Jon Heyman
Monday May 10th, 2010

Not long after his young pitcher became just the 19th man in baseball history to throw a perfect game, Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane said by phone of Dallas Braden, "He's not afraid to take on the world."

That's something an all-world talent like Alex Rodriguez can attest to, and now the Tampa Bay Rays, a legitimate World Series contender, can as well, after Braden looked like a world-beater in retiring all 27 of them on Sunday in his 4-0 perfecto. Considering where Braden came from and how things started for him, he wasn't expected to reach the big leagues, much less earn a permanent place in baseball history.

Baseball people who know him well call him a great kid from "the wrong side of the tracks'' in Stockton, Calif. He describes himself as undisciplined and frequently tardy as a young junior college pitcher. But he put in a winning bid for immortality with his improbable perfect game within days of his new and much more famous nemesis A-Rod quipping that he hoped Braden's 15 minutes of fame were about up.

There was little reason to suspect Braden would generate more headlines for anything this season than he already had for his dustup with A-Rod. It began during a late April game when Rodriguez ran over the top of what Braden later referred to as his mound while returning to first base, prompting a heated response from Braden, who had even more pointed words for the Yankees third baseman in the days leading up to his history-making start.

The incident has overshadowed Braden's amazing backstory. His mother died of melanoma at 39 while Braden was in high school, and thereafter he was raised by his grandmother, Peggy Lindsey. Braden tells people who ask about his youth that he could have wound up in jail if not for baseball. Folks who know him say his turning point came at American River College in Sacramento, when he stayed with family friends because he had no place of his own (and no money to get a place), and came close to signing up for the Marines as a sophomore so he wouldn't be a burden to his grandmother. (Yes, that's the very grandmother who on Sunday told A-Rod to "Stick it,'' after her Braden's perfect game, showing she has a feisty side similar to her grandson's.)

Those close to Braden were quick to credit her on Sunday. "She did a great job,'' Beane said by phone. "He's a great kid and a smart kid with a quick wit. And he's an absolute gamer whose teammates love him.''

Braden also gives a lot of the credit for his turnaround to his no-nonsense coach at American River College, Kevin Higgins, who didn't tolerate tardiness but felt a small soft spot for Braden, not because he ever envisioned Braden as a big-leaguer -- he didn't -- but because he caught him sleeping a few mornings in his beater of a pickup truck in the parking lot of the Sacramento school. When Higgins would wake him in the truck, Braden would say, "I didn't want to be late, Coach.''

Braden was late a couple times, but that's not surprising considering he was commuting a good distance to Sacramento in his unreliable 20-year-old jalopy before bouncing between friends' closer-to-campus apartments. His lateness to practice and weightlifting sessions nearly cost him his spot on the team. "I've got a "three strikes and you're out rule," recalled Higgins by phone on Sunday night. "When he had two strikes, I told him "You've got one more shot, and then you're out of here.'"

Somehow, Braden made it through, going 12-4 at American River and eventually landing at Texas Tech, where he did well enough to become, in 2004, a 24th-round draft choice of the A's, basically his hometown team. "It was a bumpy road," said Higgins, who listened to the perfect game on his car radio. "He didn't have it easy. I think he spent a couple nights in that pickup truck. He just found ways to get it done.''

That last sentence could describe Braden's entire journey to perfection. Higgins told Braden he thought he'd be successful at whatever he tried, but admitted he never foresaw a big-league career for Braden, whose fastball topped out at 86 mph in junior college. Even now, Higgins describes Braden as a "scrawny kid" -- Braden is listed at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, though he's still about 5-11, 170. He wasn't as big or as big a prospect as JuCo teammate Manny Parra, now a 6-3, 215-pound pitcher with the Brewers, who threw 95 mph and signed for a seven-figure bonus out of American River.

No one figured Braden was on par with Parra, but the A's had their eye on him anyway. The A's make different evaluations than other teams. They sometimes overlook physical limitations and have an eye for young pitching.

"He's kind of a Ron Guidry without the fastball or muscles,'' Beane said, comparing Braden to the former Yankees star.

Braden thrived from the start in the A's organization, even if he was never seen by outsiders as a big-time prospect. He went 4-1 in 2004, his first year in the minors, and followed it up by going 15-5 with a 3.52 ERA at two levels in 2005, including a stint in his hometown with the Class-A Stockton Ports. That season, the A's named him their organization's Player of the Year but he was still only considered the 19th best prospect in their system by Baseball America.

Braden still doesn't get the pub of top A's youngsters Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill or Vin Mazzaro, or certainly reliever Andrew Bailey, the reigning AL Rookie of the Year. "He's not as sexy," said A's scouting director Eric Kubota, who selected Braden with that 24th-round pick six years ago . "His stuff isn't as eye-popping as the others, especially Anderson's. Dallas does it with guile.''

Whatever Dallas does is working. He was the A's Opening Day starter in 2009 and he has improved his ERA and WHIP every year in his four-year A's career. So far this season he is 4-2 with a 3.33 ERA and an 0.96 WHIP that is good for seventh in baseball, one spot below Roy Halladay's 0.95.

Oakland loves that Braden is left-handed and that he is, in the words of Higgins, "a real competitor." They also love his changeup, which is superb and makes his high-80s four-seam fastball seem slightly faster. He also throws a slider, and Beane said Braden dabbled for a while with a screwball, making him the first big leaguer since former journeyman Jim Mecir to throw that pitch.

All those traits could make his fame last quite awhile, well beyond his Mother's Day masterpiece. The timing of the perfecto drew a chuckle from those close to Braden because it came within days of A-Rod's comment that he didn't want to "extend [Braden's] 15 minutes of fame.'' In terms of fame, of course Braden won't ever surpass a spotlight magnet like A-Rod, who manages to find himself in the middle of everything. But what Braden's done will now be remembered by everyone in and around baseball. Some who know and love Braden still thought his heated reaction to A-Rod was a bit much.

"Jiminy Christmas,'' Higgins said he thought. "But that's just the way Dallas is. He's really intense, really sincere and really focused.''

"He went a little overboard, but he was trying to make a point," Kubota said. "Dallas is not going to back down from anybody if he feels he is wronged. That's what makes him a good pitcher.''

For one day at least, it helped make him a perfect pitcher, too.

• The Mariners were last in the league in batting average, home runs, RBIs, slugging percentage and on-base percentage when they fired hitting coach Alan Cockrell and replaced him with Alonzo Powell. Only one player, Franklin Gutierrez, had a higher batting average than his lifetime mark (.322 to .268), but Cockrell was praised as hard working and undeserving of being fired by several Mariners players, especially veteran Mike Sweeney. Powell had an undistinguished major-league career but won three batting titles playing for the Chunichi Dragons in the Japan League, from 1994 to '97. In his first game in his new role, Powell saw his hitters launch back-to-back home runs for first time this year and the first time in 2010 that Seattle had hit even two home runs in one game.

Aaron Rowand, who beat the Mets with a two-run home run Sunday to break their nine-game home winning streak, is yet another player who hasn't lived up to a huge contract but is having a very nice start (Vernon Wells and Giants teammate Barry Zito are two of the most obvious examples of this). The hard-working Rowand's previous struggles caused Giants people to institute some rules about not overworking. Rowand's rep is that he goes hard at all hours, including work hours.

• Speculation has begun that White Sox closer Bobby Jenks' job could be in jeopardy. If it is, the White Sox have several good candidates to replace him, such as Matt Thornton, J.J. Putz and converted infielder Sergio Santos, who all have more than one strikeout per inning. But there was also speculation this winter the Sox would trade Jenks, and that never happened.

• If the White Sox don't turn things around, one coveted trade target could be first baseman Paul Konerko, who leads the majors with 13 home runs and is free-agent eligible. The White Sox are famous for their "White Flag'' trades at the deadline in 1997, but it's hard to imagine them throwing in the towel that easily this time.

Clayton Kershaw outdueled Ubaldo Jimenez, a welcome sign for Dodgers pitchers, who have underachieved to this point.

Troy Tulowitzki is expected to miss at least a few games after suffering a quad strain on Sunday. The Rockies have been especially unlucky with injuries so far this year. Pitchers Huston Street, Jorge de la Rosa, Jason Hammel and outfielder Brad Hawpe have all landed on the disabled list.

• The Yankees' Nick Johnson will be out several weeks after suffering a tear in the tendon sheath of the same right wrist that was surgically repaired two years ago. It's nice he always has a high on-base percentage, but that doesn't do much good if he doesn't play. The Yankees are baseball's second best team to this point, and they do a great job, but their two biggest winter pickups (Johnson and Javier Vazquez) have yet to contribute and a third (Curtis Granderson) has struggled and, like Johnson, is on the disabled list. Johnson is batting just .167 with eight RBIs, Vazquez is 1-3 with a 9.78 ERA and Granderson is hitting .225 with a .311 on-base percentage.

• Rodriguez tipped his cap to Braden, saying after learning of the perfect game: "Good for him.'' Good for A-Rod, too.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.