Milton Bradley's past skulks alongside him; his reputation enshrouds him. His is a well-worn archetype: hotheaded, temperamental, sullen, with a history of misbehavior. Sometimes withdrawn, sometimes effusive, Bradley is a complicated mix, difficult to decipher.
And the Dodgers are delighted to have him. "He's a 26-year-old switch-hitting centerfielder with high on-base, high slugging, accomplished enough to hit in the middle of our order right now, and that's a rare player," says first-year Los Angeles G.M. Paul DePodesta, who points out that Bradley won't become a free agent until after the '07 season. "He has a chance to be our cornerstone offensive player over that time."
Bradley, raised in Long Beach, has been rejuvenated by his trade from the Indians to his hometown team on the eve of Opening Day. Starting in centerfield and batting third, he's at the heart of LA's upgraded offense, which is averaging 4.6 runs, up from a major-league-worst 3.5 last season. With a .351 on-base percentage, .515 slugging percentage, four home runs and a team-leading 18 RBIs through Sunday, he had helped boost the Dodgers (12-6) to a 2�-game lead in the NL West.
But even as Bradley insists that he is moving forward, he can't resist parting shots at his former team and manager Eric Wedge. "It was like a sinking ship," says Bradley of Cleveland, "and I was glad to get my life raft and get my second chance over here. The right people aren't in charge there, and I'm not the only person on that team who feels this way. There are a lot of unhappy people over there, just working for a paycheck."
Bradley reserves his harshest words for Wedge. "My experience playing for the fans in Cleveland was awesome, and I took pride in and enjoyed being an Indian," he says. "It was strictly a problem with Eric Wedge. Some people want to be bigger than they are. You have no credentials, you have no history of anything, how are you going to tell someone else what he needs to be doing? I can't respect somebody that has nothing to go on."
The final straw in Bradley's turbulent 2�-year stint in Cleveland—which included several spats with Wedge—came on March 31 during spring training, when Wedge thought that Bradley did not run out a second-inning pop-up quickly enough. When Bradley returned to the dugout, he told Wedge he had felt a twinge in his groin and didn't want to exert himself in a meaningless game. After an angry exchange, Wedge pulled him. "Milton crossed the line that day for the final time," says Wedge. Bradley immediately left the stadium, and four days later the Dodgers outbid a half dozen other clubs by offering outfield prospect Franklin Gutierrez and a player to be named.
Wedge maintains it was not an isolated incident: "I think it's safe to say that what was out publicly, versus what also happened behind the scenes, paled in comparison."
Bradley was a second-round draft choice of the Expos in '96, but he quickly found trouble. In 1998 he poked an umpire in the mask during a fall league game, and he spit on another in Double A the following season. In 2000 he sparred with manager Jeff Cox at Triple A Ottawa and Jeff Torborg with the Expos in '01. "What happened five years ago isn't relevant to today," Bradley says. "Let the past be the past."
Yet contradiction bubbles inside him. Last week he said, "An umpire calls bad pitches on you, so what? Hit the good ones." But in the first inning of Saturday's 5-3 loss to San Francisco, Bradley was tossed for arguing a called third strike.
To the offensively puny Dodgers, Bradley represents not a problem or a puzzle but a bat. DePodesta says Bradley's numbers (a .421 on-base percentage, .501 slugging and 10 homers in '03, all career highs) made him worth the risk. After the trade As G.M. Billy Beane joked to DePodesta that when, inevitably, reporters asked whether he was concerned about Bradley's attitude, he ought to respond, "I'm more concerned about our offense."