- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
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SEATTLE -- Red lights flash through Milton Bradley's rear window, and one of the worst nights of his baseball career is about to take another foul turn. Does the cop know it? That the Seattle Mariners are wrapping up a ballgame downtown, and Bradley, their mercurial slugger, has just fled the scene? Two years have been boiling up inside him, and tonight they bubbled over. An hour ago, he was so worked up his hands were shaking in the dugout. Fifteen thousand people were watching, hoping he would do something. He was batting cleanup. The bases were loaded. Bradley struck out, then checked out.
And now he is stopped on the side of the road, pulled over for speeding, even though he knows the car in the next lane was going just as fast. Just give me the f---ing ticket, Bradley says to himself. He's livid now. The cop lets him go; the slugger drives away. He has no idea where he's going.
He speaks softly
The first thing that surprises people about Milton Bradley is his voice. It is finals-week librarian-shushing-soft, a stark contrast to his enormous, controversial persona. He sits in the corner of the clubhouse, ballplayers bantering around him, pitchers wildly tapping messages on their smart phones, and generally keeps to himself. For two months, he did not tell them what was going on inside his head, mainly because he couldn't even figure it out himself. How could a 32-year-old man with a $30 million contract possibly feel suffocated, hopeless and unhappy?
In his first extensive interview since seeking counseling earlier this month, Bradley told ESPN.com that the intense pressure he put on himself to perform led to thoughts of suicide and that his breaking point came on the night of May 4, when he left Safeco Field before a 5-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays was in the books.
"That night when I kind of left here," Bradley says, "I didn't know where I was going or where I was at. I didn't know what was going to happen. I just wanted to do something right, you know? Just one time. Like when I hit that [game-winning] home run against the A's [in April] and I finally came through. You don't know how long I was searching for that last year. I just want to hold my own.
"A lot of responsibility has been thrust on me, and I just want to come through."
Bradley says he started having unhealthy thoughts in 2008, when he played for the Texas Rangers. After the final batting practice before the season opener in Seattle, he was so frustrated by his performance that he walked from the stadium back to the team hotel, alone, in 35-degree weather.
"I was talking to my wife on the phone," Bradley says. "I was telling her, 'I ain't saying I'm going to do it because I love my kid, but you know, I understand why people commit suicide.' It's just sometimes you feel overwhelmed with responsibility and expectations and you want to please everybody and you know it's impossible."
Detractors would say Bradley has spent most of his career angering people. He has played in eight cities in 11 seasons, building legions of hecklers at each stop. There was the ACL he tore in 2007 while being restrained from going after an umpire, and the suspension he drew in Los Angeles for slamming a water bottle at a taunting fan's feet. His season in a Chicago Cubs uniform in '09 had enough drama for a network series, and it ended with Bradley being suspended, then traded.
But something was changing, and Bradley was the only one who could feel it. The taunts that used to fuel him, make him want to knock those smirks over the right-field wall, were starting to cut through his psyche. They ate at him, and a slow start mushroomed into a season-long funk.
He actually welcomed this most recent change of scenery to Seattle. In spring training, he talked to the media about acceptance and a clean slate. He said he felt safe with his new teammates, and was comfortable in the more low-key altitude of the Pacific Northwest.
Two months later on the morning of May 5, Bradley, whose batting average hovered just over .200, met with Mariners skipper Don Wakamatsu and general manager Jack Zduriencik. He said he was overwhelmed. He needed help.
"If people want to call you crazy, whatever," Bradley says. "I'm crazy enough to know when I need help. It would be crazy for me to be living the way I'd been living thinking I was doing nothing wrong. That would've been crazy."
He acts differently
He was always different. When Bradley opens up, he occasionally will tell the story about how he was jumped by a gang in Long Beach, Calif., at the age of 14, then again at 16. He'll say he grew up in a rough neighborhood and never really fit in. The black kids shunned him because he played baseball with all the white boys, and the white kids kept their distance because Milton couldn't stand listening to their rock and country music.
Bradley was smart, sailed through college-prep courses at Polytechnic High School and carried a 3.7 GPA, but he didn't hesitate on a what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up class assignment at 16. Professional athlete, he said. He knew it was the best way to support his mother, Charlena Rector, a grocery clerk at Vons and Safeway. She'd plop down in a chair at night, still in her smock, and sort through the bills. She made two stacks: one for the bills she could pay now, one for the bills that would have to wait.
"I got it," Rector would say when a bill collector called. It's the same thing Milton said out in left field.
How could he fit in? He thought too much and felt too deeply. His siblings were grown up and out of the house; his father, Milton Sr., was into drugs and out of his life, lingering just long enough to fill out his birth certificate without Charlena's permission.
"When you grow up and your name is Milton Bradley, people are always going to pick on you," he says. "So I just felt like I had to develop a defense mechanism for people to leave me alone.
"Maybe that's why I look like I have a scowl on my face. That's my normal expression. I didn't have anybody there, a big brother who had my back. I always had to defend who I was, I guess."
He could help the Mariners
Jack Zduriencik is a working man's GM who grew up in western Pennsylvania and took the long route to the front office. He held at least a dozen jobs before arriving in Seattle, including one as a high school football coach. He knows people, and so does everyone who surrounds him. In the offseason, when the Mariners needed a middle-of-the-lineup hitter, Zduriencik became the eighth general manager to take a chance on Bradley.
He didn't do it without a good amount of research. Three members of his staff had worked with Bradley at his various stops around the league.
"Everybody said good things," Zduriencik says. "They said, 'Hey, he wants to win, he plays his rear end off, and he's a competitor.'
"I wasn't trying to outthink anybody. It was simple: We think this guy can help us."
The news, of course, surprised the Mariners, a team on the rise in 2009. Pitcher Shawn Kelley found out about Bradley's acquisition on the Internet. His thoughts immediately flashed to Chicago and points elsewhere. He had heard of Bradley's reputation as one of the league's bad boys.
"But automatically," Kelley says, "I thought, 'OK, there's got to be something to him there that most people don't see. He can't be this guy that he's portrayed as all the time, or he wouldn't be in this family we have.'"
The fact that the Mariners had a clubhouse with strong chemistry wasn't lost on Zduriencik or Wakamatsu. Maybe, they thought, Bradley would bond with future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. Or veteran Mike Sweeney. By the first few weeks in Arizona, the Bradley experiment appeared to be working. Sweeney, a deeply religious man, had taken him under his wing.
On the surface, they appear to be polar opposites: Mr. Sweeney and Mr. Controversial. Off the field, Sweeney, 36, looks like a dad in a J.C. Penney ad. But Sweeney says that he has gotten to know Bradley's heart and that he inspires his friend with an occasional Bible passage.
Last month, Bradley was back in Chicago for a road trip, being hassled by the fans, and had the words "Kiss my ass" on the tip of his tongue.
Sweeney handed him a passage -- Philippians 3:13-14, which calls for looking forward, not back -- and Bradley steered his angry ship toward the high road.
A few days later, in Kansas City, a gaggle of fans above the Mariners' dugout was riding Bradley again. Sweeney, a former Royal, looked up in the stands and asked one of them, "Hey, man. Can you give him a chance?" The man explained that he was a Cubs fan and couldn't stomach what Bradley did to his team last year. Sweeney told him, "If you knew him, you'd fall in love with him. He's got a heart of gold. Please give my teammate a shot."
The fan, according to Sweeney, was quiet the rest of the night.
It's clear that the Mariners have quickly bonded with the man who seemed toxic in some other locales. When Bradley returned from the restricted list Wednesday, his teammates looked out for him in the clubhouse. When various media members surrounded him, they approached his locker, trying to distract them.
He doesn't talk much, Kelley says, but Bradley has a very deep mind. They play a game on their cell phones called "Words With Friends," which Kelley says is a modern-day version of Scrabble. They'll use nine-letter words to trash-talk each other.
Sweeney says he prays for Bradley, asking that he will have peace in his heart someday. He believes Bradley is part of the reason he's meant to be here in Seattle.
"I love the guy," Sweeney says. "If the world could open up Milton's chest and look inside his heart, they would embrace him like we have embraced him. A lot of people see a picture of who they think he is. Rather than speak to his mind, I connect to his heart.
"When you open up to someone and they open up to you, you get to see who they truly are. And I see a beautiful person."
He's been welcomed
A cold rain, predictably, is about to fall outside Safeco Field, and Brad Parsons is huddled near the left-field line, eating Thai food out of a foam container. In about an hour, Bradley will patrol this side of the outfield in one of his first games back since getting counseling, and the crowd will give him a decent -- and surprisingly understanding -- reception, considering that the team is mired in a spring slump.
Parsons, a lifelong Mariners fan, doesn't have many theories on Bradley's heart, head or what might happen next. But he understands why the slugger might finally feel welcome.
"That's just the way Seattle fans are," Parsons says. "You've got to be really bad for them to boo you. You go to Qwest Field, and they get more loud when there's a false-start penalty than when there's a huge play.
"I think they like the attention they get for being good fans. It takes a whole lot for them to turn on teams."
Bradley felt some of that understanding May 5 when he appeared at Lakeridge Elementary School in south Seattle with a handful of teammates for a community function. He talked to little boys and girls about motivation, about growing up wanting to be special so he could provide for his mom. He talked to them about dreams, then welled up with tears. The visit was just hours after he had asked the Mariners for help.
And Seattle responded, with cards and letters of support. In a brief statement last week, Bradley thanked the city. After years of being the outsider, he finally felt at home.
He's working on himself
Bradley -- whose counselor has a background as an athlete and has dealt with anger himself -- says he's dealing with issues involving anger and pressure and is trying not to measure his self-worth solely by his batting average. He has only 2½ weeks of counseling under his belt, but people close to him say he's different. He sprints to left field in warm-ups, drops an occasional smile. He's so much more focused. The night he returned to the lineup, Bradley finished up batting practice, then retreated to a room outside the dugout to hit balls off a tee. His face was intense; his mind was clear.
Above him was a sign. It said, "WHATEVER IT TAKES."
Bradley knows he can't solve everything in a couple of weeks, but he appears to be saying the right things; he no longer looks like the moody guy who gives reporters a sound bite they can run with. He says he has spent most of his career blaming others instead of looking at himself. He mentioned a comment from Cubs general manager Jim Hendry from a couple of months ago.
Hendry, responding to some media reports about Bradley ripping Chicago, said Milton needed to "look in the mirror." This past Friday afternoon, in a near-empty clubhouse, Bradley reflected on that quote.
"When Jim Hendry told me to look in the mirror, I did," Bradley says. "That was a guy who gave me a big contract and instilled a lot of trust and belief in me. I never disrespected Jim, and things didn't work out. I know he had insurmountable pressure on him, as well. He had to do what he had to do. When he said it, I just didn't blow it off. I took it to heart, and it weighed on me. And I'm doing what I've got to do."
When Bradley looks in the mirror, he says, he sees a flawed man whose passion was often his biggest downfall. He sees a .222 hitter waiting to break out, hands steady; fingers -- for now at least -- pointing at no one but himself.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.