Thursday, May 6, 2010

The More Things Change...

I always think it is a little funny when people do the same thing over and over expecting a different result and then seem completely shocked when they get the same one. Thanks to the Seattle Mariners and the Cincinnati Bengals for both being from cities that I kind of have to think twice about when spelling, and also for proving the axiom correct that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Seattle Mariners traded for Milton Bradley in the 2010 offseason thinking he had put his anger-management, authority-rebelling, and home fan-attacking ways behind him. And why wouldn't they? It's not like he had a history or anything. But as I wrote last month, it took Bradley just 5 games to have a blowup, and it took just 22 more for him to be shut-down indefinitely with "emotion stress," which is a euphemism for being a "chronic lunatic."

Can a man change? Sure! Should the Mariners (and all the rest) be ripped for trying to salvage the poor bastard's career (and life)? Yes and no. Perhaps it is a noble thing to try and help the guy straighten himself out and realize his potential. Perhaps it is pure ego that each of these organizations thinks they have all the answers and can make him a champion. Perhaps he'd be better off cashing his checks and getting out of the pressure cooker of professional sports that he clearly does not have the temperament to deal with.

So who is this guy? What exactly is his history? Is he worth all this trouble? Career averages of .276, 20 homers and 76 RBI per 162 games would say no. Especially since he's only played more than 101 games three times in 11 seasons, so you know you aren't getting a full season out of him. The other 8 seasons, he averaged 71 games played (which breaks down to 9 homers, 33 RBI). As for his history, it all started in Montreal.

He was drafted by the Expos in 1996 and made the roster as a light-hitting centerfielder in 2000. He apparently had no blowups with the Expos, but was traded mid-season in 2001 to the Indians, and maybe it's their fault he cracked.

He finished 2001 as a backup and played in 98 games in 2002 with Cleveland. His career batting average was .234 and he'd hit just 12 homers over 3 seasons. So we're not talking about world-class talent that is worth the headaches (Gary Sheffield, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, etc.). He blossomed (sorta) in 2003, batting .321, but still only hitting 10 homers and 43 RBI as the Indians' primary centerfielder (101 games played). That small success seems to be the butterfly wings that caused the hurricane to come.

During Spring Training the next year, Bradley got into a fight with manager Eric Wedge and was promptly traded to the Dodgers just days before the 2004 season. Hello spotlight! Goodbye sanity. As a fulltime starter in LA, Bradley's numbers stayed near his career averages, but playing in more games, he did hit 19 homers and drive in 67 runs. His batting average dipped back to .267 though and he was plagued with character issues.

One night in June of 2004, he stepped into the batter's box, exchanged words with the home plate umpire and was promptly ejected before even seeing a pitch. He then calmly set his batting gloves and bat in the box, stormed to the dugout and threw a bag of balls onto the field, scattering some 70 balls around the infield and a few in the left field corner (he picked a few up and hucked them down there).

With just 5 games left in 2004, in the midst of a pennant race, Bradley dropped a liner with the bases loaded and allowed 2 runs to score. And the bomb was planted. A few pitches later, some jackass Dodger fan (I know, I need to be more specific) threw a plastic bottle onto the field in Bradley's general vicinity. And the fuse was lit. Bradley picked up the bottle, raged towards the stands and BOOM! He threw the bottle into the stands, challenging fans to fight him (apparently). He was restrained by teammates before going into the stands and was, of course, ejected. As he headed back to the dugout, he tore off his jersey and hat, eliciting boos from his own home crowd...which he further incited with a palms up, "bring it on" gesture before he was yanked into the dugout and off the roster for the rest of the year.

Believe it or not, the Dodgers didn't dump him after this and Bradley survived one more year in Dodger blue, but played only 75 games and driving in only 38 runs in 2005 (maybe because the Paul LoDuca steroid pipeline dried up when LoDuca was traded away late in 2004). He was traded to the A's after the 2005 season (bringing Andre Ethier to the Dodgers...nice call, Moneyball).

Bradley spent most of two seasons as a part-timer in Oakland, not driving in many runs, or scoring many runs, or hitting or stealing much. But he did benefit from one of those poorly conceived, massive contracts that the Dodgers were always handing out, so that was cool.  After his suspension in 2004, Bradley reportedly went to anger management and seemed to genuinely want to turn his life around. He spent most of the next three years in relative anonymity, staying out of the spotlight and keeping his rage nestled all safe and warm inside.

In June of 2007, the A's gave up on Bradley because his price tag was still too high for his output (thanks Dodgers). They traded him to San Diego, where after a brief stint on the disabled list, he became a full-time starter in left field and went on to become one of the Padres' best hitters, carrying them to a division lead with just under a week to go. [queue the Jaws theme]

Stop me if you've heard this one, but with only a few games left in the season in a pennant race, Bradley apparently tossed his bat in frustration after a strikeout. It went in the general direction of first base umpire Ron Winters, who apparently took offense and he told the home plate umpire that it had happened. In his next at bat, the home plate ump told Bradley that Winters had taken exception to the bat-toss. Bradley hit a single, of course, and while standing on first base he confronted Winters, who replied with some foul language and had three years of crazy blow up all over him.

Bradley was restrained by his manager, and somehow twisted his knee in the fracas, tearing his ACL and ending his season, the Padres' pennant hopes, and Bradley's tenure in America's Finest City. But at least this rousing pennant win by the Rockies ended up being a great story and a really fun postseason for the rest of us.

"But we fixed Josh Hamilton's life. Why not Milton Bradley's too?" thought the front office of the Texas Rangers. Bradley was brought to Texas in 2008 (after knee surgery) to resurrect his career and get his life back together. And it worked. And then it didn't work anymore.

Bradley had by far his best season with the bat in 2008. Relieved of his outfielding duties, perhaps to help him focus and not be distracted, he batted .321 as the Rangers' designated hitter. He had a .443 on base percentage and led the American League in OPS. He was chosen as an All-Star and ended up starting due to injury to David Ortiz ('roids are brutal on the body).

Besides his obnoxious, gratuitous spotlight grabbing during Hamilton's spectacular Home Run Derby performance, it seemed Bradley had finally put it all behind him, grown up, and had gotten his life together. Then one fateful day, he was watching his team's game broadcast in the clubhouse during the game and heard the Royals' play-by-play announcer talking about Bradley's parade of off-the-field issues (ironically, it would turn out, because he soon became the Grand Marshall of Bradley's 2008 parade of off-the-field issues).

Bradley stormed out of the clubhouse through the stadium trying to find the announcer and confront him. He had to be chased down by the GM and manager (during a game!) and later said that he was upset that someone he didn't know was talking negatively about him (let that be a lesson to you sports announcers, sports anchors and fans).  Apparently it didn't matter that the negative things the announcer was saying were true.  Thus, the Rangers bid him farewell at the end of the season.

The thing is, at this point in the story, Bradley is a somewhat sympathetic character. For the most part, he had been on the right path for a few years. He was officially exonerated of any wrong-doing in the scuffle in San Diego (no suspension because he was apparently incited to act out by the ump, who was suspended). He was just defending his honor in Kansas City (though perhaps there are better ways to do so) and he was playing the best baseball of his career.

So the Cubs took a chance on him. And why not? Sure, his hitting only became decent when he was moved to DH and the Cubs don't play in a league with a DH. Sure he has a history of confrontations with umpires, managers and other authority figures, and the Cubs have a surly, firey manager. No bad can come of that pairing. Sure he has a history of bad blood with his own fans (let alone the other teams'), are Cubs fans are particularly devoted, obsessive and vengeful (see: Bartman, Steve).

Almost as if he had given up trying to be a good guy after being run out of Texas, and perhaps because this was the worst fit in the history of personnel moves, Bradley made sparks fly throughout his tenure in Chicago. Finally, after a number of flare-ups with manager Lou Pinella, who had sent him home during a game and benched him numerous times, Bradley was suspended for the season (again, late in the season, during a pennant race). This time he had spoken out at a post-game interview at Wrigley field about how the Cubs organization was run poorly, that it was no surprise they hadn't won a World Series in 100+ years, and that the Cubs fans were garbage.

Apparently the Cubs and their fans didn't like this tirade, so they dumped him off on the Mariners last winter and here we are again. The Mariners must have thought that they had the right balance of team leadership and management structure to keep him in line. They don't. In his fifth game in Seattle, he either flipped off heckling Rangers fans or was just showing them how many hits he had on the season at that point.

Then yesterday, 17 games later, mired in a season-long slump, Bradley struck out looking and was screaming at the umpire from the bench. Manager Don Wakamatsu told him to be quiet and made the decision to sit him down for the rest of the night. It was reported that Bradley then told Wakamatsu, "I'm outta here" and left, through Bradley denies this. Another story says that he stormed down the tunnel to the clubhouse and Wakamatsu followed him (during the game...familiar?) and told him not to quit on his teammates.

So Bradley returned to the bench to see that he had been replaced in left field so he again stormed out. Apparently he thought they were going to play with no left fielder until he got back. This morning he told management that the emotional stress was too much for him and asked out of the line-up.

I commend him for asking for help, but seriously dude. You are getting paid $30 million to play a game that you don't even have to play well; they have to pay you even if they don't play you. Which they are now doing.

Will he return to the M's? I hope not. Seattle fans deserve better after the 5 years they've had. Will he wind up somewhere else? Probably. Doesn't everyone need an emotionally fragile, light-hitting power hitter with anger issues? He's only 31 or I'd say Omar Minaya would be all over that trade. Give him 5 more years, and then he's Mets material.

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