Dallas Braden: Family Man, Perfectionist

Getting engaged, and writing a wedding blog, has led me to think a lot about family. Jessica watched a movie about home-births last night and was powerfully affected by what she saw – I only saw little snippets but what I did see was enough to give me an even greater appreciation for what women do when they give birth. In a few years we’ll have children of our own, and with both of us working in schools, Jessica and I have been musing over what we want to teach and instill in our kids.

Before getting into the post I will start with a disclaimer, which is that opposition to gay marriage is one of the few things that makes me very, very angry. I am generally fairly even-keeled and difficult to ruffle, but when I hear people flapping their mouths about the threat of gays getting married and raising children, I just shut down. I have trouble containing my rage and so I generally can’t find the words. Because not only is it an insult to gay people and anyone who’s ever been raised by one, it’s also a slap in the face to anyone who isn’t part of a nuclear family. It’s predicated on the idea that only one type of family can succeed, that family can be defined and delineated, and that anything outside the confines of a “proper” upbringing will influence the life of a child in a negative way.

I hate that shit. I really do. I’m going to try to explain a little bit about why, very clumsily, using the man-metaphor of baseball.

Anyway – I have a baseball blog called The Elephant Seal, where I used to write fairly regularly about the A’s and Giants. I still have allusions that I might keep both these blogs alive, but writing takes time and mental energy and the ancient Chinese art of Blog-Chi, and I don’t know if I have enough of the three of those together to do so. The following is a “crossover post,” incorporating elements of sports and marriage and baseball and love, which is a fancy way to say I’m cheating.

I had a dream last night that David Foster Wallace was still alive and that he wrote a long essay on Dallas Braden, his confrontation with ARod, and the subsequent bombshell that was his perfect game. Wallace’s passing was a tragedy for a lot of reasons, and one of them was his critical voice and his insights into pop culture, art, literature, politics, and sports. In my dream I imagined a broader perspective and context to Braden and his time in the spotlight, couched in allegories and parallel social phenomena. I also dreamed that Werner Herzog made an offbeat, oddball documentary about him the way only he can. I have these odd, highly nerdy fantasies at times, of writers and filmmakers I admire creating art based on events and people I care deeply about. Yeah, weird.

Created by Drew "Bestest Man" Beck. He's tight like that.

I love Dallas Braden and his story, only in part because I am an A’s fan, and following recent events I love him even more, and for new reasons. A brief recap of those events for the unaware – Braden, a young starting pitcher for the Oakland A’s, was pitching against the Yankees a few weeks ago. Alex Rodriguez, third baseman for the Yankees, admitted steroids user and world-class jerk, was on base when a foul ball was hit – and on his way back to the base, he crossed over the pitcher’s mound. Braden took offense, invoking a piece of baseball etiquette that was news to a lot of people around the game, and screamed at Rodriguez to stay off his mound.  Rodriguez, legitimately confused, later responded in typical ARod fashion by taking a swipe at Braden’s career accomplishments – referring to a guy with “a handful of wins in the majors” – and the whole thing got blown up. Braden was defended and derided, Rodriguez was largely scolded for the childish way he dealt with it, and ultimately the affair made its way into headlines largely because it involved baseball’s biggest and probably most-hated current superstar, team, and media market.

Then, on Mother’s Day, Dallas Braden threw the 19th perfect game in baseball history, and suddenly he became famous for something way cooler than a tiff with a Yankee. And forever entwined into his story is the image of Peggy Lindsey, his grandmother, embracing him on the field following the game, a moment of parental pride that just happened to be on a grand stage.

ARod has apparently admitted to owning one or two paintings of him as a centaur. You can look it up.

Braden, as fans learned from all the reports and stories that followed his perfect game, was a tough kid – is a tough kid – who lost his mother in high school and became very close with his grandmother. He still lives in his hometown of Stockton and is an active member of the community, is involved in charity work, and has with the A’s ticket office for promotions in section 209, which is Stockton’s area code. He’s been beloved among A’s fans since the beginning of last year, when he became the de facto staff ace before losing the end of his season to an injury.

He’s fiery, he’s brash, and he’s funny and gives a good interview. He throws soft, for a major-leaguer, but absolute velocity is not as important as relative velocity, and Braden has a deceptive changeup and very reliable control – he’s walked only 7 batters in 46 innings this year. He doesn’t quite throw an Eephus Ball,* but he may be conceptually closer to it than to a Nolan Ryan fastball. As much as fans love a 100 MPH fastball, they also appreciate a guy who gets by on guile, craftiness, pitch location, luck, and an approach to the game that leads witnesses to conclude that Braden honestly believes that every at-bat is a battle royale, a death match.

*Until I took the time to look it up, I’d always assumed the Eephus Pitch was named after someone named, simply enough, Eephus. It turns out it was invented by – or at least credited to – Rip Sewell of the Pirates in the 1940s, but named by an outfielder named Maurice Van Robays, who said “Eephus ain’t nothing, and that’s a nothing pitch.” Wikipedia further informs me that only one Eephus pitch ever thrown by Sewell (by no means the only pitcher to have thrown it but likely the most consistent user) was ever hit for a home run, by Ted Williams in an All-Star game. For those who may not know, the Eephus Pitch is a ridiculously high, ludicrously slow trick pitch that has the trajectory of a slow-pitch softball toss and is intended to cause the batter to either fall down laughing or become frozen with confusion.

A perfect game is such a beautiful feat because it is as close to perfection as a pitcher can hope to get. In theory, a game where all 27 batters strike out could be considered more perfect, but that’s simply not going to happen – the record of 20 strikeouts by one pitcher in a 9-inning game accounts for only 74% of the total outs, and has never been done in the midst of a perfect game. While a 20-strikeout game may in fact be a more impressive feat (and an even rarer one – it’s only been done three times, by two different men), the most rudimentary, most basic job of the pitcher is simply to get the batter out, a task he does not need to accomplish via the strikeout. When he does that for all 27 batters he faces, well… that’s perfection. And it’s only happened 19 times in over 100 years of major league history, and two of those came at a time when a walk was 8 balls instead of 4, a dime was worth a nickel, and a 10-minute trolley ride cost a ha’-penny and took two hours.

The perfection of the day, though, was not limited to Braden’s accomplishments on the field. In a cosmic coincidence, he performed his feat on Mother’s Day, in Oakland, with his grandmother in attendance. Following the final out he approached his dear Grandma and bear hugged her, and let her know – and everyone watching know – what he means to her.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

In this moment, we all saw a young guy overwhelmed with emotion, having accomplished something exceedingly unlikely, grasp his closest friend and thank her for the lifetime she helped him create. It was powerful, it was sweet, it was funny – his grandmother told ARod to “stick it,” though she later apologized – and it was very human.

Here’s where I awkwardly come to my point, in a roundabout way – this is what a family is. A man and his grandma, standing on a baseball field, sharing a moment, thanking each other with an embrace and a smile. A mother dies, her son at an awkward and volatile time in his life, his grandmother steps in and gently guides him in the right direction. You wouldn’t dream a family up this way, but that doesn’t matter – families happen all sorts of different ways. When I hear people argue against gay marriage and gay adoption, none of it ever rings true, because one mother and one father is just one iteration of a home. Dallas Braden grew up to do something only done by 18 other people, and he didn’t do it despite his family – he did it, in part, because of it. There’s always an implication amongst detractors of ‘alternative’ families, sometimes even a direct one, that children with gay parents are facing steep odds; it’s not hard to extrapolate the same thought applied to single-parent families, no-parent families, families like Braden’s, and any other type of family you can dream up.

But in the end, it comes down to love, and it always has and always will. Families can always succeed if they love one another, and it doesn’t even involve much mental flexing to see why.

All you need to do is look at Dallas Braden. He threw a perfect game, after all.


3 responses to “Dallas Braden: Family Man, Perfectionist

  1. VERY beautifully put 🙂

  2. Where can I get me a print-out of that Braden graphic? I’ve got a nice spot for it above my bed.

  3. Hey Bret,
    I re-read this post to cheer myself up after all the teen suicide/bullying stuff that’s been in the news. This is a great piece of writing, and there needs to be more pieces like it out on the internets. Actually, I wish you could get it print published somehow. Maybe send it to the Daily Planet or something. I dunno–I just wanted to say it was such a pleasure to read (and re-read).

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