Brandon Belanger was one of the most dominant closers for Tulane in the late 1990s.
Sept. 29, 2013
This is the first of a five part series featuring the 2013 Tulane Athletics Hall of Fame Class. The 2013 induction ceremonies will take place on Thursday, Oct. 3 from 6-9 p.m. at the Lavin-Bernick Center on the Tulane University Uptown campus.
Brandon Belanger has never closed the chapter of his life that is Tulane baseball.
Belanger, a right-handed pitcher, was the epitome of the closer role in the game of baseball during his playing days and was considered one of the greatest closers in Tulane history. During his two-year tenure as a member of the Tulane baseball squad, Belanger was on the hill for the final out of 63 of the 72 games in which he pitched.
But Belanger hasn't closed that chapter because he doesn't want to. He has given a lot to Tulane, and vice versa. Because of that, Belanger will have the opportunity to return to Tulane 15 years after he first proudly wore the Olive and Blue, as he will be formally inducted into the Tulane Hall of Fame on Oct. 3.
"It's unbelievable," said Belanger. "It's something that I never expected, especially since I was there for only two years. To be included in a group of what I consider to be some of the greatest college baseball players ever is unbelievable. Guys like Chad Sutter, Jake Gautreau, James Jurries, Jared Berkowitz, Jason Navarro, Andy Cannizaro and to be listed with that group is just phenomenal."
Unbelievable might not be the right word, but the odds weren't in his favor.
Of the 27 current Tulane Hall of Famers who only played baseball during their time as student-athletes, only two of them - Robert Brown, M.D. (1945-46) and John Olagues (1965-66) - played just two years on the Uptown campus.
However, Belanger had a tremendous impact on the program during those two years. In that short period of time, he was able to etch his name in the Tulane record books while leading two strong teams to the postseason. Belanger's coach and current Green Wave skipper Rick Jones knew he belonged where the best-of-the-best in Tulane athletics will forever be immortalized.
"Anytime you have one of your former players go into their school's hall of fame, it's a very exciting thing," said Jones. "From the time we recruited him, we knew that Brandon was special."
While Jones feels very strongly about his former star pupil, the feeling is certainly mutual.
"Coach Jones is a very close friend of mine, even today," stated Belanger. "We are as close as family. He was a mentor, and I have the utmost respect for that man. He just believed in our team, and there is a lot to be said for that."
The relationship between the two was certainly symbiotic. The two years Belanger was tutored by Jones - a pitching coach by trade - were the two best years of his baseball career, according to the Houma native.
And the two seasons Jones had Belanger close games for his squad were two of the finest seasons for the skipper, as they went to back-to-back regionals in Auburn, Ala., and Starkville, Miss., respectively, while also winning the programs third straight Conference USA title in 1999.
"My time at Tulane is something I would never trade or take back for anything in the world," Belanger reminisced. "In many ways, it was the building block for my life. I met so many great people, not just in baseball, but within the whole Tulane University family that helped me in my life moving forward."
Before moving forward, though, Belanger featured one of the most explosive arms in the country as a student-athlete. He joined the Green Wave in the fall of 1998 after transferring from Copiah-Lincoln Community College. While there, he was named a Junior College All-American, recording 69 strikeouts and just 11 walks in 41.3 innings of work.
He was quickly named the closer for the 1999 Greenies, and he did not disappoint. Equipped with a fastball and a slider, he pitched in 41 games, mowing down 68 batters while walking just 15 and notching an ERA of 2.45 and 16 saves. The 41 appearances and 16 saves remain as single-season records. The following season, he struck out 49 while posting 11 saves in 31 appearances. When he left Tulane, his 27 saves stood as the most in Tulane history.
In addition to having the physical attributes a closer needs to succeed, Belanger relished in being named the closer, where as many pitchers prefer to get the ball at the start of the game.
"Being a closer, in my mind, is much better than being a starter," he stated. "You get an opportunity to pitch more. It would be more mentally draining, for me, to be a starter and having to wait five or six days before getting to pitch again. Being a closer, you get amped up every day knowing that you have a chance to pitch. There is no room for errors, and you have to be in the zone 24-7."
Belanger also had the mental makeup that is important for a closer. Trying to clean up someone else's mess with the game on the line in front of thousands of fans is a situation in which many would not thrive.
"For whatever reason, my mind works in a way that the more pressure there is, the calmer I get," he explains. "For a closer, it's hard to come into a game and perform when you're up seven runs and the game is not on the line. You train yourself to go in there with the bases loaded, one out and up by only one run in the ninth."
Despite having the physical and mental qualities, Belanger wasn't exactly an imposing presence on the mound compared to other closers of years past. He wasn't overly tall like a Lee Smith or a Joe Nathan - he stands only at 6'1". He never grew the wild facial hair like a Brian Wilson or a Rollie Fingers - Jones instituted a `no-facial hair' policy during Belanger's playing days.
He lacked the quirkiness that followed - and sometimes plagued - the careers of Rod Beck, Mitch Williams and Sparky Lyle - he just showed up to work and did what was asked of him. And he certainly lacked the outspokenness of a Jonathan Papelbon or a John Rocker - he is a self-proclaimed "quiet guy."
Some of that can be attributed to the relationship that Belanger was able to cultivate with another no-nonsense, unassuming pitcher: Bruce Sutter, one of the best closers in MLB history, and the only Hall of Famer pitcher to never have started a game in his career. Bruce's son, Chad, was the everyday catcher for the Greenies in 1999 and currently serves as an associate head coach for the baseball program.
"I was very fortunate that Bruce Sutter was at practice sometimes, and I got to pick his brain a lot," Belanger said. "He talked to me a lot about how to mentally prepare for a game and routines and how to face certain hitters. He was very helpful."
There isn't anyone better to learn from than a consummate pro like Sutter and a coach like Jones, who at that point in his career had worked with five pitchers who made it to the majors (Daryl Irvine at Ferrum, Greg Harris at Elon, and Doug Creek, Marc Pisciotta and Brad Rigby at Georgia Tech) on top of a plethora who went on to play professionally in the minors. If it weren't for the work that Jones and his coaches put in with Belanger, things may have turned out differently.
"We made a major change with his delivery when he first got here in the fall," explained Jones. "He was an over-the-top pitcher that we dropped down to the side. He was excited about doing that, and he didn't resist in any way. It really allowed him to flourish when he was struggling in the fall of his junior year. He was open to it, though, and he was always just so coachable."
It also helped that Belanger was the consummate `team-first' player.
"He would do anything to help the club win," added Jones. "Not many people even remember that he played in the outfield for us and hit four home runs in his junior year. But on top of that, he would pitch through things that a lot of players would not."
"I remember when we played a tournament out at San Diego State to open the '99 season, and we dropped the first two games before beating San Diego State in the third game. We had to beat Nevada in the last game just to get to .500 - and that ended up being a great season for us - but Brandon was in there closing for us after six great innings from Jared Robinson. Brandon pulled a muscle in his ribcage in the eighth inning, and in between the innings, he was on the floor in the dugout struggling to breathe. Now, we would never put any of our student-athletes in harm's way, so I said `We need to get somebody up in the bullpen.' He came back and said `I can pitch, I can pitch.' He could barely breathe, but he said he could pitch. Our trainer cleared him, and he went out and went 1-2-3 in the ninth inning for the save. Anything he could do to help our club, he would do," Jones said.
Belanger took what he learned from the two, and after he exhausted his eligibility, he inked a free agent contract with the San Diego Padres organization. He made stops with the Idaho Falls Padres and the Fort Wayne Wizards in 2000 and 2001, respectively, compiling a 4-4 record with 14 saves in 64 appearances.
"I learned a lot (in the minors) about baseball by playing for coaches who were former big league players and coaches," he stated. "A lot of people talk about how the minor league life is tough. Personally, I loved every second of it. I got to play baseball every day and I got paid to do it. I formed bonds with a lot of teammates, and I loved, enjoyed and cherished every second of my time in the minors."
Even though he found success in the minors, the place he called home in 1999 and 2000 was always in the back of his mind. He decided to hang up his cleats for good after the 2001 season and return to the Uptown campus, where he was offered a special opportunity that was too difficult to pass up.
"I was in the process of getting moved up, but I had to get my release by the end of the summer if I wanted to go back and finish school," said Belanger. "In my mind, I accomplished all of my goals in baseball, so it was time to take a new path and start a family. I was already married, so I hung it up and came back to Tulane. I got my scholarship back and was offered a spot on the Tulane coaching staff, working with the pitchers, outfielders and coaching first base. I felt like I had come back home."
And back home, he was, as he helped lead the Greenies to a 44-19 record and a berth to the program's sixth straight regional.
"Having him back as a coach was like having a family member return home after being gone," said Jones. "He worked so hard, and he ran our camps here. He was so close with my wife, and I was close to his family."
After earning his degree, he has served as a pharmaceutical representative and is now a national sales director for Pernix Therapeutics in The Woodlands, Texas. He resides in Conroe, Texas, with his wife, Angie, and their three sons - Brock, Brody and Brady.
While Belanger will be in town this week for the festivities leading up to the Tulane Hall of Fame induction ceremony, he will be the first to tell you that it won't be long before he makes another return trip.
"I normally come back for a few games every year," Belanger said. "Hopefully in the future, I'll get to come to a lot more. It's great to come home. Coach Jones will ask me to sit in the dugout with them, and I get to see the guys fight with every pitch in those Green Wave uniforms. It's a really special thing."
There weren't many closers in college baseball better than Brandon Belanger during his time at Tulane. Even though he is reaching the Hall of Fame - the pinnacle for most student-athletes - fans can rest assured that his time with Tulane will never completely come to a close.
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