Seattle Mariners

Reputation dwarfs Bradley's reality

It was a spring full of the usual drills and meaningless exhibition games, injuries and health updates, clubhouse pranks and on-field conditioning.

And then there was Milton Bradley, who figured into several categories, including injuries.

“On the first day of camp, Chicago writers were here trying to make him a story,” Ken Griffey Jr. said. “I’ve been there, and that’s a tough situation to deal with. They weren’t asking whether he was happy or not – they wanted to talk to him about the past.”

Unlike most Seattle Mariners, who seem to come to the organization sanitized and smiling, Bradley has a past, a history that is often overstated. Entering his 11th major league season, the Mariners will be Bradley’s eighth team.

That’s a history.

While Seattle hopes to keep him fresh by limiting him to five games a week, he is penciled in for the opener tonight two days after he came up with a tight right quadriceps in Albuquerque, N.M.

When the past is brought up, it’s rarely about Bradley being one of only three players ever to hit a home run from both sides of the plate in the same postseason game. His contributions to help The Moyer Fund and other charities don’t usually work their way into the headlines.

“I’ve gotten to know him a little this spring. He’s shy, a tender-hearted guy who didn’t have a ‘Happy Days’ childhood,” Mike Sweeney said. “He wasn’t Richie Cunningham. Once you gain his trust, he lets you into that heart.

“Trevor Hoffman called me this spring and said, ‘You’re going to love this guy.’ ”

A man who has had his share of run-ins with umpires, Bradley was thrown out of back-to-back games this spring – by minor league umpires. And each time he went quietly to the dugout.

“There was no reason for him to get ejected either time,” manager Don Wakamatsu said. “I think just seeing that had an impact on his teammates.”

And then, there was the spring game against Cleveland. Bradley was headed for home and the throw beat him by plenty. Bradley tried to score, bowling catcher Lou Marson over in a hard, clean play Seattle hadn’t seen from one of its own in a decade or two.

Mariners fans, meet Mr. Bradley. He’s not your usual Seattle left fielder.

AN UNLIKELY TRADE

Jack Zduriencik has had tougher decisions.

The week before Christmas, he was looking for someone to inject life into an offense that scored the fewest runs in the American League in 2009. And he had little more to deal than a pitcher no one wanted who was due $25 million over the next two years.

The pitcher was Carlos Silva, and the Chicago Cubs said they’d take him in exchange for some cash and outfielder Bradley – who they had signed to a three-year, $30 million deal just a year earlier.

“What did I know about Milton? I knew he was a good hitter and we were looking for a bat, so the move made a lot of sense,” Zduriencik said. “(Performance coach) Steve Hecht and (bench coach) Ty Van Burkleo each knew him, and they said ‘Let him play.’ ”

And that reputation – that baggage, as the media called it?

“I don’t care about his reputation in the media. Does he bring the skill set we need? Yes,” Zduriencik said. “Given the environment we’ve created in this clubhouse, every player who has come in has liked it and become part of it. Milton will, too. He’s a very bright, competitive guy.

“What I’ve liked most about what I’ve seen this spring is the way Milton gets after it between the lines.”

Bradley is one of those players whom stories seem to follow around, waiting to be written. He has been suspended for arguing with umpires. Last year, he lost track of how many outs there were and flipped a ball into the stands – letting a couple of baserunners move up two bases.

When asked about Cubs fans who were booing him for the least thing last season, Bradley spoke his mind. Given its culture of negativity, he said, he could understand why the team hadn’t won a World Series in 100 years.

General manager Jim Hendry suspended Bradley for the final weeks of the season.

The Bradley stories aren’t always remembered in full, or written in context. In September 2007, for instance, Bradley was so angry with first base umpire Mike Winters that, following his ejection, when Padres manager Bud Black tried to push him away from Winters, Bradley wound up with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

The aspect of that story that is often forgotten? Bradley wasn’t suspended for what happened that day – umpire Winters was, for cursing Bradley.

NEVER MORE IMPORTANT

The Mariners’ plan for Bradley is to have him bat cleanup most games behind Ichiro Suzuki, Chone Figgins and Casey Kotchman – and while that lineup may score more runs than in ’09, it’s hardly conventional.

Bradley has never had a 100 RBI season. He usually doesn’t bat cleanup, and never had more than 77 RBI in a season.

Nor has he ever played for a team quite like the one he’s on now, and he likely has never been more important anywhere he has played.

“We don’t want him to change his game or try to carry the team,” Wakamatsu said. “Milton is a patient hitter, a high on-base-percentage guy. With Ichiro and Figgy, we’re going to have guys in scoring position – what we need are guys who know how to get them in.”

A switch-hitter, Bradley understands the game, knows the value of trading an out for a run or continuing an inning with a walk.

“When he’s going good, he’s one of the best in the game,” Griffey said.

Two years ago in Texas, Bradley batted .321 with a .436 on-base percentage that led the league.

“He could beat you a lot of ways, with his bat – from either side of the plate – his speed, his aggression,” coach Lee Tinsley said. “You did not want to see him with a game on the line.”

“He wants to win,” Wakamatsu said. “Fans don’t hear that about Milton, but he has a passion to win.”

In the only championship series Bradley has played, with Oakland in 2006, he hit .500 – 9-for-18 – with two doubles, two home runs and five RBI in four games.

‘TIME TO WORK’

Throughout his six weeks in camp, Bradley was approached for interviews daily. He did ESPN and talked to The New York Times, chatted with beat writers and columnists – and for whatever reason, declined to talk to others.

Early on, he talked about his problems in Chicago last year, his reputation as a “bad guy” in baseball, his two sons.

And then, about 10 days ago, he stopped.

“I’ve said enough,” he said. “It’s time to work.”

Bradley said it without animosity – although when four, yes four, Chicago writers approached him last week he said two words: “Beat it.” As he walked away, however, he flashed them the peace sign.

“Milton cares – about everything,” Griffey said. “He’s misunderstood, and I’ve been there. The thing with Milton is, you have to make your own opinion of him, not take it from what you read.

“I’ve talked to him. I’ve told him to relax, have fun. I think he’s starting to believe. This is a fresh start. Milton doesn’t really have an attitude. There’s no jealousy, no envy. I’m in Milton’s corner. I’ve got his back, and so do all his teammates here.

“The thing about this clubhouse? We treat people the way we want to be treated, and we don’t base our support on something in the newspaper.”

larry.larue@thenewstribune.com

blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners

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