When former Oakland A’s starting pitcher Dallas Braden opened up to the San Francisco Chronicle this week that he was heavily hungover when throwing his first career complete game, it generated lots of interest.
Did we mention that Braden’s complete game, which happened 10 years ago today, was a perfect game, 27 men faced, none of them reaching base?
That second fact is the salient one. In the more than a century and a half of Major League Baseball, countless games have been thrown by pitchers who’d had an altered mindset before taking the ball. But games like Braden’s don’t come along often, even if the hurlers are dead sober. It's happened just 23 times.
Probably the capper in all of baseball history was the June 12, 1970 game thrown by Dock Ellis. The Pirates’ right-handed starter said he was on LSD and hallucinating when he threw his only career no-hitter.
“I can only remember bits and pieces of the game,” he would say later. “I remember diving out of the way of a ball I thought was a line drive. I jumped, but the ball wasn’t hit hard and never reached me.”
And it wasn’t just baseball on his mind.
“I started having a crazy idea in the fourth inning that (then President) Richard Nixon was the home plate umpire,” he said when he first shared his story in 1984. “Once I through I was pitching a baseball to Jimi Hendrix, who was holding a guitar and swinging it over the plate.”
Ellis, who died in 2008 after spending the latter stage of his life helping those dealing with alcohol and substance abuse, apparently told his buddy, pitcher Scipio Spinks, about what he’d done about two weeks after it happened.
He also relayed the tale to Donald Hall, the one-time poetry editor of the Paris Review who would in 2006 become the nation’s poet laureate, when Hall was writing a biography of Ellis. It made the early drafts of Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, but was struck from the published version in 1976 because Ellis had just signed a deal with the Yankees, and Ellis didn’t want to incense Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. So, the story didn’t go national until 1984.
Braden’s experience was close to that of David Wells, who threw a perfect game on May 17, 1998 despite being running on fumes after attending a cast party thrown by Saturday Night Live the evening before. Wells had only gotten one hour of sleep before reporting to Yankee Stadium to take on the Minnesota Twins. Five years later, in his 2003 autobiography, Perfect I’m Not, Wells described himself that day as “half-drunk with bloodshot eyes, monster breath and a skull-rattling hangover.”
And managing an afternoon of greatness while under the influence isn’t exclusive to pitchers. There’s a story that popped up in HBO’s 1998 documentary about Babe Ruth that recounts some of the Chicago White Sox taking Babe Ruth out for a night of drinking with the hope that would throw him off his game. The next day, the story goes, he homered twice, then went up to some of the Sox drinking buddies to ask where they were going for drinks after the game.
Braden’s game was the first of two shutouts he would pitch in 2010. Those were the only two of a five-year career shortened by injury. He’d make three starts in 2011 suffer a torn capsule in his left shoulder that required season-ending surgery. He would never pitch again.
In August of 2012 he needed a second surgery, this one to repair the rotator cuff in his shoulder. And by January of 2014 he'd officially retired, saying his left arm was a “shredded mess.”
But for one fantastic Mothers’ Day in 2010, he was the personification of baseball. His grandmother, Peggy Lindsey, who had helped raise him after his mother, Jodie Atwood, had died about a decade earlier, was in the stands.
Twenty-seven batters faced. Zero batters reaching base. He pointed to Lindsey in the stands after his teammates were done mobbing him, and the emotion he and Lindsey showed when they embraced in front of the dugout (you can see it at the end of the above YouTube clip) was clearly something special.
The perfect game earned Braden a Sports Illustrated cover, which is something that never happened for Ellis or Wells after their singular performances. (Wells would get one two years later while pitching for the Blue Jays).
Hungover or not, it was a pretty good day at the office.
Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3
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