Sports

Braden Bishop Plays Every Game 4MOM

Seattle Mariners prospect Braden Bishop spent his junior season at University of Washington raising awareness for Alzheimer's, not only to help his mom, Suzy, who had just been diagnosed with the disease, but to cope with the news himself.

by Devon Heinen
Jun 22 2016, 12:52pm

Courtesy University of Washington Athletics

Water was boiling on the stovetop in Braden Bishop's narrow kitchen when his phone rang. Braden, then a junior at University of Washington, had the apartment to himself that September night two years ago, and was getting dinner ready until his father, Randy, called from California. It was important. Braden's pasta would have to wait.

Moments later, Braden was on the living room floor, his mind racing as Randy continued to talk.

It was about Braden's mother, Suzy.

The call lasted about 20 minutes. At some point, water began to sizzle out in the kitchen, as it bubbled and boiled over onto the stove. Braden felt like the wind had been knocked out of him.

"It felt like I was in a hole, and I had no way to get out," he said. "No one died, but it certainly felt that way."

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Suzy Bishop's dream was to work in entertainment. She studied it at UCLA while competing for the Bruins' track and cross-country teams. After graduation, she started her career in the 1980s as a production coordinator. As time went on, her resume included stops at Cannon Films, Lifetime and Hallmark Hall of Fame, plus job titles like President of Production at Republic Pictures and Vice President of Production at NBC.

"I was always, always on the go," Suzy said, sitting on her deck on a crystal-clear afternoon in San Carlos, California, her freshly cut sandy-blonde hair in a bob. "On the go, and, you know, I just was—"

She paused briefly, searching for the word.

"You loved making movies," Randy jumped in to help her. "She loved taking something from a script on a piece of paper and making it come to fruition and seeing it on the screen."

Braden's first taste of organized baseball came when he was five. It was his tee-ball uniform he picked up at his coach's house. To Braden, the white cotton shirt with red sleeves and a red snap-back hat felt like the real deal. He was just like a big leaguer.

That first baseball season in California ended before it started, though. By then, Suzy was a well-respected producer. She brought Braden along for her next movie—his first actual game would have to wait, but it wouldn't be long until the little boy grew into a talented outfielder.

When she was in her early 40s, Suzy started getting unbearable migraines. Her body would ache because of them, sometimes for just a couple of days; other times, the pain would last for more than a week.

In 2009, she lost her first word. Then she lost another. And another.

Later that year, Suzy was at a doctor's appointment when the doctor asked her to take a series of impromptu cognitive and aptitude tests right then and there. Suzy failed.

Suzy underwent numerous tests and saw doctor after doctor over the next five years while her condition worsened. She lost more words; she lost her train of thought more frequently. Everyday things that most people take for granted—like penmanship and grammar, being able to get dressed and drive a vehicle—started to go away. Nonetheless, she continued to work until, one day in 2013, she simply stopped getting projects.

Going out to eat wasn't always fun. Suzy could get lost in the middle of placing an off-the-menu order, and then end up frustrated. The situation wasn't easy for Braden, either.

"People are naturally judgmental," Braden said, recalling others who didn't understand what his mom was going through. "As a 16-, 17-, 18-year-old, I don't want to be embarrassed, so it was tough. It was really tough to see, and it was tough to be a part of. But I can only imagine how tough it was for her."

When Braden went away to University of Washington, he was homesick early on. His father and little brother kept Braden up to date on Suzy's condition as time went on. Braden saw things get worse back home firsthand when he'd visit over the holidays and for a month or so during summer break.

It wasn't until 2014 that the Bishops received an official diagnosis: Suzy had early-onset Alzheimer's.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, at least five million people in the United States have Alzheimer's, and another gets added to that group every 66 seconds. Of that population, as much as five percent have early-onset, meaning they are diagnosed before they reach age 65. One-third of seniors die while suffering from Alzheimer's or another form of dementia. There is no known cure.

At the time of Suzy's diagnosis, it was believed that she possibly had already had early-onset for four or five years.

Braden's pregame routine involves writing "4MOM" on his forearm. Courtesy University of Washington Athletics

After getting the call about his mother, Braden thought about stepping away from the University of Washington baseball team for a bit, but Suzy wasn't having it. She wanted her son to stay in Seattle and keep working toward his big-league dreams.

Around campus, though, it became clear that something had shaken Braden. After about a week, Washington's assistant strength and conditioning coach pulled him aside to see what was going on.

"I was shocked," David Rak, the assistant coach, recalled. "You knew something was up, but you didn't know it was to that magnitude."

Rak wanted Braden to know that he wasn't going to go through everything by himself. A week or so later, the strength coach floated an idea: How about organizing a deadlifting contest for charity? Rak already had a venue picked out—he had been toying with the idea of doing a charity event, he just didn't have a cause to support until he heard about Braden's mother—and the venue's owner was already on board. All Braden and his family had to do was say yes.

The event took place on a cloudy, drizzly Saturday in January 2015 at Vigor Ground Fitness and Performance in Renton, Washington, a suburb of Seattle.

Braden thought 15 people would show up; around 50 wound up competing, and more came to watch and cheer them on. All of Braden's baseball teammates at Washington showed up. A few professional baseball players showed up, too, including New York Mets left fielder Michael Conforto and Braden's close friend, Arizona Diamondbacks third baseman Jake Lamb.

A DJ played music off in a corner over the initial chatter. Chips, guacamole and an assortment of health bars sat at the ready on a table. The energy, though, was a little flat—at least, until a lifter hit a personal record. Then another. Soon, two-time North American Strongman champion Patrick Castelli was stealing the show.

Spectators crowded around Castelli as he worked his way past 400 pounds. Four-fifty. Five hundred. Higher. A short while later, the strongman—face beet-red, veins bulging in his neck—let out a quick, excited yell.

"He's your average-looking guy," Rak said. "Maybe 5-8, 5-9, about 160 pounds, maybe, and he just deadlifted over 620 pounds and just kind of ripped it off the ground."

When all things were said and done, around $5,000 was raised for the Alzheimer's Association through entry fees, a silent auction, and unsolicited donations.

"I thought it was amazing, honestly," Braden says. "And to have my mom there and for her to see it, I thought that was so important."

Strongman Patrick Castelli participating in Braden's charity deadlift event. Courtesy David Rak

Braden's coaches and teammates at Washington and a sport psychologist worked to make it easier for Braden to suit up for his junior season. Even still, Suzy was on Braden's mind nonstop.

Also on Braden's mind was that June's MLB First-Year Player Draft. The draft and all the uncertainty surrounding it would have been stressful for anyone, but Braden had a deeper set of worries.

Will she remember me getting drafted?

What about my major-league debut?

He couldn't shake the feeling that they were strapped for time.

"At times, it definitely became unbearable," he said. "I can remember sitting in my apartment, and just feeling like the world was caving in on me."

In early March, shortly after the season started, Braden reached a breaking point: The stress made him sick, and he started missing baseball games.

Suzy's situation put baseball in perspective for Braden. Seeing his mother embrace her Alzheimer's as opposed to hiding it from others inspired him to be stronger. Sharing what his mother was going through also helped him cope.

Every game Braden played that season, he played for his mom. Literally: He had been writing "4MOM" on his left forearm in black sharpie since a practice game in the fall, shortly after Suzy's diagnosis. It became a pregame routine that stuck.

News about Braden and 4MOM spread. By May, Washington was organizing a special event with the University of Arizona, where the Huskies were playing on Mother's Day, to raise Alzheimer's awareness and celebrate the holiday. A group of Wildcat mothers posed for a picture with their Wildcat ball-playing sons and threw out the first pitch. 4MOM was found on players' arms and hats that day—wrist tape, too. Signs around the ballpark and public address announcements highlighted the special event.

Randy made the trip to Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, Arizona to take everything in and watch his son and the rest of the Huskies beat the Wildcats, 3-2. Suzy spent Mother's Day back in California.

"It would have been way too much for her," Randy said, explaining that his wife wasn't feeling well and that being around a large group of people at that point was hard for Suzy. "Plus, she had trouble traveling."

The 4MOM cause helped raise even more awareness and donations through its social media presence. Even the Seattle Mariners got in on things. After the 4MOM Twitter account tweeted the Mariners, the team responded with a tweet that included a picture of pitcher Taijuan Walker with 4MOM written on his arm that Mother's Day. Braden would wind up getting drafted by the Mariners in the third round of the First-Year Player Draft the following month.

Braden spent his first pro season about 40 minutes north of Seattle with the Everett AquaSox, the Mariners' short-season single-A affiliate. Braden wasn't planning on organizing anything around 4MOM right away—he didn't want the Mariners thinking he was trying to take advantage of his situation as a newly drafted professional athlete to promote his own agenda—but at the start of the summer, Everett's assistant general manager, Katie Crawford, came to him with a question. Want to do a 4MOM game?

On August 19, 2015, fans at Everett Memorial Stadium packed the park purple—the Alzheimer's Association's official color—for the AquaSox's game against the Spokane Indians. Braden gave his teammates leftover purple Huskies under shirts and wrist tape for the game, and the AquaSox played a public service video featuring Braden. Any donations received went to the Alzheimer's Association.

"That one was a little more eye-opening to me than the first one in Arizona," Braden said, remembering how he stood out in Everett's center field and saw a sea of purple in the stands. "That was the moment where I realized that one person can really make a difference, but it wasn't just me. There were so many different people that helped to get to that point."

Braden rounding the bases during a LumberKings game. Courtesy Paul R. Gierhart/Clinton LumberKings

It was around 11 in the morning on May 8, 2016—Mother's Day—as Braden walked toward the Chicago River in a pair of jeans and a grey hoodie. The air was crisp. Sun glared off downtown Chicago's tall buildings. Braden had the day off before he and the rest of the Clinton (Iowa) LumberKings, the Mariners' full-season single-A affiliate, played their next game in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Braden came to a stop on North Columbus Drive, the bridge crossing the river when Suzy answered her phone back home in California. Though she's still largely self-sufficient, Suzy's cognitive condition continues to get worse. Last year, she lost her driver's license. Her vocabulary, grammar, spelling, reading and train of thought have all deteriorated. Getting dressed is harder.

Chicago's traffic hummed along in the background. It had been a while since Braden had been home, and he wanted to be back in California that day. Instead, he wished his mother a happy Mother's Day. She had received the flowers and candy Braden sent. He asked Suzy what her plans were.

"She obviously wished I was there," Braden later says. "I did as much as I could."

Braden hadn't done anything yet for 4MOM during the season. Not as many people in Iowa knew about 4MOM and what Braden's family has gone through compared to the people back in the state of Washington. He plans to turn his grassroots campaign into an official organization someday, but he's not sure when that'll happen. For now, he's focusing on baseball and trying to fulfill his own big league dream—just like his mom wants.