The perfect ending was not the 27th out, one more weakly hit ground ball off Oakland pitcher Dallas Braden, as if those pink bats swung by the Rays on Sunday were made not of ash but of bubble gum—supersized versions of those birth-announcement cigars for the nonsmoker. The perfect ending, as Braden and any scriptwriter worth his imagination would have it, happened when Peggy Lindsey made her way down to the field from section 121 of the Oakland Coliseum on Mother's Day to share a moment of joy with her grandson, the boy she raised out of a motel in Stockton, Calif., after his single mother became ill and eventually died from cancer.
Braden reached for the three pendants that hung from his neck. One is a Celtic cross, to honor his lineage. One is a peace sign, to represent the easygoing, benevolent spirit of his late mother, Jodie Atwood. The third is a medallion of St. Christopher, the patron saint of the traveler. Braden pulled St. Christopher from among the three and raised it to his lips. He and Peggy each kissed it twice—once for his grandfather and once for his mother—and then the grandson and his grandmother fell into an embrace. "At that moment," he said, "everything I hold in life so near and dear was right at my fingertips."
Perfection, when it comes to sports, is a clean, uncluttered, inarguable measurement. Every pin knocked down in bowling. Every shot made in basketball. Every batter retired in baseball, which is what Braden did on Sunday, making him just the 19th man to do so in the history of baseball. That's only seven more men than have walked on the moon.
Braden's game was the triumph of imperfections, a hardscrabble, 26-year lifetime of them. Here was a former 24th-round draft pick—726 players were picked ahead of him in 2004—with a lifetime record of 17--23 and no complete games entering Sunday, a player known more for verbally sparring with Alex Rodriguez last month than for anything he had done on the field. Here was a pitcher who did not crack 90 miles an hour with any of his 109 pitches and got the Tampa Bay hitters to swing and miss only five times. And yet he threw a perfect game against the team with the best record in baseball.
In the past four years Braden has undergone surgeries to correct a defect in the upper part of the humerus bone in his pitching arm (quite literally, the guy from Stockton, an inland city infamous for being named last year by Forbes as the Most Miserable City in the nation, had a chip on his shoulder); a nasal defect that made breathing difficult; and, last August, a cyst in his left foot. The foot surgery took a horrible turn when doctors mistakenly severed a nerve, leaving him with tingling and numbness in the foot that could take years to subside—if it ever does. "But the pain is nowhere near as bad as it was," he said this spring, "and I can flex on it and stand up straight. And if I can stand, I can pitch."
"He's not afraid—never has been," says Athletics general manager Billy Beane. "You need a shopping cart to take his cojones out to the mound. He's absolutely fearless. He's been like that since the day we drafted him."
Braden has Stockton written all over him—or at least his midsection, where among his many tattoos is featured a large "209," the area code of his hometown. In the early years of the 19th century the city was known as Mudville, and time has done little to enhance its reputation. Stockton earned its infamy from Forbes for its high rates of crime, unemployment and poverty, and its steep taxes. In other studies it has been tagged as the most illiterate of large U.S. cities, the most obese and among the most devastated by the collapse of the subprime lending market, which whacked 44% off property values from 2007 to '08.
It was in a small apartment in Stockton, however, where a boy named Dallas Lee Braden was loved. Before she became ill, his mother operated a home-cleaning service. "She uprooted where we lived just so that I could play in a better Little League," Dallas said. "She was the kind of person who would give the shirt off her back if it meant improving your situation. If it meant taking something of her own, even though she didn't have a lot, she would give to others."
Dallas was a junior at Amos Alonzo Stagg High when his mom, after being diagnosed with skin cancer, sent him to live with Lindsey at the motel she ran in Stockton. Jodie Atwood died the following year, at the age of 39. Mother's Day since then has been difficult for Braden, particularly when he pitches. Said Braden, who pitched at American River College in Sacramento and Texas Tech before Oakland drafted him, "I lost my best friend when I lost my mother. It's hard when we play [on Mother's Day] to devote the time thinking about her that she deserves."
On Sunday, Braden was still warming up in the bullpen when the game was scheduled to start; the Athletics infielders and outfielders were exchanging warmup tosses waiting for him to jog in to his usual entrance song, a hip-hop tune called Welcome to Stockton. Watching from the stands, in addition to Lindsey, was an entire section of fans from Stockton—seated, as part of a discount promotion, in the karmically appropriate section 209. (The game drew an announced crowd of only 12,228; more showed up the previous day in Sacramento to watch Oakland's Triple A team.) The teams used pink bats to support breast cancer awareness and research.