Braden’s Mother’s Day gift is perfect
The 19th perfect game in major league history was for Jodie Atwood. She died May 20, 2001, of melanoma. She was 39 years old. She left behind a teenage son.
It was also for Peggy Lindsey. She took in the boy, a wild scamp. Lindsey was his grandmother. She refused to abandon him, to let the streets of Stockton, Calif., take his soul. She’s 68 now, and she was at Oakland Coliseum on Sunday to watch him do the thing that saved him from himself.
Most of all, it was for Dallas Braden(notes), faithful son and grandson, who threw a perfect game on the perfect day. He thought of Atwood as he retired 27 consecutive Tampa Bay Rays, and he hugged Lindsey as he basked in the afterglow, and he celebrated a 4-0 victory on Mother’s Day with tears in his eyes and accomplishment in his heart.
The indelible image of Sunday will not be any of the 109 pitches Braden threw or any of the plays made by his Oakland Athletics teammates. It will be of the postgame embrace between Braden and Lindsey, the goateed grandson and the peace sign-earring-wearing grandma, both swollen with pride.
It is a characteristic that courses through Braden and, in the last 2½ weeks, thrust him from anonymity to a feud with the highest-paid player in sports history. Alex Rodriguez(notes) jogged across the mound during a game Braden was pitching, and so began a war of words started – and won – by the 26-year-old left-hander.
He accused A-Rod of “tasting himself too long to apologize” for breaking an unwritten rule. A-Rod said “a guy that has a handful of wins in his career” shouldn’t be talking. Braden said: “I was always told if you give a fool enough rope, he’ll hang himself. And with those comments, he had all the rope he needed.” A-Rod said: “I don’t want to extend Braden’s 15 minutes of fame.”
Braden responded by giving himself at least several hours more. He joined a list larded more with greats (Randy Johnson(notes), Sandy Koufax, Cy Young and Catfish Hunter, the last A’s pitcher to toss one, on May 8, 1968) than flukes (Len Barker, Charlie Robertson, Lee Richmond). He threw the second perfect game against the Rays in 10 months – Chicago White Sox left-hander Mark Buehrle(notes) did it July 23 last year – and prompted A-Rod, of all people, to say before the Yankees’ game at Boston: “Good for him.”
Lindsey wasn’t quite as gracious. This was her day, after all – “She deserves it,” Braden said – and she had a message for reporters to pass along to the $300 million man who dared tromp on her grandson’s mound: “Stick it, A-Rod.”
This Mother’s Day turned out much better than last year’s, when Braden took a Vernon Wells(notes) line drive, clocked at 109 mph, off his pitching hand in the first inning. He stayed in the game, threw six innings, left with the ball’s seams still imprinted across his hand and returned to the stadium with a splint.
“I’m just kind of happy to be putting on the costume a year later,” Braden said.
He is the sort who neither takes crap from opponents nor takes his standing for granted. There isn’t a lot of room in the major leagues for pitchers who throw 87 mph, one of the 10 slowest fastballs in the game. Braden’s equalizer is baseball’s slowest changeup, which comes in at an average of 72.9 mph and keeps hitters honest enough to make his fastball seem fast.
The Rays, before Sunday the highest-scoring team in the major leagues, flailed at it all afternoon. They struck out six times with the pink bats used on Mother’s Day, when the sport attempts to raise breast cancer awareness. Slugger Evan Longoria(notes) tried to bunt in the fifth inning. The best they mustered was Gabe Kapler’s(notes) 12-pitch at-bat in the sixth inning. And it was Kapler who came up with two outs in the ninth, the paltry crowd of 12,228 ready to witness history.
“I was thinking it was going to be a knuckleball or gyroball,” Braden said. “Anything to get him out.”
He fell behind 3-1 before inducing a groundout to shortstop Cliff Pennington(notes), which set off an on-field carnival. Braden hugged first baseman Daric Barton(notes), then catcher Landon Powell(notes), who was replacing the injured Kurt Suzuki(notes). He made his way from teammate to teammate, each happier than the previous.
“I thought he was a great pitcher before the perfect game,” Powell said.
Maybe not great, though certainly better than A-Rod imagined. Braden was the A’s opening day starter last season. He lowered his ERA to 3.33 on Sunday. The victory was the 18th of his career. And in case Rodriguez is wondering, fewer men have thrown perfect games than hit 500 home runs in a career or 50 in a season.
And as much as Braden tried to shrug it off, to play the no-fuss guy who still lives in Stockton and makes the 67-mile commute daily to the Coliseum, he couldn’t keep up the ruse. This was the first game the A’s sold half-priced seats in Section 209 to Braden’s start – Stockton’s area code is 209 – and while it wasn’t overflowing, it was more populated than the rest of the stadium.
“This is ours,” Braden said. “Not just mine. Ours.”
His and his teammates’ and the 209’s and Oakland’s. And especially Jodie Atwood’s and Peggy Lindsey’s. During the A-Rod dustup, Braden was asked how he’d treat someone else who encroached on his territory. He replied: “If my grandmother ran across the mound, she’d hear the same thing he heard.”
On Mother’s Day, she heard something wholly different. It sounded – and was – perfect.