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Milton Bradley is a bottle-throwing, invective-spewing, tantrum-tossing player with enough pent-up anger to fuel an army of anti-government protesters. He needs to see a whole team of anger management specialists if he ever wants to step onto a baseball diamond again, and Los Angeles owner Frank McCourt would be wrong if he allows Bradley to don Dodger Blue after this season. Trade him to Arizona for the Diamondbacks' batting order -- or a couple rattlesnakes, which might be more valuable.
There it is, America's prevailing opinion of the Dodgers outfielder. Bradley's decision to fire a plastic beer bottle into the crowd on Tuesday night at Chavez Ravine was the latest episode in a meltdown-filled career that threatens to land him in the same ring of sporting hell with Frank Francisco, Charles Barkley, Terry O'Reilly and the other short fuses who allowed the fans' abuse to turn them into patron-chargers. It's one thing to throw equipment onto the field or fail to run out a popup. It's another to attack the general public. This was a sad response by an obviously troubled player with an ugly history of misconduct.
O.K., so Bradley deserves to suffer for his outburst. But lost in this latest episode of Players Behaving Badly is the level of blame which must be assigned to the fans. Read enough about Bradley's bottle return policy or Francisco's Bob Knight imitation, and you'll no doubt encounter the phrase, "The fans pay for the right to act like idiots." Since when? At what point do we admit that there is a growing percentage of people who go to games hoping to bait a player into some form of retaliation, or at least a negative response that throws him off his game? Or, if they don't set out to do that, become so inclined after 10 beers? Paying $40 (or more) for a field box seat does not give you the right to curse, berate and abuse players. Period. Boo them. Razz them when they mess up. But don't cross the line. In each instance of player misbehavior, the fans went too far. How come nobody is decrying the very notion that someone can throw a beer bottle onto the field? Suppose it hit a player in the head? Suppose it hit another fan in the head? Everybody wants the miscreant who launched the suds prosecuted, but nobody is willing to speak up for the players and say that if they feel they are at risk, they are going to fight back, and -- this might shock you -- rightfully so.
It's hard to imagine that the fan who antagonized Bradley would have enough guts to criticize Bradley to his face, much less fire something at him were they to meet on the street. But once he bought his ticket, he entered some sheltered world where any breach of decorum goes. We're told all the time that the players have to be professional. That they have to ignore the fans. For the most part, that's right. If a player gets upset because someone shouts "YOU SUCK!" from the stands, then he's not going to be very successful. But asking athletes to tune out hurtful, profane comments and laugh it off when someone fires a battery, coin or bottle at them is unreasonable. It may be too much to assume that the hypervolatile Bradley and Francisco were stepping up on behalf of their sporting brothers, but there is no doubt some athletes applauded him -- quietly, anonymously -- for taking one for the team.
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Milton Bradley was wrong. At the same time, we have to examine the culture which makes throwing a bottle at a man who drops a line drive even a remote possibility. We have to analyze the conditions that allow fans to feel justified launching profane insults at another human being, just because they have purchased a ticket to an event. If we continue to permit such bad behavior to permeate the sporting experience, we're headed for real trouble.
Little schools that could
While USC, Oklahoma and sundry SEC teams jockey for position atop the weekly college football popularity contests, fans and media types continue to buzz over the continued good fortunes of the likes of Boise State, Louisville, Fresno State and Utah. These "non-BCS" schools have infiltrated the top 25 and are threatening to win enough games to squeeze into one of the exclusive, big-money BCS bowls, much like some city kid from the publinks trying to gain entry to Augusta National.
But before we start dreaming up recipes for potato foie gras and raisin bouillabaisse, let's take a moment to discuss the chances that any of this could actually happen.
First, schools from one of the six BCS conferences -- and how the depleted Big East can be considered big time is mind-boggling -- are the darlings of the pollsters. They get a big, fat benefit of the doubt each week. Want proof? Michigan lost to Notre Dame on Sept. 11. Looked awful doing it. Almost fell to San Diego State seven days later. Looked crappy doing that. But Michigan remains rated higher than Boise State and Louisville -- both undefeated -- and just a spot behind unblemished Fresno State, which waxed Kansas State in Manhattan. Oh, and 3-1 Michigan is ranked above the 3-1 Irish.
The inconsistencies are troublesome. A two-loss team from the SEC which wins its conference title game will be locked into the Sugar Bowl and its $15 million payday. But let the Potato Farmers stumble once, and it's over. They'll be cast out of paradise and back into post-season hell, with its rinky-dink dot-com sponsors and pre-Christmas game dates. Why? Because the WAC, MWC and C-USA lack BCS cachet, so their teams must stink. Look at TCU last year. The previously-undefeated Horny Toads dropped a late-season decision to Southern Mississippi, a well-established giant killer and a bowl team itself, and they were consigned to the Fort Worth Bowl. Before that game, TCU was a BCS darkhorse. After the loss, the Frogs were lepers.
So, Utah and Louisville, keep on winning. Win big. Stomp everybody in sight. Every week. Then root against every BCS school. And then maybe -- just maybe -- you'll get a chance at the big time. If you do, bring a thick skin to the BCS bowl site. Because if you get there, you'll face another problem. You won't be welcome.
Michael Bradley's column appears Thursdays on SI.com.