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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 Moves: The Dance Begins, Connecticut Defenders move to Richmond

007Minor League Moves: The Orioles Affiliated with The Norfolk Tides in 2007

Minor League Baseball teams move around for many reasons with a fair amount of regularity.  At the end of every season there are almost always a number of teams that either changes their major league affiliation or moves to another city.  A few years ago my team here in Norfolk told the New York Mets and the Minaya – Bernazard Axis of Idiocy to “get out of town and don’t let the door hit you.”  The Mets had treated their AAA affiliate badly for years and these guys gutted the Mets farm system.  I talked with various Mets scouts this year who although not saying anything on record nodded in agreement about my observations of the Mets.  So the Mets went to New Orleans and this year to Buffalo and managed to continue their mangled management of their minor league system.

However teams change affiliations for a number of reasons.  One reason that Baltimore relocated to Norfolk was the entrance into the Hampton Roads TV market.  Other reasons include facilities, distance from the home club, fan base issues, tradition or local government policies.

When I was a kid I lived in Stockton California where I got my first taste of Minor League ball watching the Stockton Ports of the California League in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  At the time the team was affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles.  A few years back I had opportunity to talk with Orioles great Paul Blair who remembered his days playing in Stockton at Billy Hebert Field.  The Ports have since been with the Brewers, the Rangers, the Reds and the Athletics and maybe a couple of others over the years.  This is not unusual as teams try to move their teams closer to the major league club or local owners negotiate deals with major league franchises to move teams to their markets.

Last year there were several moves in the International League and the Pacific Coast League. In the PCL the biggest news was the relocation of the Dodgers AAA affiliate from Las Vegas to Albuquerque, a move that returned the Dodgers to one of their tradition minor league cities.    The Ottawa Lynx franchise left that city for Allentown Pennsylvania to become the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs. This left that city without any baseball.  A Canadian league that was supposed to move a team there folded.  This is actually sad for Canada as both Ottawa and Montreal which had a long baseball heritage with the Major and Minor leagues no longer have teams.  This is in large part due to the Canadian government’s tax policies that ensured that minor league players would be taxed by both the US and Canadian governments.  This made the situation difficult if not impossible for many minor league players from the states and as a result the major leagues moved all of their teams out of Canada except the Vancouver Canadians in the Northwest League.  Since the Northwest League is a short season single “A” league and most of the players are college players there is a different dynamic at work than the rest of the minors.

In 2009 the New York Mets brought the team once known as the Norfolk Tides from their home in post-Katrina New Orleans to Buffalo. In Buffalo the Mets replaced Cleveland who had moved their team to Columbus.  This ensured that the city of Buffalo and especially Bison’s fans would bask in the misery inflicted on both Norfolk and New Orleans fans for the foreseeable future.  The Bisons under Mets management finished the season with the worst record in Triple “A” ball.  I saw them several times in Norfolk and there wasn’t a young prospect of any caliber on the team.  There was an ass-load of older “has been” players who are deep into the tail end of their careers and I looked like I was in better shape than some of them, some of the guts and butts were simply huge.   The Mets under the current Oscar Minaya management are pathetic.  They have no prospects, their minor league system is broken and if the Bison’s plight was not enough their AA affiliate the Binghamton Mets were the worst team in AA Ball.  If Ross Perot was talking to Larry King about them he would say “That’s just sad Larry.”

Cleveland moved its affiliation to Columbus to be closer to the major league team while the Washington Nationals who had been in Columbus moved to Syracuse when Toronto moved its Triple “A” affiliation to Las Vegas in the Pacific Coast League.    In the mean time Atlanta which had been embroiled in a decade long contest with Richmond’s clueless city council led by Doug “I have no plan or clue” Wilder for a decent stadium to replace the cesspool called “The Diamond” gave up.  Since they and not a local owner controlled the franchise, they moved the Braves to the Atlanta suburbs of Gwinnett County.  Richmond has one of the worst if not the worst ball park in the International League and maybe the minors.  Having been to the Diamond many times I have to say that it was the worst venue that I have ever seen a ball game, decrepit and uncomfortable seating, poor amenities, and a field that flooded if so much as a thimble full of rain fell made it a horrible venue for fans as well as players.  Thus the city which refused to work cooperatively with the Braves lost its team and AAA franchise, a franchise that has been for many years one of the best in the minor leagues.  Richmond lost their hockey team as well to this bunch’s inept leadership.  These people have to be one of the most clueless city government s in the entire United States and certainly the worst managed state capital.

All of this leads to the first move of the 2009-2010 off season.  On the 23rd of September the Eastern League announced that the Connecticut Defenders franchise would move to Richmond in time for the 2010 season.  The city has agreed to make improvements on the Diamond to keep it viable until a new stadium can be build by 2012, a plan that should be doable unless the city has decided to make their plans for the new stadium on the Mayan calendar which assumes that the Cubs will win the World’s series, that Jesus will come back and the world as we know it will end.

The team is an affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, which means that if the Tides are not in town that I may make a number of trips to Richmond in 2010.  The Giants will stay with the team through the end of 2010 and hopefully for me will remain in Richmond for many years.  Richmond is allowing fans to suggest new names for the team.  A link to that site is here: http://www2.timesdispatch.com/rtd/sports/baseball/name-the-team/

There will be more team moves announced in the coming month or so as cities and major league teams alike assess what they need.  Cities with a long minor league heritage may lose teams, some cities are building stadiums to get teams and some cities may end up with teams in the independent leagues.  Regardless Minor League Baseball will continue to do well and fans will come.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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