Thursday, May 12, 2011

Is This the End of Milton Bradley’s Tortured Line?

By Jeff Kallman

Milton Bradley's long, strange trip through the long, strange, often contradictory prisms of Major League Baseball may be over at last. "Designated for assignment" is the politically correct way for the Seattle Mariners to say they'd rather eat the $10 million they still owe Bradley for 2011 than bear with him for another minute, as they said earlier this week, following a weekend during which Bradley's diminishing skills were actually more glaring than his somewhat undiminished temper.

A year ago, the Mariners were willing to work with Bradley when the over-wired outfielder asked the team's help for counseling to help him manage his trip-wire anger. That was when he still looked like he might rejuvenate his once-considerable baseball talents.

Now that $10 million entree is just about the biggest unwanted but unavoidable dinner per year (Bradley's full 2011 nut is $12 million) the Mariners, as Seattle Times writer Larry Stone notes, have ever had to consume. And they've chowed down on some hefty portions, such as Richie Sexson (a $6 million course in 2008), Scott Spiezio (a $3 million roast duck in 2005), and the man for whom they acquired Bradley from the Chicago Cubs in the first place, Carlos Silva. (A $12 million a year turkey who's since been released by the Cubs and by the New York Yankees.

Banking $12 million, $10 million of which amounts to a kind of perverse golden parachute, may or may not be enough to help brace Bradley for what he seems likely to face from this point forward.

Nobody pretends, in print anyway, that any major league team might be willing to give him one more chance by making a deal with the Mariners before the ten-day DFA window closes. And nobody pretends likewise that his re-entry into the world away from baseball, where everything he does won't be subject to the chameleonic public eye, will be a re-entry uninterrupted by trouble unlike any he ever saw in an umpire's ruling or a manager's order.

Not after a 12-season career in which the once-formidably promising talent was eaten away, little by little, by injuries and incendiary behavior, sometimes at once, two bristling elements that sometimes met at the same intersection and crashed with mind-melting impact.

Not at age 33, when Bradley's most marketable skills (his hitting, his ability to reach base, and his speed; his defense was once impressive, but it was emptied by injuries long before his offense) have been sapped to where it took only two full seasons, and a fragment of a third, for him to devolve from leading his league in OPS and on-base percentage into a man who now looks as though he'd be lost hitting Double-A pitching.

Teams desperate enough for part-time help might flirt with Bradley a little here and there, but nobody seems willing to say it would go much beyond mere flirting. As a full-timer, Bradley's probably cooked. He may be considered poison even as a part-timer. (He may also have a target on his back, thanks to his warring with so many umpires, honorable at any close play on the bases or at the plate.) It's very hard to imagine any team now willing to get part-time serviceability out of a full-time time bomb. And that's how just about everyone in baseball sees him. Which is just about how he's been seen since almost the day his career began in earnest.

When the Mariners hired Eric Wedge to manage the club last October, it was easy enough to wonder how anyone in Cleveland who still cared about either of the pair might have reacted. Wedge managed Bradley in Cleveland in the early Aughts, after the Montreal Expos gave up on this live prospect's potential to outgrow his furies. Wedge navigated two years of high combustibility before pulling him from a late spring training exhibition game in 2004, after Bradley failed to run out a pop fly that eventually landed for what would have been a two-base hit if he'd gunned it out of the box.

Wedge politely reminded Bradley that he should have been hustling enough to be on second base at the end of such a play. No shouting match exploded out of that, but all reports held that Bradley's reply was disrespectful enough, with teammates in view, that the Indians decided to hustle him out of town post haste and to anyone who would take him. Previous season run-ins between Bradley and Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Paul Lo Duca, first baseman Jason Giambi, and umpire Bruce Froemming (at whom Bradley winged his batting helmet and bat after a disagreeable call from behind the plate) didn't exactly bolster Bradley's defense.

Wedge has never wavered in his accountability fetish, and with the Mariners it was no different. He was willing to make an example of a smaller fish named Jack Wilson, after Wilson told the press he'd been pulled from a game out of which he actually asked to be taken, prompting Wedge to rip him in the press and bench him four games. Wedge certainly wasn't afraid to stand up to Milton Bradley again, if he had to.

An ejection for arguing with an umpire last Friday. (Again.) Defensive mishaps Saturday and Sunday. Some think the only reason Wedge didn't get into Bradley's face over all the foregoing was that he knew Bradley's ticket out was about to be punched and he'd learned the hard way about putting out a fire with gasoline.

Wedge's standing up to him with the Indians left Bradley to be taken by the Dodgers themselves, the Dodgers thinking honestly enough that just bringing him back home (Bradley is native to nearby Long Beach, and grew up an ardent Dodger fan) might make a large difference to this talented but tormented young man, who didn't seem to know how not to torment those who wanted only to work with and even love him.

At first, the Dodgers looked like geniuses. There were even moments when you swore Bradley was becoming a team leader and — wait for it — an engaging community presence. Oh, he might (and did) heave a bag of baseballs out toward the field in distaste over yet another umpire's call, but that was about it. When he visited with some schoolchildren, fielded a question about his fearsome image, Bradley asked matter of factly if any of the children were afraid of him. One admitted he was. Bradley was visibly shaken by the revelation.

That may have been why he went into anger management counseling willingly, after a Dodger Stadium idiot threw a bottle toward him during a critical stretch drive game, when he lost a ball in the screaming bright stadium lights for a two-run miscue, and he reacted by slamming it down onto the ground around the seats, then weathered his rest-of-the-regular-season suspension and an offseason incident in which his wife called 9-1-1.

But the following season Bradley was dogged by a balky knee, playing through it stubbornly, and arguing publicly with second baseman Jeff Kent at last over whether Bradley himself was dogging it. Bradley went far enough to hint that there may have been a racial implication in Kent's critique, which many questioned in turn even though Kent himself was seen as not exactly the most agreeable of clubhouse presences. A couple of days later, Bradley's season was ruined when, hustling his way to third, he injured the knee enough to need major surgery.

Come that December, Bradley was traded to Oakland for Andre Ethier. Ethier opened this season with a thirty-game hitting streak. It helped give a troubled Dodger franchise — bedeviled by almost non-existent finances tied troublingly enough to their owner's having used the franchise, perhaps, as his personal ATM machine — a few non-controversial headlines. Not even his deepest sympathizer would ever accuse Bradley of offering that kind of morale boost.

When the Cubs suspended Bradley to finish out the 2009 season, after a nasty scrum in the press in which he fumed over racial epithets he claimed were hurled at himself and his young son in Wrigley Field, Oakland beat writer Gwen Knapp couldn't resist recalling Bradley in the A's clubhouse. He lived calmly for the most part, amidst an agreeable gathering in which he forged a goofing friendship with Nick Swisher, let fading Frank Thomas become a mentor, enjoyed a civil enough relationship with manager Ken Macha, and put on a terrific offensive display in the postseason.

But in early 2007, the A's traded him to San Diego. He joined the club off the disabled list after the All-Star Break, became one of the team's leading hitters, then re-injuring his historically suspect knee in one of baseball's strangest incidents. Baited by first base umpire Mike Winters (ultimately suspended from postseason work over his doing), Bradley flew into a rage when manager Bud Black scurried out from the dugout and, wanting just to get Bradley away from the ump before serious damage was done, knocked Bradley down inadvertently, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament.

A year later, Bradley had his career year in Texas. Where becalmed Ron Washington was his manager, formerly troubled Josh Hamilton befriended him agreeably, and about the worst thing you could say about Bradley for the most part was that he finished a percentage point away from a 1.000 OPS. If you didn't count his bid to tear limb from limb a broadcaster who suggested Bradley should be more like Hamilton, who'd overcome substance abuse to become a Texas clubhouse leader.

By that point, Bradley had to be wondering if he could ever do anything right in anyone's eyes — including his own. By that point, he was a guaranteed umpires' target. By that point, the injuries had begun wearing him down in earnest if the bristling in his soul hadn't.

With the Mariners Bradley progressively resembled a shell in left field and a mannequin at the plate. You wonder if there isn't a part of him that wasn't ground down even worse than his personality issues did by the injuries. But you wonder, too, whether and how much of a difference it made whenever he played with teammates and managers who fostered atmospheres of calm and not cacophony around him.

It's not that they should have gone out of their way to contort their atmosphere to Bradley's singular need, whatever it may be, but his least troubling times just might have been those in which such an atmosphere was there in the first place. When he went to the Cubs while Lou Piniella was still their manager, it was probably predictable enough that one fiery manager and one always-prospectively fiery player, who didn't always keep his fire strictly for the field, would equal an incendiary device whose only issue was when, not if.

Bradley more often than not was apologetic after he'd gone yet again several bridges too far. He could be (can be) extremely likable; he still has a smile that can light up a city in the throes of a power blackout. (Dodger icon Vin Scully, interviewing Bradley in his first Dodger spring, got Bradley to relax, joke, and finally flash that incandescent smile he has. It didn't look for a moment like Bradley just just humoring the old legend, either.)

When he visits with schoolchildren giving motivational talks, only to bring himself to the threshold of tears, perhaps when he realizes he's getting right to the heart of his own difficult childhood, willing himself to honor student status and hell bent on providing his mother relief, it may be the closest Bradley — whose name has inspired a few too many bad game jokes, and who was named for a father who didn't bother getting his mother's agreement when filling out the birth certificate — comes to exposing his real vulnerabilities.

It's also been the closest Bradley gets to breaking down and weeping anywhere he isn't alone. Teammates and team officials alike who accompanied him on such visits have testified to that. It was as if there remained a deeply wounded little boy in need of healing inside of a tortured young man who needs a hug that won't leave for a very long time.

That may cut to the heart of his baseball dilemma. When healthy, Bradley played the game as if he had a hellhound on his trail — yet could be and so often was so embracing with fans that, among others, a group of elder Mariners fans known affectionately for their pink banner at spring training games initiated him as an honorary Old Bat — complete with jersey pin and a daily ritual of mutual hugs as he entered the ballpark.

Who's to say just where someone borne of Bradley's desperate intensity, an intensity that may be the kind of self-immolating fear of failure that can cause rather than block failure itself, with so few or so scattered opportunities to relieve it, loses the distinction between competitive fire and extreme survivalism?

What was it, really, that turned a dogged high school honour student into a major league baseball player of now dissipated talent who seemed, as former Los Angeles Times writer Tim Brown (who covered Bradley in the Dodger seasons) suggests, to seek the fight because it was the only way he could prevail against a fight finding him first?

I've speculated in the past that Bradley suffers at minimum from an undiagnosed but unfathomable anxiety disorder. At maximum, I have speculated in hand, he may be an undiagnosed manic depressive. Those were not idle speculations: I was convinced for years that I was myself a manic depressive, and lived accordingly, until a very recent series of events and revelations convinced me that I have an anxiety disorder just short of full-blown manic depression.

There's hardly a difference in terms of life consequences. I've had a fractured professional and personal life because of it. No matter who did what specifically to trigger certain events or certain endings, the core belongs to me. I have three broken marriages, about as many broken relationships, a host of lost friendships, and a lost career because of it.

In whatever his mental disarray may be, Bradley still comes out of it with a $12 million golden parachute for which many would scorn him while scratching and laboring just to make each month's bills without needing an oxygen tent. Those many would probably want to grab Bradley by his bull neck and wring the stuffing out of him for throwing away something far more valuable to far more people than, for one example, the career of one minor-league journalist.

Count me out of that multitude. His wife has filed for divorce; it's said his sole source of tranquility now is his young son. Nobody is in any hurry to offer him a job in or out of baseball, so far as I know. Bradley's best news is better than mine ever was at each of my professional and personal endings, unless I missed that $12 million I could have put in the bank once upon a time.

Bradley will need that unlikely golden parachute badly. He's headed for a long fall with no happy ending, unless he takes a long enough period of soul searching, determines that he needs help above and beyond mere anger management counseling, in the worst way possible. He's on the threshold of learning the hard way what people like me, with far fewer assets to support ourselves, have learned likewise.

In the non-baseball world, those who can't, don't, or won't address the disorders, the furies, that compromise basically decent people otherwise, will be out of jobs, if not out of life, with nothing resembling even a paper parachute, whether in human union or in dollars. You can't really wish anything of the sort upon the rest of Milton Bradley's life, for his son's sake, and for his own.

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