- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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During the late innings of the Oakland-Tampa Bay game Sunday, Athletics fans watching on television saw a humorous ad promoting the team's upcoming interleague matchup with San Francisco.
"The Giants are coming to the Coliseum, so I told our guys we want to be good hosts,'' A's bench coach Tye Waller says to the camera. "Just because we're rivals doesn't mean we aren't going to act like gentlemen.''
Waller's vow of good sportsmanship is interrupted by shots of Oakland reliever Brad Ziegler playing games with whoopee cushions and shoe polish, and a second A's pitcher spraying whipped cream in the Giants' helmets, applying glue to their bat handles and secretly dumping goldfish into San Francisco's dugout water cooler.
The offending prankster was -- you guessed it -- Dallas Braden.
When the commercial break ended, the mood went from comedic to suspenseful in a heartbeat: There was Braden, he of the career 17-23 record, deftly spotting his fastball, keeping the Rays' hitters off balance with his changeup, and inexorably churning toward a place in history. One pitch, one batter and one inning at a time, he made an elite Tampa Bay lineup look ineffectual and overmatched.
When Braden threw pitch No. 109, an 87 mph heater, Rays outfielder Gabe Kapler hit a hard ground ball to short. Cliff Pennington made a strong and accurate throw to first baseman Daric Barton for the 27th out, and A's play-by-play man Glen Kuiper went all Phil Rizzuto in the broadcast booth.
"Holy cow -- he did it!'' Kuiper said, as Braden was mobbed by his teammates in the infield.
Then Braden shared a heartfelt, celebratory hug with his grandmother, Peggy Lindsey. It was the most emotional embrace following a sporting event since Phil Mickelson hugged his wife Amy after winning the Masters last month.
To those who previously knew Braden as the fly in Alex Rodriguez's lobster bisque, the Oakland lefty is actually one of the more offbeat and approachable characters wearing a major league uniform today. While lots of big leaguers arrived in spring training and talked about winters spent hunting, fishing, golfing and/or rehabbing, Braden showed up at Papago Park in Phoenix in February and regaled sportswriters with stories from his offseason trip to Amsterdam, which included a trip to the always delightful medieval torture museum.
"It was the coldest winter in Europe in 35 years, and I was making snow angels in the middle of Dam Square,'' Braden told ESPN.com. "It was awesome."
Braden's teammates know him as a fierce competitor and a guy they want on their side. The Oakland beat reporters regard him as an incredibly candid interview and a go-to guy for perspective and money quotes. He's got a touch of Bill Lee irreverence coupled with Joe Charboneau, wrong-side-of-the-tracks unpredictability.
The folks in his old Stockton, Calif., neighborhood know Braden as a thoughtful and generous soul who never disassociated himself from his roots. To this day, he refers fondly to the city as "the 209,'' in reference to Stockton's area code, and each Thanksgiving he hits up local restaurants for food donations and helps serve hot meals to the underprivileged.
Braden's mother, Jodie Atwood, died of skin cancer when he was a senior in high school. In a 2009 interview, he told Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle that he had anger management issues as a teenager, and could have fallen victim to gangs or drugs or the other hazards of his surroundings. But he stayed on the right path thanks to the love of his mom and grandmother and the encouragement of a professional scout named "J'' Harrison, who now works for the Cincinnati Reds. He also burned to play professional baseball even if the talent evaluators might have considered him a long shot.
Braden, 26, was a 24th-round draft pick out of Texas Tech University in 2004, and he peaked at No. 19 in Baseball America's prospect rankings for the Oakland organization.
"He gets hitters out with guile, command and a trick pitch,'' BA wrote in 2006. "His screwball features so much break and deception that less-advanced hitters had no idea how to hit it. Unfortunately, for Braden, it's his only above-average pitch.''
Along with a lack of velocity, Braden has had to overcome a surfeit of bad luck. At one point, shoulder problems forced him to junk his screwball. Toronto's Vernon Wells smoked him with a line drive on Mother's Day in 2009, and he went on the disabled list in August 2009 with an infected foot.
According to Fangraphs.com, Braden's fastball this season registers at an average of 87.2 mph on the radar gun -- making it the ninth slowest among big league starters. Paul Maholm, Bronson Arroyo and Randy Wolf are a tick ahead of him, and Zach Duke, Jason Vargas and Barry Zito are right below him.
But perfect games aren't always a product of overpowering stuff. White Sox left-hander Mark Buehrle, who tossed one against Tampa Bay last year, is averaging 85.5 mph with his fastball this year. And Tom Browning, another lefty from the Buehrle-Braden school, pitched a perfect game for Cincinnati against the Dodgers in 1988.
While Braden was beating the Rays on Sunday, Oakland's long-time player development director, Keith Lieppman, was watching a Class A game in Bakersfield, Calif. Several years ago, Lieppman admittedly thought that Braden might wind up as a situational left-hander in the Oakland bullpen. But what Braden lacked in pure stuff, he made up for in chutzpah. Braden showed his brash and ultra-competitive side recently when he took on A-Rod for running over the pitcher's mound during an A's-Yankees game.
"Growing up in the neighborhood and the environment he did, he's never backed away from anything,'' Lieppman said. "If it's a matter of principle, he's going to continue to come at you. He took a stand, and I think the blue-collar guys in the game respected the fact that he didn't back down and stood up for what he believed in.''
Not to mention the fact that Braden is a trip. He's brash, funny and incapable of pulling off the boring professional athlete routine.
"He's always been great in an offbeat sort of way,'' Lieppman said. "Typically as farm director, you develop relations with players. Most of them call you 'Mr. Lieppman,' or whatever, but Dallas decided early on that he was going to call me 'captain.' Most people aren't willing to go out on a limb like that. But every time he'd see me he'd say, 'Good morning, captain, how's it going?'"
Braden marched to his own drummer as a minor leaguer, and again when he delivered etiquette lessons to the great A-Rod. That's not going to change now that he's the author of a perfect game. The only difference is, everybody knows his name.
10hTony Lee, Special to ESPN.com