Milton Bradley's past skulks alongside him; his reputation
enshrouds him. His is a well-worn archetype: hotheaded,
temperamental, sullen, with a history of misbehavior. Sometimes
withdrawn, sometimes effusive, Bradley is a complicated mix,
difficult to decipher.
And the Dodgers are delighted to have him. "He's a 26-year-old
switch-hitting centerfielder with high on-base, high slugging,
accomplished enough to hit in the middle of our order right now,
and that's a rare player," says first-year Los Angeles G.M. Paul
DePodesta, who points out that Bradley won't become a free agent
until after the '07 season. "He has a chance to be our
cornerstone offensive player over that time."
Bradley, raised in Long Beach, has been rejuvenated by his trade
from the Indians to his hometown team on the eve of Opening Day.
Starting in centerfield and batting third, he's at the heart of
L.A.'s upgraded offense, which is averaging 4.6 runs, up from a
major-league-worst 3.5 last season. With a .351 on-base
percentage, .515 slugging percentage, four home runs and a
team-leading 18 RBIs through Sunday, he had helped boost the
Dodgers (12-6) to a 2 1/2-game lead in the NL West.
But even as Bradley insists that he is moving forward, he can't
resist parting shots at his former team and manager Eric Wedge.
"It was like a sinking ship," says Bradley of Cleveland, "and I
was glad to get my life raft and get my second chance over here.
The right people aren't in charge there, and I'm not the only
person on that team who feels this way. There are a lot of
unhappy people over there, just working for a paycheck."
Bradley reserves his harshest words for Wedge. "My experience
playing for the fans in Cleveland was awesome, and I took pride
in and enjoyed being an Indian," he says. "It was strictly a
problem with Eric Wedge. Some people want to be bigger than they
are. You have no credentials, you have no history of anything,
how are you going to tell someone else what he needs to be doing?
I can't respect somebody that has nothing to go on."
The final straw in Bradley's turbulent 2 1/2-year stint in
Cleveland--which included several spats with Wedge--came on March
31 during spring training, when Wedge thought that Bradley did
not run out a second-inning pop-up quickly enough. When Bradley
returned to the dugout, he told Wedge he had felt a twinge in his
groin and didn't want to exert himself in a meaningless game.
After an angry exchange, Wedge pulled him. "Milton crossed the
line that day for the final time," says Wedge. Bradley
immediately left the stadium, and four days later the Dodgers
outbid a half dozen other clubs by offering outfield prospect
Franklin Gutierrez and a player to be named.
Wedge maintains it was not an isolated incident: "I think it's
safe to say that what was out publicly, versus what also happened
behind the scenes, paled in comparison."
Bradley was a second-round draft choice of the Expos in '96, but
he quickly found trouble. In 1998 he poked an umpire in the mask
during a fall league game, and he spit on another in Double A the
following season. In 2000 he sparred with manager Jeff Cox at
Triple A Ottawa and Jeff Torborg with the Expos in '01. "What
happened five years ago isn't relevant to today," Bradley says.
"Let the past be the past."
Yet contradiction bubbles inside him. Last week he said, "An
umpire calls bad pitches on you, so what? Hit the good ones." But
in the first inning of Saturday's 5-3 loss to San Francisco,
Bradley was tossed for arguing a called third strike.
To the offensively puny Dodgers, Bradley represents not a problem
or a puzzle but a bat. DePodesta says Bradley's numbers (a .421
on-base percentage, .501 slugging and 10 homers in '03, all
career highs) made him worth the risk. After the trade A's G.M.
Billy Beane joked to DePodesta that when, inevitably, reporters
asked whether he was concerned about Bradley's attitude, he ought
to respond, "I'm more concerned about our offense."
Bradley's new teammates haven't judged him on his past. "I've
played with tons of guys who had bad reputations and turned out
to be great teammates once they got in the right environment,"
says Shawn Green, who relocated from the outfield to first base
to accommodate Bradley. "He's been respectful and humble. He's
become one of the guys."
Manager Jim Tracy's style differs from Wedge's; he prefers to
handle disciplinary issues one-on-one and will not call out a
player in front of his club or in print. "I don't look to have a
lot of conversations with him in the heat of battle," Tracy says.
Bradley is thrilled to be closer to his Long Beach home and to
his mother, Charlena Rector, who was diagnosed last November with
breast cancer, had a lump removed and recently completed a course
of chemotherapy. Rector says her son is a mama's boy who still
keeps a bedroom at home and a closet filled with clothes and
shoes. As a kid Bradley was a Dodgers fan, and he reveres the
team's tradition. "Being a Dodger is like having a bubble around
you. Everything else just bounces off," he says.
As Bradley talked last week, Tommy Lasorda, the avuncular former
manager who is now the club's senior vice president, caught his
eye from across the room, ambled over and interrupted, shaking
his hand vigorously. "Milton Bradley," he boomed, "keep that
smile on your face! You're a Dodger now, and don't you forget
it!" Without uttering a word, Bradley received the benediction,
nodded and smiled.
COLOR PHOTO: STEVE GRAYSON/WIREIMAGE.COM Bradley, whose bat has been hot, says he's glad he escaped theIndians' "sinking ship."
COLOR PHOTO: JON SOOHOO (BRADLEY) A spark to the Dodgers' lineup, the volatile Bradley has been amodel teammate--so far.