.
“My grandpa had always told me: ‘Don’t ever quit. Make someone take the jersey off your back.’ I took it to heart,” Barnes said. “I love the game of baseball. I think I might even love it more than football.”
Barnes finally made it to the field he grew up next door to. And it feels right because he worked for it.
But that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten about football.
“I try not to watch football because it makes me want to play,” Barnes said. “I love football. I’d go out and play it right now if I could.”