- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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Walking into the visitors' clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Friday night, the memories could not have been good.
The last time Milton Bradley was here, Lou Piniella was calling him something not fit even for the Internet.
On Friday night, Bradley was, not coincidentally, in a different uniform, beginning yet another chapter in his long and often tumultuous major-league career. If you are a Cubs fan, you had to think it all sounded painfully familiar as Bradley joined the Seattle Mariners and before the home opener this season, had already been talked to and benched after flipping off heckling fans of his former team in Texas.
By then, Bradley had already shattered his bat into pieces after pounding it in frustration following a strikeout during the Mariners' season opener in Oakland, where fans of another of his former teams had booed him all night. As a capper, he later blew kisses to A's fans after chasing a fly ball in foul territory.
We're told that he's happy now, despite an injured calf that kept him out of Friday night's game against the White Sox, and despite the fact that he began the year 1-for-22 (.045) at the plate and is currently 7-of-22 (.167).
Bradley, in that special way he has, said "I really don't care" when asked about the reception he expected in his first appearance in Chicago since being suspended by the Cubs following an altercation with the hitting coach last fall, and ultimately being all but driven to the airport and shoved on board, leaving only his $30 million contract behind.
Surrounding him Friday, there was only mirth and laughter coming from his teammates' stalls and originating with future Hall of Famer and former White Sox outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., who only minutes earlier had Ichiro Suzuki in a wrestling choke-hold.
"It's tough," Griffey said of the circumstances in which Bradley had previously found himself. "We told him when he got here to just go out and have some fun. That whatever happened years ago, last year, doesn't matter. 'You have a clean slate here with the guys and just be you,' and that's what he's done."
Of course, "just be you" is not necessarily good advice when you're Milton Bradley but apparently it is working.
"He's fine," Griffey said as initial word came that Bradley would not speak to Chicago reporters about Chicago. "He and I talk a whole lot. He's been fun, he laughs, jokes. He's been a lot of fun to be around. We tease him. The Lakers took a beating last night and he's a big Lakers fan, so I think that's why he doesn't want to talk to anybody today.
"[But] it's not what you expect from what people said about him. The people in this locker room try to form their own opinion of him and they've been laughing and joking. He said 'My cheeks hurt from laughing so much.' I said, 'You're going to laugh some more.' He gets on me and I give it right back to him. So it's been great."
It has also been three weeks, so give it time. Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu sounded so much like Piniella once did after Bradley came to the Mariners, speaking optimistically about all the positives Bradley could bring to the club, it was a bit eerie. On Friday, Wakamatsu was still hoping for the best.
"Getting to know him is No. 1," Wakamatsu said. "I heard a lot of stuff about Milton but I didn't know him and I've certainly gotten to know him a lot better. You can't make an assessment or have a plan and try to have a productive player unless you get to know him a little bit.
"I think this guy can help us win, No. 1. But No. 2, what I didn't know about him is how compassionate he is about certain things and how much he cares and that's a good thing."
Chances are, those of us who reside in the cities he has pillaged, will never see that side of him. It is still not entirely clear why he hated Chicago so much, but that he does and for now, Seattle is the greatest. Again, give it time.
Asked what made the Emerald City so welcoming Bradley replied, "People and the media, because I never had 10 people in my face and a camera in Seattle. This is about baseball, so that's what we're trying to do. It's not about everything else. Everywhere else is about everything else, the story. In Seattle, they care about winning baseball. . . .
"I don't have to do anything [but] be myself, that's the main thing. Anywhere else, people want you to be somebody else. I'm going to be me. Nothing you ever say or do is going to change what I do. When I make up my mind what I want to do, that's what I do. That's what I've been doing for 32 years and I'll continue to do it for another 32 if I live that long."
One of the few people alive who could actually understand that last paragraph also knows a little something about being scrutinized in Chicago.
"Sometimes in this town you have to be careful what you say and the way you talk and how you display yourself," said Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. "The expectation in this town is very high no matter what sport you're playing. You have to have tough skin here. You have to be tough. . . . They booed Michael Jordan in this town. Yes, they did. That's part of the game. That's what's so great about this town because they're going to be behind you when you're good and when you're not, next."
Would that be considered a backhanded compliment?
The last time Bradley was here, Piniella followed him in from the dugout after Bradley flung his helmet and hurled a water cooler in another of his tantrums, and told him he was a piece of [bleep]. Lou apologized after the scene was leaked to the press, and Bradley told reporters he [Bradley] was "an extremely intelligent individual."
Griffey, who played for Piniella in an earlier incarnation in Seattle, said the relationship just wasn't meant to be.
"You have two guys in Lou and [Bradley] who care and take pride, not knowing each other," Griffey said. "Any other circumstances, knowing Lou and knowing him and knowing both of them, they would have jelled and had fun. Just the first couple meetings from what I heard, I didn't talk to
[Bradley] about it but they just didn't click. But all Lou wants you to do is just go out there and play. That's what everybody wants."
Indeed. Just play. It's just that it's still not clear whether Bradley can pull that off.
Any message to Chicago fans, he was asked?
"I'm just moving on," Bradley said. "And God bless Seattle."
God knows they'll need it.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
As Milton Bradley returns to Chicago as a Mariner, signs of change are few.