Braden stays true to Stockton roots

Braden stays true to Stockton roots

OAKLAND -- When an athlete hits the big time after surviving an upbringing under dire circumstances, in an area known for crime, gangs, poverty and desperation, the first thing he or she usually does is bail that area as quickly as possible.

For good. Usually with family and a few friends in tow.

By now, though, A's fans know that pretty much everything about Dallas Braden is unusual, including the fierce loyalty and devotion he shows to his beloved 209.

That's the area code for his downtrodden hometown of Stockton, Calif., which Forbes Magazine in February placed atop its annual list of America's Most Miserable Cities.

Braden, who cemented his status with the A's pitching staff by earning the No. 1 spot in the starting rotation this spring, long ago cemented his status as Stockton's favorite son.

He still lives there, in the same hardscrabble neighborhood that served as his stomping grounds while being raised by a single mother, Jodie Atwood, who died of cancer when he was a high school senior.

And he doesn't just live there in the offseason. Braden, a 25-year-old left-hander, lives there year-round, making the 90-minute drive -- when he doesn't hit traffic -- to and from the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum whenever the A's are at home.

"I get to sleep in my own bed more than any baseball player I know," he said proudly. "Why wouldn't I live there?"

Um, the crime? The gangs? The poverty? The desperation?

"I'm staying because I want to try to help change all that," Braden explained.

He already is. Last Thanksgiving, Braden rallied and matched local merchants who donated food and supplies that allowed him to help serve -- wearing an A's cap and a yellow football jersey with large green 209s on the front, back and each sleeve -- about 450 Stockton residents who, like Braden not long ago, were down on their luck and needed a helping hand.

Known for his colorful quotes, clubhouse pranks and heavily tatted skin (he has a huge 209 inked across his midsection), Braden is serious, earnest and intense when explaining that his motivation to succeed in baseball is tied with heartstrings to his motivation to make a difference in Stockton.

"It's all about giving back for me," he said. "They say it takes a village to raise a child, right? Stockton is my village. It's a rough village, but it helped raise me."

In turn, Braden wants to help Stockton rise up, even if he has to do it one child at a time. That's the message he's sending this Sunday, when he's hosting nearly 600 Stockton residents for the finale of a three-game Interleague series against the Rockies.

As part of Little League Day at the Coliseum, Braden has invited all 271 players from his former youth league and one guest of each player, for the formal announcement of his latest altruistic effort.

Beginning this year and "every year for as long as I live," he said, Braden will sponsor at least one child each season from the Hoover Tyler Little League (HTLL) who is being raised by a single parent.

As a sponsor of this child or children, Braden will pick up the costs associated with the Little League season, including cap, jersey, pants, equipment costs, league fees and photo package. He's also convinced Mizuno, the equipment maker with which Braden is under contract, to provide new gloves for the program.

"[Having been] raised by a single parent," Braden said, "I realize and appreciate all of the sacrifices that are made and hardships endured just to keep a family afloat, let alone accommodating a child's wants and needs. By creating a way to provide some sort of relief for a family, my goal is to alleviate some stress, bring a family closer together and to allow a dream to be realized, all the while trying to bring our community together.

"The little things in life can go unappreciated at times, but can also go a long way. Giving a new ball glove to a child not only can keep a dream alive, but also bring a smile to a face and a tear to an eye."

There surely will be some moist pupils in the house Sunday, when Braden introduces the recipients of his "baseball scholarship." Camron and Mitchell Alexander, brothers who are being raised by their mother, Tami, are ages 9 and 8, respectively.

"The mom is doing an amazing job," said Braden, who asked the HTLL board of directors to select the recipient(s) each season because it has a better handle on each child's needs. "Both of the boys are on the honor roll at their school, and the mom is going to Sacramento State to get her master's degree.

"That's some serious juggling and dedication. Just like my mom did for me."

Braden will host a 30-minute clinic and Q&A session in the A's bullpen for the Alexander boys, their 12 teammates and three coaches. They then will parade around the warning track, along with the other Hoover Tyler and Bay Area Little Leaguers. Following the parade, the Alexander boys will be invited into the clubhouse to meet with other A's players before returning to the field to prepare for a special pregame ceremony.

Next, the A's and Braden will honor the boys in a special ceremony and present each of them with a Braden jersey and new Mizuno glove and Easton bat before they simultaneously throw out the ceremonial first pitch, to be caught by Braden and a teammate.

"I wanted to tell them myself that they were throwing out the first pitch, so we called them," Braden said. "I made them promise to go outside and play catch to practice, because they're going to be representing the 209.

"Their mom said they ran outside right away and started throwing."

Camron and Mitchell then will enjoy the game with their mother, older brother Conrad and more than a dozen other members of their extended family in the Plaza Reserve section of the Coliseum.

"The ultimate goal of this entire day is to keep love and hope alive in the 209 through baseball and community appreciation," Braden said.

To ensure that love and hope stay alive in Stockton, Braden said he'll never leave -- even should he land a hefty seven- or eight-figure contract down the road.

"Then I could live in my house during Spring Training, too," he said enthusiastically, laughing at the notion of commuting to Arizona via private jet.

With similar zeal, Braden explained his ideal life once his playing career comes to an end: pitching coach of the Minor League Stockton Ports and mayor of Stockton.

"City Council meetings are on Thursday," he said. "Trust me, I know."

This is why a friend of Braden's recently called him "Robin Hood."

"Then," Braden said, "he went, 'Only you ain't robbin' the 'hood.'"

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.