Stockton, Calif., ranked first this year in Forbes magazine's survey of America's most miserable cities to live in. The city's foreclosure rate is the highest in the nation, and unemployment is expected to jump to 13.3 percent this year.
It's no surprise, then, that most professional athletes steer clear of Stockton as a choice of residence. But the town holds on to its blue-collar culture, and that's why Oakland A's pitcher Dallas Braden has returned, commuting the 86 miles to and from Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum during homestands so he can live where he was raised.
"It's a city that can either make or break you, and if you let it get to you, you can succumb," Braden says.
The 25-year-old left-hander bought a home on the west side of Stockton, in the same neighborhood where he grew up. His reason, he says, is simple: to be part of and give back to a place that, while offering him little, gave him a lot.
Braden grew up in a small apartment with his mother, who operated a home cleaning service, and his grandmother, who managed a local hotel. With no father and no siblings (he has a half-brother whom he's never seen), Braden was extremely close to both women. "My mom and my grandmother are a testament to everything I've become," he says. "They made so many sacrifices for our little family."
He started playing baseball at age 4 after a neighbor gave him a glove. He kept using that same glove for six years until it broke. Braden also played football, basketball and ran cross-country, but by the end of high school, had focused on baseball and struck a deal with his mother: If he was a full-time athlete, he wouldn't have to get a job. "That's why I appreciate the sacrifices even more now," Braden says. "Who knows what a $250 [per week] paycheck would've done for us? "
During his senior year at Stagg High School, Braden's mother died of melanoma. "That was, without a doubt, the darkest time in my life," Braden says. "I didn't feel like I had anyone to turn to because I didn't want to overwhelm my grandmother, who lost her only daughter and then lost her father a week later."
Instead, Braden channeled his emotions into baseball and body art. He got his first of 12 (and counting) tattoos, a Celtic cross with the initials J.A. and T.L.: Jodie Atwood, his mom, and Thomas Lindsey, his grandfather.
Braden was selected in the 46th round of the 2001 draft out of high school but a scout told him he'd fare better with collegiate experience. So on his 18th birthday, Braden packed his belongings, bought a used truck and moved north to Sacramento's American River College.
Braden arrived on campus and asked where to find the baseball office. He talked to several coaches, all of whom had never heard of the Stockton southpaw and informed him that tryouts had already happened. Braden added that he'd been drafted out of high school and that while he was a pitcher, he could also play outfield. The team found a spot for him.
Braden's mother's best friend lived outside Sacramento with her family, so Braden moved in, sharing a room with their youngest son. Because the drive to ARC took close to 90 minutes, Braden sometimes slept in his truck in the baseball parking lot so he wouldn't miss 6 a.m. workouts.
"My first-year coach, Kevin Higgins, taught me accountability," Braden says. "He'd arrive and see me sleeping in my truck but wouldn't wake me up because he wanted me to get myself going on my own."
Braden pitched to a 12-4 record over two seasons with ARC and then transferred to Texas Tech, where he pitched well enough after one season (6-4, 4.56 ERA) to be drafted again. His name was called by the Oakland A's in the 24th round of the 2004 draft and he pitched that season at Class A Vancouver. In 2005, he moved to Class A Advanced ball with his hometown team, the Stockton Ports. "The first night I pitched, I had over 200 people on my pass list," Braden says. "I pitched great and threw seven or eight innings. The second game, I pitched a complete game."
On April 24, 2007, Braden made his first major league start and picked up the win against the Baltimore Orioles. He bounced between Triple-A and the majors in '07 and '08, making 19 appearances for the A's in 2008, going 5-4 with a 4.14 ERA.
In 2009 spring training, teammates jokingly called Braden the "old man" since, at 25, he's the oldest member of the A's starting rotation. Braden is currently 8-9 with a 3.89 ERA and 81 strikeouts.
After signing his big league contract, Braden's first plan was to "retire my grandmother and buy her a house," he says. She now lives less than a half-mile from him.
As the economy began to crumble last fall, Braden decided he wanted to help more of Stockton's residents. He visited local businesses, asking for food donations on Thanksgiving. He gathered close to 1,000 pounds of food, and not just the traditional turkey and stuffing. "Poverty doesn't know a race, age or religion," Braden says. "So I got a little of everything: pizza, tacos, ribs, chicken, different food."
In 2006, Braden had been invited to throw out the first pitch during the opening ceremonies for his former Stockton Little League. Afterward, he talked about the sacrifices his mother had made as a single parent to keep him playing baseball. To kick off an annual initiative, Braden asked the league's board of directors to pick a child of a single parent that he could sponsor throughout their Little League season.
The board chose two brothers, 9-year-old Cameron and 8-year-old Mitchell Alexander, whose widowed mother Tami will begin a masters program at Sacramento State this fall. Both brothers are on the academic honor roll at University Public School and, as Braden says, "have had every curveball thrown at them. This is more about acknowledging what they've done -- they're 8 and 9 going on 40 years old."
To kick off the sponsorship, Braden invited the Alexanders as well as 251 other local Little Leaguers (plus one guest each) to the A's home game June 28 against the Rockies.
When asked about their reaction when they learned Braden would be sponsoring them, Cameron said, "I didn't know what to say. I was just so happy it was hard for me to think."
Braden gave the Alexanders a VIP tour of the clubhouse and field and outfitted them with bats and gloves from Mizuno. The brothers received Braden jerseys and threw out the game's first pitch, which Tami said they had literally been practicing for every day since they learned their assignment. "It went pretty well; we didn't get a strike, but we at least made it to the catcher's glove," Cameron said afterward. Braden also offered them a pitching tutorial, which inspired both boys to profess the same future goal: "to be a pitcher just like Dallas," Mitchell says.
"It was such a dream day for them that when we got home they said, 'How can we go to sleep tonight?'" Tami says. "I kind of felt that way, too -- how do you just go to sleep and start a new day when this day has happened?"
Braden plans to keep in touch with the Alexanders and have them come to another game as his guests in September. He also promised the boys they'd hang out and play video games at his Stockton home. "As a parent, you want to give your children the world, and Dallas gave them a bigger part of the world," Tami says. "It's just incredible."
Braden downplays his philanthropic efforts, saying, "If you're able to have more and help others out, why wouldn't you?" He has planned further events for his community and says that despite his pro athlete status, he'll remain a low-key, blue-collar guy. Just like his hometown, where, despite early economic challenges for himself and others, he learned the lesson he's passing on.
"Dallas told us to always try your best because that's how good things happen," Cameron says. "Good things happen to good people."
Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine