When Milton Bradley was arrested recently at his home for making violent threats to a woman, I was surprised to learn that he lived in Encino, CA. Encino is a plain and pleasant section of Los Angeles right at the mouth of the San Fernando Valley. It’s nice –mostly white upper middle class families– but it’s not Major League nice. It swelters but not like the deep Valley cities swelter.
I have a theory about why Milton Bradley lives in Encino, where I attended a baseball camp and swam in our friends’ pool. I think he craves the quiet. I think to Bradley, Encino represents something of the idyllic pastoral existence that city people grow up idealizing. The air in Encino tastes nothing like the salty air of his native Long Beach. When he walks down the street, the people may recognize him but they probably don’t bother him.
If I ran into Milton Bradley on the street, I’d probably bother him. This isn’t true for most celebrities. But Bradley is different. If individual players can embody Pitchers & Poets and how Ted and I have come to consume and understand baseball, he is one of those players. By his attitude, his place in the ecosystem, his style of play, his perception in the media, he heightens our understanding of baseball. There are others like him — Ichiro, Zito, Berkman, and beyond.
Bradley switch-hits. That’s almost enough in itself. But it’s not just that – it’s how he hits and how he fields and the inexplicable dissonance between the cool and smooth and patient and effortless Bradley on the field and the turbulent and vulnerable Bradley off of it. When Bradley is playing his best baseball, it’s as if he’s revealing the man he wants to be – and by many accounts, usually is – off the field.
Therein lies the tension that defines him. Milton Bradley is not a volatile baseball player; even his signature season with Texas in 2008 was unassuming. He hit 22 home runs. He got on base. He stayed relatively healthy. And in the course of that season we saw something different personally. We saw a contentedness in Bradley’s relationship with Ron Washington. “The embrace with Wash was a special one,” Bradley wrote in a guest post for the New York Times baseball blog on making his first all-star team. “It felt like a father-son moment to me. In 30 years, I’ve never really had one of those so I can only imagine that’s what it must feel like.”
Vintage Bradley is patient, collected, and dangerous. His swing is compact in the legs and the hips, and from both sides of the plate an aesthetic pleasure. His arms lash across the zone with smooth and level grace. He gets on base like a professional, never seeming dissatisfied with a walk. Once upon a time, he was a decent enough outfielder too. But not even the glimpses of effectiveness reveal Bradley to be a superstar. Instead they reveal him to be simply above average – a good ballplayer, a pleasure to watch, but hardly a superstar, hardly exciting, hardly excitable.
But of course he is excitable. He is practically a caricature at times. He loses his temper during games. He tore his ACL while arguing with an umpire. He broke a bat over his knee (why is this a magnificent achievement of brutal strength for Bo Jackson but a pathetic sign of anger and weakness for Milton Bradley?). I once saw him empty the entire contents of a bag of baseballs onto the field at Dodger Stadium, then fling ball after ball into center field in what appeared to be complete obliviousness to his surroundings. From where I was sitting, I could see whites in his eyes. They boiled.
What’s the right way to understand a player who swirls in so many self-imposed narratives, a player who requires so much? The trait that defines Milton Bradley, the one trait that sets him apart, even from the other smart and vulnerable and self-aware players, is that he demands to be taken seriously as a human being first and a ballplayer second. The earnest statements, the tearful pledges, the tremor in his voice during post-game interviews, the on-field incidents, the off-field arrests: they all reinforce the same subconscious drive to be appreciated or understood or at the very least accepted. Milton Bradley is a human being. And he might be a ballplayer and he might be emotional but those are less important things.
In this way, Bradley is the anti-ARod. (Some media folks love to posit Jeter and A-Rod as opposite poles, but really they are the same shiny clean-faced product designed for mass consumption. Jeter is just better at being Mickey Mantle.) Bradley is incapable of canned lines. He has no interest in public relations, in polishing his image. When Charles Barkley said he didn’t want to be a role model, he was rebelling against the expectations we have for superstar athletes. Bradley is probably aware of those expectations — but instead of dismissing them, he is realigning them: acknowledge me, respect me, then leave me alone.
The story of Bradley’s shortened 2010 season was the simple desire to be accepted as a regular person with regular feelings and regular problems. This desire was manifest in his preseason giddiness about sharing a locker room with Ken Griffey Jr. In the way he tipped his cap to Rajai Davis after Davis stole away an Opening Day home run. In the way he asked for mental help, and then came back, and then fucked it all up again. It was manifest in the way he emotionally confessed to an unsuspecting radio reporter after homering in an already meaningless May ballgame, “I was full of joy, everything felt right,” as if baseball had not felt joyful or right in a very long time.
Obviously, things didn’t stay right for Bradley in 2010. They haven’t begun right in 2011. The Mariners hired a former nemesis, Eric Wedge, to be their manager. Fans and local media wondered openly about his future in Seattle. And then there’s Encino. The arrest.
Maybe Milton Bradley wasn’t ready for the desperate quiet anxiety that suburban life can elicit, and his arrest and the incidents leading up to it were the product of that ever-simmering angst and the pressurized valley air and an offseason spent reading about all the different ways he was no longer a part of his team’s plans. This after the worst year of his professional career. Or maybe nothing happened at all in Encino. The charges were dropped. The Mariners had no comment. We’ll never know.
All we can know is that it’s a struggle to reconcile Milton Bradley. He is baseball’s Jacob, always wrestling with himself, his managers, his teammates. His demand — humanity — is basic. But his behavior is so erratic, his game is so unassuming, his very presence is so emotionally wrought, that unless we step way back, it’s easy to not notice that humanity in the eyes of the public is already Bradley’s greatest achievement. Before he is a baseball player, even before he is a fuck up or a criminal or a walking injury or a whiner, Milton Bradley is a man.