STOCKTON, Calif. -- Walk through the entrance gates of Banner Island Ballpark and one of the first things that will catch your eye as you look out into left field is a white and red No. 50 Dallas Braden jersey adorning the forest green outfield wall.
A few rows behind home plate, you’ll see a portrait of Braden’s face painted onto a white wall just underneath the stadium’s press box.
Now, look at the mound in the center of the diamond. That short hill of dirt is where the greatest moment of Braden’s baseball career took place. Yes, even greater than tossing the 19th perfect game in MLB history and second in A’s history. This moment took place on April 30, 2005, when Braden, a Stockton, Calif., native, first took the mound for the Stockton Ports, the A’s Class A Advanced affiliate.
“The proudest moment of my baseball career was being able to wear the city of Stockton across my chest,” Braden said. “That city built me. That city built my family. It gave my grandmother and mother the strength that eventually was given to me to be able to face this world and whatever hurdles that came my way.”
Braden quickly developed a special love for the Oakland Coliseum faithful over his five big league seasons, one he combined with his eternal love for the city 70 miles east of the Coliseum where he was born and raised and even commuted from for all of his home games with the A’s. That love was reciprocated by both cities, whose residents know a little something about being an underdog.
“He had a really outgoing personality, and I think the fact he was from the area, he had a great story -- he could have gone off the right track into the dark side -- there was a great personal story there of perseverance,” A’s radio broadcaster Ken Korach said. “Not only the injuries, but going through tough times in life. He had a lot of brashness to him as well. He stood out for the right reasons.”
Stockton doesn’t exactly fit the stereotypical mold placed on California cities. It’s a city that has long had a high crime rate, one which increased severely at the start of the 2000s, largely the result of an economic recession. To put it simply, there weren’t many role models for Braden to look up to when he was young.
Braden was not dealt the best hand to succeed in life. He was not supposed to make it out. But in a way, that unsafe environment he grew up in helped shape the underdog, chip-on-the-shoulder mentality that made him a beloved pitcher in Oakland. It helped him find a way out and eventually find success in the big leagues, where he always made sure to carry a piece of Stockton with him.
A promise to Mom
Braden recalled his old neighborhood in Stockton, which was devoid of sidewalks, and not by design.
“That’s not because it’s a beautiful rural area, there just aren’t any sidewalks,” Braden said. “The pizza man is [too scared] to come through there. The taco trucks aren’t driving in there. You’re forced to grow up very early. Your reality kind of hits you in the face very early on.”
With gangs and drugs prevalent in the area, Braden could have easily gone down the wrong path. Luckily, there was also baseball, which Braden quickly fell in love with. His mother, Jodie Atwood, and grandmother, Peggy Lindsey, knew this was an avenue to keep him on track. They never allowed Braden to sway from his dream of playing professional baseball, a dream he said swirled in his mind as soon as he was able to formulate words while watching both A’s and Giants games as a child.
Atwood was Braden’s top supporter, sacrificing whatever she could in order to get her son into the top Little Leagues in the area. Braden’s baseball dream was looking more and more like a reality as he got into high school, but an unexpected life obstacle presented itself around that same time as Atwood was diagnosed with skin cancer. In 2001, during Braden’s senior year of high school, Atwood passed away at the age of 39.
The loss sent Braden out of control as he found himself getting into the troubles his mother worked so hard to keep him away from. The path to his baseball dream took a wrong turn. But with the help of his grandmother, Braden got things back on track and graduated from Stagg High School, fulfilling his mother’s dying wish.
“We were faced with some hurdles very early on in life, and I learned that hurdles were meant to be attacked. They’re meant to be jumped over. That’s what they’re there for,” Braden said. “They’re not meant to stall you or prevent you from anything. You are forced to figure out a way to get over them. That’s how I had to approach everything.”
Fulfilling the dream
Braden elected to stay in school after getting drafted by the Braves in the 46th round of the 2001 MLB Draft. The left-hander played two seasons at American River College in nearby Sacramento, then went to Texas Tech University for one year. The A’s drafted him in 2004.
The odds of reaching the Majors were still unfavorable -- Oakland selected Braden in the 24th round -- but he was determined to make it. This was just another hurdle to jump over.
He didn’t possess any flashy stuff. His fastball was hardly blazing as it seldom touched 90 mph, but he forced his way onto the big league radar with success at each level in the coming years, even overcoming a shortened 2006 due to shoulder surgery.
On a late April night in 2007, after building up a 2.84 ERA over a combined 13 starts at Double-A Midland and Triple-A Sacramento, Braden got the call from the A’s. He would make his big league debut in Baltimore on April 24.
“The biggest thing I will remember is being able to call my grandmother and tell her, ‘I’m not gonna be in Sacramento anymore, I have to meet the team on the East Coast,’” Braden said. “I could hear her put it together, and she starts losing it, and I’m losing it.
“From that point on, everything about the entire experience -- being handed the scouting report and going over the big league scouting reports with the coaches and [catcher] Jason Kendall -- I couldn’t feel anything. It was very surreal. But to be able to look up in the stands and see my grandmother there watching me on a day that, quite frankly, we sold out for, was incredible. There was no Plan B. Our Plan B was not having a Plan B. I’m not discovering the next most grandest planet in our solar system. I’m not that guy. I’m not curing cancer for anybody. That’s what I remember. That entire dream came to a head on the mound in Camden Yards.”
Braden pitched well that day in Baltimore, allowing one run over six innings. Mission accomplished, right? There’s no way this could get any better, is there? Well, a few years later, it did.
The perfect game
Braden stuck in the Majors and, just like in the Minors, kept getting better as each year passed. The 2010 season started out with a 10-strikeout performance in Oakland's win over the Mariners. He then made national headlines during an April 22 game against the Yankees in which he yelled at Alex Rodriguez after taking offense to Rodriguez’s path back to the dugout following a groundout. Braden’s words took the spotlight that day, but about two weeks later, the spotlight was on him for another reason.
May 9, 2010. Mother’s Day. The Rays sent 27 batters to the plate, and Braden retired all of them. Perfection.
The final out came on a 3-1 fastball that Gabe Kapler grounded to shortstop Cliff Pennington, who then fired the ball over to Daric Barton at first base to complete the historic feat. Braden received the customary dogpile on the mound from his teammates, then emerged from the bunch and pointed out to section 209 of the Coliseum, which naturally had become a special fan club of sorts for the left-hander. It’s the same numbers of Stockton’s area code.
As he made his way back to the A’s dugout, there was Lindsey standing on top of the dugout. Braden spotted her and signaled to the security guard to allow her onto the field. The two ran to each other and embraced with a tear-filled hug.
“They got her down on the field, and that’s all I cared about. Getting her in my arms,” Braden said. “Obviously, then I started to appreciate what this meant.”
Korach, who also lost his mother at a young age, did his best to hold back tears as he called the final out of Braden’s perfect day.
“That top of the ninth inning was the most emotional inning of baseball I’ve ever broadcast. No question,” Korach said. “After they celebrated on the field and brought his grandmother out of the stands, as I was describing that, I was in tears. That was the hardest I’ve ever tried to hold it together on the air. Everybody knows his story.”
The 2010 season continued to bring good fortunes for Braden. He won a career-high 11 games and appeared to be evolving into a front-end starter for the A’s in his prime at 26 years old. But injuries soon began to take a toll.
The left-hander made just three starts in 2011 before he required season-ending shoulder surgery. Another surgery, this time to repair a torn rotator cuff, caused Braden to miss all of 2012 and half of 2013 before he was released by Oakland. Figuring a full recovery was not in the cards, Braden officially retired the next year at the age of 30, ending a five-year big league career in which he went 26-36 with a 4.16 ERA over 94 games.
But this is no sob story. Braden accomplished more than he could have ever imagined as that kid growing up in Stockton. Plus, it’s not like he’s any less popular these days.
Braden’s relationship with Oakland has only grown as he’s elevated himself to color analyst for A’s television broadcasts on NBC Sports California. He gets a chance to follow the club on the road and once again work at the Coliseum on a regular basis.
“I can’t even begin to express how fortunate I am for the organization to have reached out with this opportunity. They have brought me in as an ambassador to be able to be in the community and represent the organization. I’m so appreciative of that, and so is my family,” Braden said. “I’ve got folks that want to hang out with my two daughters. That means the world to me that I get to show up every day and hang out with my friends in Oakland at the Coliseum. There’s really no better gig going.”
The gig also gives him more opportunities to head back to Stockton, where he still owns a home. It gives the people of Stockton more reason to celebrate one of their own, like last year when the Ports gave away a bobblehead of Braden wearing a black suit and a headset while holding a baseball in his left hand.
“I wasn’t supposed to graduate high school. I completed a bucket list with that, and from then on felt like I was playing with house money,” Braden said. “To be able to stare in the mirror years later wearing Stockton across my chest and getting a paycheck for it, that’s a dream come true.”