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Dallas Braden; Perfect Games and Memories of Home in Stockton California

Dallas Braden celebrating with teammates (Getty Images)

On Sunday Dallas Braden of the Oakland A’s did what only eighteen men had done in the history of Major League Baseball, he pitched a perfect game.  However there is more to this story than meets the eye and some that touches me personally.

The setting of Braden’s feat was the venerable Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, the “other” ballpark in the Bay Area.  Sitting in an area just off of the Nimitz Freeway the coliseum and its surrounding parking lots are in one of the most un-picturesque venues in the Bay area.  While one can see the Oakland Hills to the East the Park is just far enough away from San Francisco Bay to lack the ambiance of the San Francisco Giant’s home across the bay AT&T Park which sits on the bay with views of the Bay Bridge and the Skyline of the City of San Francisco.  While the ballpark has been the home of multiple World Series Champion A’s teams, numerous League Championship teams and had its share of Hall of Fame players tread upon its natural grass it has never been considered a great ballpark for either pitchers or hitters.   The fact that it is a multi-use stadium and the home of the Oakland Raiders football team contributes to un- remarkableness as a baseball venue.  All of this said it is a place where magic has occurred before when in 1968, in fact almost 42 years to the day of Braden’s magical win, May 8th 1968 Jim “Catfish” Hunter threw a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins.  Like Hunter’s win in 1968 the A’s won the game by a score of 4-0 however Hunter’s win came before the American League adopted the Designated Hitter meaning that Hunter had to hit for himself in the game.  That being said he did hit and I mean that he really did hit.  Hunter went 3-4 including a double and knocked in 3 of the A’s 4 runs.  That was no fluke as Hunter had a .226 lifetime batting average with 6 career home runs and 51 RBIs.

Dallas Braden with Grandmother (Getty Images)

With that little bit of trivia said Braden who is not your typical power pitcher that usually pitches perfect games pitched a solid game which was far different than one year ago when he was hit in his pitching hand with a 109 mile an hour line drive off of the bat of Vernon Wells which left the imprint of the seams on his hand.  Braden as I said is not a power pitcher.  He has one of the 10 slowest fastballs in the game topping out at a mere 87 miles an hour.  Normally an 87 mile and hour fastball is a dish served at a perfect temperature for most good hitters and they eat the pitchers that throw them for lunch.  However Braden has a remarkable equalizer, it is not his curve or slider but his change up.  I drive faster than his change up on a typical commute to and from work.  Braden’s change up comes in at a leisurely 72.9 miles and hour.  This pitch is the slowest change up in the league and it baffles batters by making his fast ball seem faster than it is. Batters at the Major League level are not used to this type of ultra-slow deception for a pitcher and it served Braden well but even so coming into the game he had a lifetime record of 18 wins and 23 losses and a 4.49 ERA.  He is not the pitcher that one would put money on to throw a perfect game and I’m sure that Jimmy the Greek, Larry the Latvian, Johnny the Walker and even Pete Rose would have wagered against him pulling this off. Yet he did it against the hottest team in baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays.

Braden’s biggest notice came earlier in the year where he and Alex Rodriguez had an exchange of rather terse barbs following an incident where Rodriguez ran across the pitcher’s mound during the game.

Braden pitched for 5 or parts of 5 years in the minors for 7 different clubs in the A’s organization, the Kane County Cougars of the Midwest League, the Vancouver Canadians of the Northwest League, the Arizona Athletics of the Arizona League, the Stockton Ports of the California League, The Midland Rock Hounds of the Texas League and the Sacramento River cats of the Pacific Coast League.  This year he has stayed in the majors and now after the win has a record of 4-2 with a 3.33 ERA in 7 starts.

Braden’s story is that of a young man who lost his mother Jodie Atwood in his senior year at Stagg High School in May of 2001.  His parents had separated when he was young and his father was estranged from the family.  His grandmother Peggy Lindsey took over and helped him through that last year of school providing the stability, love and care that he needed to survive his mother’s loss and not fall into the mire of Stockton’s often violent and crime ridden streets.  The story of this young man and the women who raised him is the story of how mother’s day ought to be.  Braden had the love and support of his late mother and grandmother during the turbulent times of his youth and as a result still remains closely connected to his grandmother and his home town.  In fact he commutes the 67 mile trip daily from Stockton to Oakland which means unlike many professionals, athletes, businesspersons, those in other professional fields to include the military that leave their home town and only make occasion visits home is able to keep himself ground in reality.  He does not live in a glamorous town; he plays for a very blue collar city on a very “Green Collar” team.  I think that is one of the stories that some people will miss, not all, Jeff Passan mentioned Braden’s connection to home in his column on Yahoo Baseball.

Downtown Stockton

You see there is something about this story of relationship and connectedness that I think may be uniquely Stocktonian.  You see for the past number of years Stockton has been ranked number one or at least in the top 5 of the nation’s “Misery index.”  This year it dropped to second as it was edged out by Cleveland Ohio, I guess Cleveland does rock. It is routinely in the highest percentage of crime, violent crime and murders in the nation.  In the economic downturn and the real estate crash it was hit particularly hard and for a fair amount of time led the nation in foreclosures, or may still I just haven’t checked.  It is a town that in many ways has experienced for many years and reflects the reality that many other locations in the country are just beginning to know in today’s economy.

Foreclosure capitol (Getty Images)

All this said there is still something that native Stocktonians appreciate about our city, even those of us that have moved away.  We tend to remain in contact with our friends who still remain in town or have moved away.  I currently am in contact with over 100 friends on Facebook alone. My Edison High School Class of 1978 still has well attended reunions and is very well connected to each other and the classes that came before and after us. I look at the Stockton Record website every day. I used to read the obituaries until the Record started charging for them.  When I go home there is a certain familiarity with the city and though it has grown to a rather sizable city it still has a small town feel to me. I can still go to Arroyo’s Café when I go home and see the same people. The same is true with Donut King, Chucks , Manny’s burgers, the Fox Theater and a bunch of other places.  While other cities built huge super-malls Stockton still has Weberstown and Sherwood Mall.  Yes they have changed some over the years but they are still much the same. Yes much has changed but much is still the same in Stockton and I think that it one of the things that makes Dallas Braden’s story so remarkable to me he has not forgotten where he came from.  He still loves and cares for Stockton.  In an age where the really “successful” people move to New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco Braden didn’t cut himself off from his roots.  Are there others who have done such as this one that comes to mind is Joe Mauer in Minnesota but why leave if they will pay you more money than God gets in a season?

Another interesting thing that stuck me about Dallas Braden was his mother.  She was close to my age and I remember her, I thought it was in Junior High School but I couldn’t find t  find her in the yearbooks, it could have been the church youth group when I was in High School but regardless I am sure that I knew her.  I mentioned this to my mother today and she remembered the name.  Interesting how closely peoples’ lives are linked together.

My Oak Park Little League team back in 1972

I guess what strikes me the most about this game even more than the game itself which I must say that I am in awe of is the story of a man, Dallas Braden  who despite pitching in the Major Leagues still remembers home and family and stays connected to them.  This is becoming rare in our society and maybe given the state of the nation and how deeply divided we are it is time to return home, maybe not physically but returning to relationships with the people that we grew up with, schools, workplaces, churches and other activities.  Maybe Dallas Braden points us to something that matters more to many of us than the achievements of athletes or entertainers but to where we really need to be connected to one another as Americans, friends and families.  Yes it is wonderful to succeed and all should strive to be the best at what they feel called to be or do, but if that success destroys and alienates people from family, friends and home is ti really success? Maybe it is the pastoral environment of the baseball field that makes this happen for some of us.  Maybe like Terrance Mann played by James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams we can understand that

“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.”

Thank you Dallas Braden for helping to remind us what is important as you play this game of baseball.  I do hope that you do well in your career and that this perfect game is a foretaste of a great career for you.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Minor League Road Trips

grainger stadiumGrainger Stadium Kinston NC

“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.” – James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams (1989)

There is something about baseball that is healing.  It is part of the fabric of our American culture something that somehow overcomes the political and religious divisions that so divide our country right now.  We were at Gordon Biersch watching the last couple of innings of a qualification game for the Little League World series between a team from Peabody Massachusetts and one from Rhode Island.  It was one of those magical games that ended with a walk-off Grand-Slam home run in the bottom of the 6th.  It triggered a flood of memories for me and ait got Judy, the Abby Normal Abbess and I talking about some of our own expereinces travelling the country and watching baseball.

I love the game of baseball especially going to a ballpark and seeing a game.  The experience of this for me has been life-long though difficult to continue from about 1983-1999 due to a tour in Germany with the Army a very difficult four years of seminary followed by residency, my first hospital job where I worked the second shift, a mobilized tour in Germany prior to coming in the Navy in early 1999.  During those years getting to games was a rare event, either due to time or money.  Despite this we as a couple got to a few games and I got in a couple on my own when traveling.  Thankfully, Judy, the Abby Normal Abbess tolerates and even joins me in my own baseball journey.

When I went into the Navy and moved to North Carolina that began to change.  North Carolina of course is the setting of the classic baseball movie Bull Durham and once can visit some of the same ballparks as are shown in the movie. The adventure of going to the ballpark again became a regular part of our lives.  It began in a little town in Eastern North Carolina called Kinston, the home of the Kinston Indians.  Kinston is a town that has seen better times, but the Indians, or the K-Tribe as they are known is part of the lifeblood of the community.  They play in Grainger Stadium, which though an older ballpark is still a great place to watch a game.  The Indians Carolina League which is advanced “A” ball and for a number of years dominated that League. When were stationed in Camp LeJeune we would make the trip to Kinston on a regular basis when I was in town. At the time the Indians farm system was producing a lot of great prospects, many who now are major leaguers, including Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta Shane Victorino and Victor Martinez.  When we left LeJeune we were stationed a brief time in Jacksonville Florida, where we lived very close to the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, home of the Jacksonville Suns then the Los Angeles Dodgers AA affiliate in the Southern League.  The ballpark is a great venue to see a game and the Suns management led by Peter Bragan and Peter Bragan Jr. who are part of a great baseball family run a great show, and the Dodgers staff was a class organization.  I got to meet Tommy Lasorda in Jacksonville as well as Steve Yeager.  I have 2 game worn special issue jerseys from the Suns.  When we moved to Norfolk in 2003 the season was already over but beginning on opening day of 2004 I began to worship at the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish.  This if you follow this site is the home of the Norfolk Tides.  Ever since then I have had the opportunity to see the game close up on a very regular basis.

In addition to attending the games near us we would travel and see other games. We would make trips down to Kinston from Virginia.  Once we went to a reunion of a singing group, the Continental Singers and Orchestra that I ran spotlight for back in 1979 which was being held in Kansas City.  On the way we saw a game in Louisville with the Louisville Bats, followed by a game in Cedar Rapids Iowa where we saw the Cedar Rapids Kernels play the Battle Creek Yankees and followed it with a trip to the “Field of Dreams” outside Dyersville, where that film was made.  Judy indulged me by playing catch with me on the field and taking my picture coming out of the cornfield.  It was almost; well it was a spiritual experience.  Occasionally when we visit Huntington West Virginia we try to see the West Virginia Power in Charleston.

Until I went to Iraq Judy and I used to take trips to Minor League ballparks around our Wedding anniversary.  We would take about four or five days and travel city to city to see some of the most fascinating baseball venues around.  We haven’t made a trip like that, even outside the wedding anniversary in a while mainly due to time as my much leave time has been spent going home to assist with my parents, especially the past 18 months where my dad’s Alzheimer’s Disease has progressed to the point of him being in a nursing home on palliative care.  Despite that I would always try to find time to see a game when in Stockton.  Before Iraq we would see the Stockton Ports in Billy Herbert Field.  The Ports now play in Banner Island Ballpark which is a great place to see a game.  If the Ports have not been in town we have occasionally been able to see the Giants, the A’s or the Sacramento River Cats, the AAA affiliate of the A’s.

The anniversary trips took us to some of the most interesting places to see games.  I have already mentioned Kinston where on one of our anniversaries we got to throw out the first pitch.  We have also travelled to Winston-Salem, when they were the Warthogs and Charlotte home of the Knights, the AAA affiliate of the White Sox.  Actually, Charlotte’s stadium is just down the road a way in Round Rock South Carolina.  We got rained out in Winston-Salem as a major storm hit at game time.  To our north we have been up to Frederick Maryland, home of the Frederick Keys, the Carolina League affiliate of the Orioles and Harrisburg Pennsylvania to see the Harrisburg Senators, the Montreal Expos-Washington Senators AA Eastern League affiliate at Metro-Bank Park on City Island.  This park was used in the movie Major League II as the Spring Training facility. There were two really cool things that happened at Harrisburg which was on our anniversary.  First we saw Phillies Slugger Ryan Howard about tear the cover off a ball hitting a double down the right field line and the General Manager had a ball autographed for us by the team.  That was really cool.  Likewise when Atlanta still had its Richmond affiliate, the Richmond Braves, we made a number of trips to “The Diamond” in Richmond.  This was the worst stadium I had ever watched a game in, though the team was always good.  We saw a playoff game there in 2004 between the Braves and the Columbus Clippers, who were then the Yankees AAA affiliate.  Sitting behind home plate I saw Jason Giambi play for the Clippers on a rehab assignment.

I have done some parks on my own when travelling.  Any time I have been on the road in baseball season and have the chance I try to see the local team if circumstances permit.  I have seen a number of games in the Pacific Northwest seeing two Seattle Mariners short season single A Northwest League affiliate the Everett Aquasox and AAA Pacific Coast League affiliate the Tacoma Rainiers.  Everett is an especially interesting place to see a game.  The games are well attended and the team management has some great promotions including “Frogfest” where the team wears tie-dyed jerseys and there is a kind of 1960s hippy theme.  The Rainiers play in Cheney Stadium in Tacoma.  In Tacoma I saw Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez pitch his first AAA game. Both Everett and Tacoma are nice places to see a game.  While on the USS Hue City at the Maine Lobster Festival I worked a deal with festival organizers to get tickets for our sailors for two games watching the Portland Seadogs the AA affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.  When the Seadogs hit a home run a lighthouse rises up from behind the fence and a foghorn sounds.

However the two most interesting place that we have seen games together are Ashville North Carolina, the home of the Ashville Tourists and Zebulon North Carolina home of the Carolina Mudcats.  Ashville has quite a history with McCormack Field dating back until 1919.  The grandstand was rebuilt a number of years back, but the playing field is the same.  The outfield wall backs up into a tree covered hillside into which home runs hit at night almost seem to dissolve.   Zebulon is another matter.  The stadium is about a mile out of town surrounded by farm fields.  When you drive to it down US 64 from Raleigh the stadium almost seems to emerge from nowhere as if it were beamed down from a orbiting starship.  It is a fairly new stadium and very modern a great place to see a game.  We went there to see the Mudcats, who were then the Marlins AA Southern League affiliate play the Mississippi Braves.  We got to the stadium and found that somehow I had left our tickets at home.  Since the game was in an hour and home was bout a 6-8 hour round trip I knew that going home to get them was not an option.  So I went to the ticket manager and explained the situation.  He had remembered taking my ticket order by phone as we had talked about shared military experiences.  He was able to print us duplicates for the seats that we had previously purchased and we saw the game, as always from down behind home plate.  In this game we saw Braves All Star catcher Brian McCann play the week before he was called up to Atlanta.

I hope that we have some time next year to make at least one trip out to see some other Minor League venues.  They are a lot of fun and part of the fabric of our country and somehow I believe if we reconnect in these locations, watching this timeless game that maybe just maybe we can overcome the emnity of all that divides our country and learn to be Americans again.  We will never all agree on politics, religion, domestic, foreign or economic policy.  No Americans ever have, but we can discover what it means again, through this wonderful game called baseball.  I do think that the Deity Herself approves of all of these local parishes of the Church of Baseball scattered about our land.  At the same time I always have my place in Section 102, Row B Seat 2 at Harbor Park.

Peace, Steve+

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