|Wednesday, July 9
Updated: July 10, 1:16 PM ET
Bradley knows only one way -- the hard way
By Alan Schwarz
Special to ESPN.com
"Get your own damn money."
The robber had just burst into a Safeway supermarket, stuck his gun against Charlina Rector's head and snapped, "B----, gimme the money." Rector, the cashier, folded her arms and stared right back at him. "My momma didn't raise no b----," she said. "Get your own damn money." The man fumbled with the register, took the cash and scrammed.
Milton Bradley wasn't there when his mother looked down the barrel of a .38 and told her would-be assassin to stick it. But he might as well have been, because as far as he's concerned, the world has been pointing a gun at him every second of every day. The coaches who tested him, the gangs who beat him, the umpires who screwed him, the fans who cursed him, the agent who robbed him, the father who shamed him ... in his mind, Milton Bradley has been under fire ever since he put on a baseball uniform.
To see his boxscore lines -- the ones that have read 4-1-2-2 and 5-2-3-1 a lot lately -- is to have no idea that the Indians center fielder might very well be the angriest player in baseball. Even as Bradley blossoms into one of American League's most talented young players, a switch-hitting powderkeg who is batting .341 (third in the AL), a cloud of negativity swirls around him like the dirt on Pig Pen. He alienates opponents and teammates alike with his icy glare and smarmy strut. He runs out ground balls as indifferently as Albert Belle. Even his own hitting coach, Eddie Murray, says, "He'll bark at you for no reason at all. I don't like the way he treats people."
One series against Kansas City this year typified the ill-feeling Bradley tends to breed wherever he goes. He incited the resurgent Royals by saying, "I know we're better than them," then called them "gutless" for throwing at rookie Brandon Phillips instead of him. (A teammate posted a sign in the clubhouse that read, "Shut up and play.") He jawed with Royals catcher Mike DeFelice, pointed his bat at center field to show where the next ball was headed, promptly roped one exactly there -- and stood and admired it, just to rub it in further. He later had another run-in with the Dodgers' Paul LoDuca, after which he issued this league-wide warning: "If you don't know me and I don't know you, don't approach me, and I won't approach you. Don't insult me, and I won't insult you, because you don't know what I will or won't do."
Bradley makes no apologies; changing his personality would be like taking a jungle fighter's knife. Call him arrogant. Never let him live down two of his most notorious incidents in the minor leagues, when he poked one umpire in the mask and spit his gum at another. Make fun of his name, which even his friends don't know the ugly story behind. To Milton Bradley, it all just adds coal to his furnace. His personal mantra, "I like it hard," might as well be carved on his forehead for all to see.
"I don't play this game to make friends," Bradley says. "I didn't always follow the rules. I didn't always do it the way it's supposed to be done. But I did it."
'Still I rise'
Bradley never smiles on the field -- playing instead with what he calls "my poker face," his wrath and rage festering barely beneath the surface. He is just as likely to snap at an umpire's bad call as completely ignore a teammate who says "Good morning" when he enters the clubhouse, leaving onlookers somewhere between flabbergasted and furious.
"You wonder what his problem is," one Indian says.
To Bradley, it's very simple. A self-described loner, he considers every line-drive he hits, every "crack" of his bat, the sound of pure, delectable revenge. Even in the outfield he can hear Tupac Shakur lyrics pulsing through head and heart:
The tribulations of a ghetto kid
Still I rise
Still I rise"
Bradley has risen from a youth in Long Beach, Calif., that helps explain, well, what his problem is. For all the board-game jokes about his name, the way he got it isn't one. Charlina Rector dated a man named Milton Bradley in the late 1970s but says she broke off their engagement because she claims he was hooked on cocaine. When she gave birth to their son in April 1978, she was still unconscious when Bradley filled out the birth certificate without her permission. He wanted a Junior, and made damn sure he got one.
Rector, who was already raising four kids from a previous marriage, says she protected Milton Jr. as best she could from what she describes as his drug-addicted, abusive father.
Rector says Milton Sr. was a Vietnam veteran with a purple heart, who slept wherever he could and spent several years homeless. When he got off drugs, Rector says, she allowed him to spend some time with Milton Jr. Rector had already taught the boy to bat right-handed. When she was out working, Milton Sr. forced him to swing left-handed, just like him. Hence the switch-hitting.
When Milton Jr. played Little League, his father would occasionally show up to watch, causing him to become distracted and withdrawn. Rector ultimately told his father, "Stand where he can't see you." Milton Sr. would hide behind a tree, but the kid knew better.
Milton Jr. still occasionally speaks with his dad, who he says is unemployed and "not doing much of anything." The son never calls the father. He talks with him only out of respect for the blood he had no choice but to inherit. "All I got from him was the same name," says Bradley, who never changed his name because the memories only drive him harder. It was always him and his headstrong mom, a cashier at local Von's and Safeway supermarkets, against the world.
Efforts to reach Milton Sr. were unsuccessful.
Bradley's growing combativeness didn't mix well at Polytechnic High in Long Beach. His coach wanted leadership, extra effort, from his team's best player. The best player -- who looked up to Long Beach-native Snoop Doggy Dogg far more than Poly High alum Tony Gwynn -- just wanted to be left alone. He was kicked off the team temporarily his sophomore year. Bradley says he twice was jumped and beaten up by gang members who didn't approve of him playing with the mostly white baseball team; he wound up shunned by both groups and gladly returning the sentiment. "From that point on, I've always felt on the outside," Bradley says. "I've never felt totally in."
The Expos used their second-round pick in 1996 on Bradley, whose life didn't get any easier as a pro. He was going to buy his mother a new home but says his agent, John Gillette, stole much of his $363,000 signing bonus in false investment schemes. (Gillette later was sentenced to 10 years in prison for ripping off a number of athletes.) Bradley's anger grew to the point where would explode at authority figures left and right, particularly umpires: He poked one in the mask and later spit his gum at another, earning him a seven-game suspension and the worst reputation in the minor leagues. "It wasn't violent," Bradley explains. "It was something I shouldn't have done. You can't touch the umpire. You can't spit on the umpire. I know that. But you just get to the point where you're just, 'There, I got that off my chest.' "
Some measure of revenge came that September, when Bradley's walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth won his Harrisburg Senators the Eastern League championship. He dropped his bat and simply watched the ball sail off into the distance before sauntering around the bases and being mobbed by his delirious teammates. The next day, when his mom picked him up at the Long Beach airport, he didn't tell her a thing. Not a word, all the way from baggage claim to the car. Only when he was throwing his stuff in the trunk did she open the copy of the Harrisburg paper with his storybook moment on the front page. "All right," she said with a little laugh. "You got 'em."
Seeing the other side
Bradley still found good soil in Cleveland, though, thanks to teammates Ellis Burks and Matt Lawton, who have withstood Bradley's churlishness and discovered another person lurking behind the wall. Burks, an amiable veteran who could soothe Idi Amin, invited him to dinner and professed to care nothing about Bradley's past, just the present. Lawton, whose first "How ya doin' " to Bradley was snubbed with a cursory nod, now goes to clubs with Bradley and talks Tupac and Jay-Z on road trips. "All you'd hear was this negative stuff about how this kid is tough to manage, he's got a short temper, the umpires, but all I saw was a young kid with tremendous ability," Burks says. "I didn't see the troubled person that everyone's talking about. I just saw someone who needed people to be a little more positive."
Bradley returned some of that positiveness by trying to peek his head out of his shell. When Cleveland trainer Jimmy Warfield died suddenly last July, Bradley shocked attendees at a private service by being one of only two Indians -- Jim Thome was the other -- to speak, which he did sensitively, eloquently. He joined the team's offseason caravan and starred in a TV spot by dancing off a curb before breaking for the other side, diving headfirst into the opposite sidewalk. An intelligent young man who wrote poetry in high school and graduated with an A-minus average, Bradley also participated in the Indians' Summer Literacy Program at area schools, often reading kids his favorite poem by Langston Hughes, "A Dream Deferred."
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
The old, combustible Bradley exploded himself when he didn't take to Murray's suggestion that he hold the bat differently, and "went off on me," in Murray's words. "He just doesn't get it," says Murray, a Hall of Famer with 504 lifetime home runs to Bradley's 19. "You can't put up with the way he treats people and the way he treats me." Even Burks has some misgivings about Bradley. "The only thing I would like to see Milton do a little more is hustle," he says. "Other than that, Milton has everything it takes to be a superstar in this game."
Bradley knows it and acts like it. In one game against Texas this May he ran the full gamut that is Milton Bradley. On the plus side, he had two hard singles, a stolen base and a killer slide to break up a double play and help keep a four-run rally going. Then again, after one strikeout he walked back so slowly that the next hitter was in the batter's box before he reached the dugout. And after working one walk he flipped the bat in a cocky manner before sauntering to first and snapping off his batting gloves, a move that already bears his signature and has drawn ire from several opponents -- particularly Lo Duca, who suggested that such antics are "going to get (him) killed."
"I don't always do things the right way. I don't always follow the rules," Bradley explains. "I'm a different type of person, which makes me interesting. I'm not like everybody else. That's boring. That's just me. It's not right, but that's me."
Sure enough, Milton Bradley is still rising, determined to keep swimming upstream against baseball's current of convention, and pushing everyone away before they get their hands on him. He's made it this far, so how wrong can he be?
It's just like his mom said that day at Safeway.
Get your own damn money.
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.