There’s a story about Milton Bradley as a young man that pops up from time to time.
When Bradley was hitting his stride, and dominating his high school league, scouts began arriving to take a look at the athletic, switch-hitting outfielder. And Bradley was ready to impress. One scout recalls that, while observing Bradley, he saw the kid crush a home run, and take off around the base paths. But when he arrived at home plate, there was no one there to greet him. No high fives, no pats on the back. No smiles. The scout remembers it as the only time he’d ever seen a high schooler hit a home run, and not a single teammate came out to congratulate him.
The story is reflective of Bradley’s young baseball experience: tremendous talent obscured by anger and attitude problems; he was even kicked off the team at one point.
And so it is with Milton Bradley.
There’s always been another side to Bradley, though. A sensitive introvert, affected by a tough upbringing in California. When Bradley was in high school, crushing home runs and receiving no high fives, he was also crushing his school work. Milton Bradley was an A student. Milton Bradley wrote poetry.
And so it is with Milton Bradley.
A living dichotomy, Bradley’s professional career has been a public trial of his athletic virtues and sensitive soul weighed against his explosive temper and me-first-and-only attitude. Is he worth the trouble? That’s always the question. Bradley, for his part, has done little to help prospective employers answer that question.
As a minor leaguer, Bradley had multiple run-ins with umpires – jabbing one in the chest, and spitting his gum at another. In his formative professional years with the Cleveland Indians – the only team for which he played more than two seasons (he lasted two and a half seasons before being dealt to the Dodgers) – he found as much tumult as success. With the words “talented but troubled” applied liberally to Bradley, he was never able to fit in. Teammates described the young man as lazy, rude and hot-tempered. He once exploded on Hall of Famer and Indian legend Eddie Murray when the coach tried to help Bradley with some struggles at the plate.
Things aren’t much better even when Bradley is hitting well. When Bradley succeeds on the baseball diamond, he sees it not as an achievement or help for the team. He sees it, in his own words, as revenge.
Little has changed for Milton Bradley since those days as a young man in Cleveland, and unfortunately for the Chicago Cubs, Milton Bradley did not exact nearly enough revenge on the baseball field in 2009.
When Bradley signed with the Cubs last January, we all knew that what ultimately transpired was a strong possibility. The sound of a square peg, acrimoniously wedging itself near – but never in – a round hold, could be heard for miles. Here’s what I had to say, among other things:
[Milton Bradley is not] a man who is going to be able to easily ignore the eyes and words that pour over his every indiscretion.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t be interested in the Milton Bradley story, both on and off the field. And I’m not saying that if he does act up, there should be any extra benefit of the doubt.
I’m just saying that maybe we shouldn’t rubberneck quite as much as we would otherwise. If the Bradley-mobile spins out on the highway, change lanes, and pass on by. It’s not worth stopping to watch and causing a backup behind you that might lead to more trouble.
Of course, if the Bradley-mobile gets into a full-on, fireball of a crash… well, I can’t fault you for taking an extra long sideward glance.
Prescience is not always fun.
Sure enough, Bradley as a Cub was nothing short of that feared full-on, fireball of a crash – albeit one that developed slowly like a big rig rolling down the side of a mountain before immolating in the grandest of fashions at the bottom of the valley.
He was hurt in Spring Training and didn’t play until mid-April… when he was promptly ejected and suspended. He appealed his suspension, even though he was too injured to play anyway.
In early June, he lost track of the outs in an inning, and chucked a live ball into the stands. In late June, he threw a tantrum and so frustrated manager Lou Piniella that Piniella called him “a piece of s@*t” and sent him home.
In August, he all but called Chicago Cubs fans racist and stated that he didn’t really care what happened in the games, he just hoped they went quickly. And then, in September, the cake topper: he called out the team, the city, the media, and the fans, and said that he understood why the Cubs hadn’t won in 100 years.
After what would be a career’s worth of transgressions for most players, it was time for Milton to go – he was traded this weekend to the Seattle Mariners for a terrible starting pitcher and cash. So long, square peg.
In the end, was the media really so tough on him? Heaven forbid they expect him to answer questions about his performance, his health, or his attitude. Were the fans really so tough on him? We’re nothing if not hopeful – and our hopes for Milton Bradley’s success were rivaled only by our hopes that somehow our Bradley was a different Bradley than he’d been in his five previous stops.
We also hoped that Bradley’s performance would match his success in Texas – where he DH’d most of the year. Fairly or unfairly, we held him up against the other right fielders who signed last year: Raul Ibanez, who was the league MVP in the first half of the year; Bobby Abreu, who re-kindled his career for chump change and a one-year deal; and Adam Dunn, who did what Adam Dunn always does, and did it for much less than Bradley had cost. Even if Bradley hadn’t been an emotional disaster, he would have been a profound disappointment.
But Bradley was an emotional disaster – both for himself and for us. And that is what defined the Milton Bradley era in Chicago. It is how we will remember him. Trying to recall a “good” memory of Milton Bradley leaves me straining, and picturing him toppling end over end, trying to catch a ball early in the season.
In so many ways, Bradley is still that angry young man, screaming at Eddie Murray and trying only to exact revenge. Instead of growing up, he’s grown better at finding ways to project his internal struggle externally. And after it all, does he regret his time in Chicago? His failings? His issues?
No. He said it best earlier this year: he regrets only that “there are idiots in the world.” Unfortunately for Bradley, he’s been struck with the worst luck in all of baseball history – to have so consistently been surrounded by those very idiots, no matter what team he played for, or what city he lived in. Or maybe, just maybe, Milton is the cause of his own suffering. Bradley once claimed, as a young man, that he “always complain[s] about things and start[s] controversy because it kind of motivates [him].”
Now Bradley is headed to his seventh team in eight seasons. Hopefully, for Bradley’s sake, the Mariners have a square hole for him to fill. Unfortunately, knowing Bradley, it probably won’t take long to start enough controversy to transform him into a suddenly ill-fitting round peg. He’ll be youthful, hostile, and difficult. But he’ll be motivated.
And maybe this time, he’ll be motivated to play baseball.