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Monday, May 23, 2005
Updated: April 15, 11:36 AM ET
Blue Flame

By Tim Keown

How about we start at a birthday party? Let's put Milton Bradley in the middle of a celebration in his hometown of Long Beach a couple of years back, and see what happens. Sounds like a joke, doesn't it? Something from the guy-walks-into-a-bar school of humor. But wait a second. Drop your preconceptions and take a look. Bradley's over there in the corner, talking to an acquaintance from high school, someone he hasn't seen in years.

She has a question: "What are you doing with yourself these days, Milton?"

Most people know what he's doing, especially in Long Beach, but that's okay. So she's not a sports fan, no big deal. Milton can hang with that. As unassumingly as he can, he says, "I play baseball."

She's clearly unimpressed. There is a pause. "But you were so smart," she says. "I figured you'd be a lawyer, or a doctor, or … something."

Something important? Is that what she's saying? This might be a first: a guy making millions playing big league ball having to defend himself and his profession at a birthday party. He knows there were people at Long Beach Poly High who only saw him lugging his books from one honors class to another. He hung out with the sine-and-cosine set, not the jocks. What does this young lady think I play baseball means, that he's bumming around with some independent team? Dabbling in a church league? Playing softball with the guys from the tire shop? He can't pull the don't-you-know-who-I-am? number. After all, she knows him better than all the people who merely know who he is, the ones who memorize his stats or crucify him for his attitude. "Well, I am in the major leagues," he says. "They actually pay me pretty well."

It's not enough. There is sadness in her eyes. What a waste. "All I remember is, you were really smart," she says.

Bradley is telling this story, and countless others, long past midnight in a friend's downtown LA hotel suite. He recalls not only conversations, but expressions and clothing and cloud formations. His wife, Monique, says he's like this about everything, from cars to pitch sequences.

A replay of a Braves-Mets game is on TV. There's just enough volume to hear Rick Sutcliffe mention Milton Bradley. The room quiets. Sutcliffe says Bradley is off to a remarkable start, hitting over .350 with run production and leadership, demonstrating the kind of talent that can carry the NL West-leading Dodgers.

Sutcliffe's words hang in the air for a few beats. Outside the wall of glass, nine stories below, Los Angeles goes about its 3 a.m. business. Bradley, sitting back on a couch with one Air Jordan resting on a glass coffee table, doesn't change expression. He's waiting. One count, two … then the silence is filled when Sutcliffe's partner, Dave O'Brien, says, "Bradley's quite a talent, if he can keep his temper under control."

Bradley looks around the room. His face registers no emotion. The Air Jordan stays in place. He knew this was coming. He knows plenty of people are out there waiting, like a line of commuters standing at a train station. They're checking their watches. Tick, tick, tick. That Milton Bradley's a time bomb.

"How long does this go on?" he asks. "What's the over/under on my temper? When do we get to the point where you don't talk about my temper, when you talk about my play?"

It's difficult to reconcile the 27-year-old man in this room with his out-of-control image. The quality of his play is unquestioned. He's at the center of the Dodgers' eccentric, fresh-off-the-rack lineup. He's a rarity: a power-hitting switch-hitter with speed, the kind of player who makes Dodgers manager Jim Tracy say, "Ask yourself this: What can't he do?"

Until now, the obvious answer would be control his Vesuvian temper. It has contributed to Bradley's long, varied and very public list of transgressions. He spit gum at a Double-A umpire; argued with Indians manager Eric Wedge until he was run out of Cleveland; spiked a plastic bottle onto a Dodger Stadium walkway during a confrontation with fans; called an African-American reporter an "Uncle Tom" during a clubhouse disagreement; and, one night last November, demanded that Cleveland's Finest handcuff him after they had pulled over a friend in a separate car and declined to explain their reasoning to him. A month after that, he spent three days in the Cuyahoga Falls jail for charges stemming from his refusal to accept a speeding ticket during a 2003 traffic stop.

With all of his run-ins with cops, umps and managers, even the untrained mind might detect a problem with authority. Bradley created this persona, even cultivated it, but then the persona turned on him. All of a sudden, it defined him. As he puts it, Angry Black Man became his trademark, and he found he didn't like it.

If you expect him to repent, you'll be disappointed. He comes closest to an apology when he says, "There's nothing more I can mess up, as far as baseball goes. I've been traded twice for not being

the player or the person I was supposed to be. I've had incident after incident after incident from the time I was in the minor leagues. At one time, I relished having that bad-boy image. It was kind of my baseball persona, but it wasn't me.

"I can't mess up anymore. I can't get kicked out of a game. I can't react to a strikeout. I can't be disgusted if I pop up. If I do, they'll say, Well, there's that anger again. There's the Angry Black Man.' "

He says the label is not reality, but it's hard to argue with the evidence.

IN THE eighth inning of the sixth-to-last game of the 2004 season, with the Dodgers fighting for the division title, a fan tossed a half-filled plastic beer bottle at Bradley while he was playing rightfield at Dodger Stadium. He walked toward the corner, dumping beer along the way. When he reached the stands, he demanded to know who threw the bottle. Nobody spoke. He yelled, "That's what I thought!" and spiked the empty bottle onto the concrete.

After ripping off his Dodgers jersey on his long walk to the third base dugout, he went straight to the clubhouse, changed clothes and drove home. His anger built on itself. He was angry that someone threw the bottle, angry that nobody confessed, angry that he lost control of himself, angrier still that he defiled the uniform worn by his hero, Jackie Robinson. He called Monique in Clevelandthis was before their off-season marriage-and told her he needed help. "I can't keep doing this," he said. "I think I need anger management."

So on his own, but with the Dodgers' encouragement, he enrolled in intense, one-on-one therapy sessions. After the playoffs, Bradley feared the Dodgers would hand him his release, but Tracy and GM Paul DePodesta have stood by him. In hindsight, Bradley believes the bottle-throwing furor was overblown because of his history-an opinion solidified when Gary Sheffield was exonerated, even praised, for his involvement in an altercation with fans at Fenway Park earlier this season. "Gary Sheffield tried to hit a fan. I got a bottle thrown at me, then threw the bottle on the ground and told them to keep the bottles in the stands. I know I shouldn't have done it, but throwing an empty bottle on the ground doesn't make me a bad person."

One of Bradley's gifts is an ability to explain the irrational with disarming rationality. But it's remarkable how many lessons you can learn when you open your mind to accept them. The one-on-one therapy let him tell his life story to an unbiased person, someone to help instead of judge. He also told the story of his father, Milton Sr., whose temper made it hard for him to hold a job. "Anger basically ruined my father's life," Milton says. Last September, Milton Sr. refused to attend his own father's funeral, despite his son's insistence that he go. Imagine those conversations. Milton looked at his father and said, "This is where I get it from." He hasn't been in contact with Milton Sr. since. "Some things are genetic," he says. "But you reach a point where you have to control your own life."

All these messages--were they there before, and he just missed them? During those three December days in Ohio lockup, Bradley sat in his cell, reading The Purpose-Driven Life and realizing he'd never thought about his life having a greater meaning. He tried to sleep but found himself constantly interrupted by flushing toilets, loud faucets and sloppy drunks. His first question-What am I doing here?-evaporated in the rank air. "I belonged there," he says. "It's punishment. If it helps you, it has done what it's supposed to do."

The lessons didn't stop there. Last month, during a meet-and-greet with some kids at Dodger Stadium, he noticed a little boy wouldn't look at him. "What's the matter, little guy?" Bradley asked. Still, the boy averted his eyes. "Are you afraid of me?" Bradley asked. The little boy nodded, face down. Afterward, Milton told his mother, "Nothing ever hurt me like that."

What do you see when you look at him? A manipulator who's smart enough to talk his way into yet another second chance? A prodigal son who has finally seen the error of his ways? Bradley says he'd like to know.

The girl from the birthday party sees him as the kid who graduated from Poly High with a 3.7 GPA. She sees the guy whose mother wouldn't allow him to attend parties in the gang-infested neighborhoods of Long Beach. One time he pleaded to attend a party at a friend's cousin's house. His mother, Charlena Rector, stood firm. Milton stayed home, and later that night a young man was shot in a drive-by outside the party. Was he a nerd? "Still am," he says.

His Dodger teammates see him as a quiet guy who makes judicious use of his leadership skills. He called a meeting at the start of spring training to reintroduce himself to his teammates. When free agent J.D. Drew arrived and expressed a desire to play centerfield, Bradley met with Drew and let him know what he thought: the team would be better off with Bradley in center. Then he went out in spring training and proved it.

"I don't want to be a caricature," he says. "I want to be seen as a real person. I get upset. I make mistakes, but I want people to see that I can overcome them. I wouldn't change a thing."

Wouldn't change anything?

He shakes his head.

"Nothing."

AS A child, Milton knew the surest way to get his mother's attention was to walk in front of the TV while the Dodgers were on. Charlena raised five kids—Milton is the youngest—while working fulltime as a supermarket checker. Her after-work routine started when Milton brought her the mail. She'd put up her feet and sort the bills into two groups: pay now, pay later.

When Milton was 5, he told Charlena he wanted to be a professional athlete so he could buy her a house and her dream car, a Jaguar. He bought her the house two years ago, and last year she got a gold Jag with her initials etched onto the driver'sside door. Charlena suffers from anxiety attacks that keep her from driving that Jag on the LA freeways. Milton took care of that, too. Before every home game, a Lincoln Town Car pulls up in front of Charlena's Long Beach home. The driver takes her to Dodger Stadium, waits in the parking lot, then takes Charlena home.

Does this cloud the view or clear it? Understand, Bradley's not begging for forgiveness or trolling for sympathy. He just thinks it's time people understand the three-dimensional person living behind the one-dimensional image. He quotes his favorite artist, Tupac, saying, "Don't take one piece of my life and tell me that's who I am."

You can see pieces everywhere. There's one on display every day after BP, when Bradley sits in front of his locker with his back to the world, reading a devotional called Upper Room. You can see another piece before his first at-bat each game, when he walks up to the home plate umpire and greets him with eye contact and a few words. And remember the jokes about the combustible mixture of Bradley and the self-styled Texas cowboy, Jeff Kent? How it was going to make Kent-Bonds look like the cast of Friends? Well, Bradley and Kent talk hitting at the cage nearly every day, and once in the clubhouse, Kent put down his dirt-bike magazine and approached Bradley as Milton was choosing some pregame music.

"Milt, take me to the Candy Shop," Kent said.

Bradley laughed. "You want to hear some 50?" Kent gave his best gangster nod and said, "Yeah."

On April 15, the Dodgers honored Bradley by inviting him to escort Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, to the mound on Jackie Robinson Day. (His synopsis of the Indians' feelings toward him? They had Josh Bard Bobblehead Day, but his mother couldn't find a Bradley jersey in the gift shop.) Last winter, despite everything, DePodesta told him, "You can make this your team." Bradley says, "They looked past my problems and into my soul."

It seems good now, but he makes no promises. He's human. He's day-to-day. There are no guarantees. He still has a temper, and there are times when he senses persecution lurking around every corner. But the car-service Lincoln will arrive in front of Charlena's house before every home game. He'll continue to greet the home plate ump, try to ignore bad calls, count to 10, sit at his locker and absorb the contents of his daily devotional.

Come to think of it, maybe the part about promises isn't quite true. He has left room for one: he promises to keep trying. Third, fourth, fifth chances? He'll take 'em if you got 'em, but he doesn't expect to need 'em.

He prefers the quiet business of doing something important.

Finally.