Encino Man

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.

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16 Responses to Encino Man

  1. Ted says:

    Eric, I disagree that he’s a pretty ballplayer, but I agree wholly that Bradley blows up emotionally the way that a superstar should blow up, without ever having been a superstar. He’s an Encino ballplayer with a Hollywood heart.

  2. Kenneth Morgan says:

    I’m really looking forward to his first spring training interview with Shannon Drayer. It’ll be interesting to see what angle each one takes.

  3. Ember Nickel says:

    But does this get on the timeline?

  4. Eric says:

    Actually, part of what set me to writing this was feeling bad about the glibness of the timeline. It’s the only thing I ever wrote here just for the traffic. (That said, it worked, and Bradley’s antics are certainly timeline worthy).

  5. In 2008, I found myself watching a lot of the Rangers on Extra Innings and was fortunate enough to take in a game in Arlington that summer. I really, really hoped Bradley stuck around in Texas for much of the reason stated here; he seemed pretty content, maybe happy.

    It’s football and God on the same level in that area and much like the Mavericks in Mark Cuban’s first few seasons as owner and those late 90s/early 2000s Stars, the Rangers were sort of anonymous, but on their way to develop a significant buzz. They were an emerging, but youthful contender (and obviously, we saw them in the Series in the fall) in a place that just began to talk about baseball in the summer as much as football. He seemed to have fit in well because compared to previous stops in his career, there wasn’t this uber-crazy spotlight on the Rangers; the fishbowl had Cowboys, Longhorns and Aggies crowded the glass while the Rangers lived towards the middle, noticed after a deeper gaze.

    So can I assume that there won’t be the long-awaited Encino Man 2 with a Bradley cameo?

  6. Eric says:

    Man, I didn’t even consider that. Chicago vs. Texas when it comes to baseball-love. Different worlds completely. As somebody who just finished Friday Night Lights and knows not what to do with himself in the aftermath, and who was thinking a lot about football when writing the piece, I should have considered it. Good call, Jason.

    However, it’s not like Bradley was under the microscope in “we could go to the art museum and then take a walk and then maybe, perhaps, catch a ballgame if it’s convenient and the sun is shining and Felix is pitching” Seattle.

    I wonder how much the relationship with Wash mattered.

  7. Ted says:

    It may be the Chicago just broke him for good, such that even a smaller market context was too much for his fragile sense of self. Chicago will do that to you.

  8. mabel says:

    really great piece.
    however, i wonder if you underestimate the discrepancies between Bradley’s construction of himself and how that construction is then received by the world around him, by MLB, by fans, and of course and probably especially by the media– both local to DFW, chicago, seattle and nationally. I also think this points further to the role race plays in the Bradley persona both as constructed by him, but again especially as constructed by the media. You gesture toward this in the comment about the bats and I think you’re totally in the right direction suggesting that Bradley wants to be treated as a human, as a man. Perhaps he hopes this treatment can come as a man not as a black man, but inevitably a black man’s temper tantrum, arrests, comments, etc. in America, in baseball, is different from a white man’s. I really don’t know the Bradley story (or the details of the story) much at all, but its clearly rich territory for analysis.

  9. Eric says:

    Mabel, seriously wow. Amazing comment. Glad you are back too, haven’t seen your name around here for a bit.

    I didn’t get into race as much as I probably should have in this case. That’s definitely a strong element — especially considering his comments in Chicago about the Wrigley fans. Seattle is an interesting case because it’s a suuuuper white city — but it’s also a very progressive one, and although it certainly has its problems (especially with the police lately), it doesn’t have the racially charged history of a Chicago — or probably a DFW for that matter.A

    Worth noting also is that as far as I know, Wash is the only black manager MB has played under. Obviously a lot more we should be thinking about here.

  10. Patrick says:

    I agree there’s probably a huge racial element that we could (should?) be discussing, but my feeling is that a lot of the racial aspects of how Bradley is both perceived and how he wants to be perceived is inherent in simply wanting to be treated as a human being first. If that makes any kind of sense, let me know.

    This post captured one of the reasons I love Milton Bradley and the types of athletes I’m drawn to. My lens through which I view most of the world is through the great books I’ve read. I absolutely adore characters on edges of two things, stuck in transition, and pulled in different directions. Bradley has always seemed to be one of those characters, as you’ve pointed out so eloquently.

  11. Eric says:

    Thanks, man. I appreciate it.

  12. Hank says:

    In the spring following the Dodger Stadium water bottle incident, Milton Bradley came to the Long Beach middle school where I taught at the time to speak to our students. It was clearly an attempt to rebuild his image, but his heart was in the right place. He had grown up not from our school, and he wanted to give something back to kids who were growing up the way he did: fatherless and without the advantages of those on the other side of town.

    Because my principal knew I was the biggest sports fan in the English department, she asked me to coordinate the whole thing and supervise the essay contest suggested by Bradley’s people. When he showed up at the school on the appointed day — with news crews from four local stations — he spoke about working hard to overcome obstacles, learning from mistakes, and listening to parents and teachers. All good, if predictable, advice.

    But he showed his true colors when the four essay contest winners and I showed up at Dodger Stadium the next day for the game. We were brought down to the field along with a few other groups to watch batting practice. Each group was connected to some other Dodger, but none of the other players seemed interested in their groups. Milton, on the other hand, came directly over to us in between swings in the cage, greeted my students by name, and answered my baseball geek questions. (In case you’re wondering, even when he’s planning on facing a righty that day, he still takes a few swings from the right side during BP, just to keep things in gear.)

    After batting practice, we were paraded out to the first base line where we were introduced and flashed on the Diamond Vision in centerfield, and then a Dodger photographer came to snap our picture. Here’s where things got crazy. Milton noticed what was going on and ran over so he could get in the picture. Then he saw that the other groups were taking their pictures without a player, so he sprinted over to them for their photos. When all the pictures were finished, a Dodger PR rep did her best to convince Milton to head back to the clubhouse, but he refused. Instead he called back to our group and beckoned us towards the dugout. “Hey, let me introduce you guys to some of my friends… this is Eric Gagne.” (And this is when Gagne was probably the biggest star on the team.) He shook all of our hands, and thanked us for coming.

    There are lots of stories about Milton Bradley, but that’s the one that I’ll always remember.

  13. mabel says:

    I think the thing is that as a black man and especially as a black man in baseball where blackness is so heavily foregrounded and as an African-American in baseball which is so closely tied to American history and the racial progress of the civil rights movement, there, just is no such thing as Milton Bradley just being human. I think that’s part of what’s so tragic about Bradley and why we have to talk about race in connection to him because no matter what he is experiencing life and is being experience by others as a black man. Whiteness is what is neutral, so being a man in this society means being a white man.
    hopefully that makes sense?
    I’ve written about some of this elsewhere if you’re interested… and also a little bit in various posts at the i only very occassionally write in… especially (and hopefully those html links work…)

  14. mabel says:

    I think the thing is that as a black man and especially as a black man in baseball where blackness is so heavily foregrounded and as an African-American in baseball which is so closely tied to American history and the racial progress of the civil rights movement, there, just is no such thing as Milton Bradley just being human. I think that’s part of what’s so tragic about Bradley and why we have to talk about race in connection to him because no matter what he is experiencing life and is being experience by others as a black man. Whiteness is what is neutral, so being a man in this society means being a white man.
    hopefully that makes sense? It really sucks, but as Eric mentioned, one of the most powerful things athletes can do is demonstrate something larger whether its something about baseball as a game or something bigger than that.

    I’ve written about some of this elsewhere where possibly the ideas make more sense… and also a little bit in various posts at the i very occassionally write in… especially (and hopefully those html links work…)

  15. mabel says:

    I think the thing is that as a black man and especially as a black man in baseball where blackness is so heavily foregrounded and as an African-American in baseball which is so closely tied to American history and the racial progress of the civil rights movement, there, just is no such thing as Milton Bradley just being human. I think that’s part of what’s so tragic about Bradley and why we have to talk about race in connection to him because no matter what he is experiencing life and is being experience by others as a black man. Whiteness is what is neutral, so being a man in this society means being a white man.
    hopefully that makes sense? It really sucks, but as Eric mentioned, one of the most powerful things athletes can do is demonstrate something larger whether its something about baseball as a game or something bigger than that.

    I’ve written about some of this elsewhere where possibly the ideas make more sense… especially relevant are a post on brandon phillips and white privilege at my blog here: http://mabelmeigs.wordpress.com/
    and one on baseball, the civil rights movement and American history/memory here: http://flowtv.org/2009/07/not-beyond-jackie-robinson-baseball-civil-rights-and-cultural-memory-mabel-rosenheck-flow-staff/