A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
Bradley Sings the Blues
NEW YORK — Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Milton Bradley went public yesterday with his views that his teammate, second baaseman Jeff Kent, doesn’t know how to deal with the black players he shares dugouts with.
And though too many are ready to string up only Bradley, because of his rep as a troublemaker, I think Bradley probably has the better point in this exchange.
The clubhouse rhubarb started when Kent hit a double versus the Marlins on Saturday in Miami — and Kent expected Bradley to score from first on the hit. Once both returned to the dugout, and the Dodgers had take the lead for the win, Kent confronted Bradley about the perceived lack of hustle.
The two exchanged words, with Kent repeatedly calling Bradley an “idiot.” Though their dispute didn’t come to blows the way Kent’s tussle with Barry Bonds in 2002 in the Giants dugout when the two were teammates, the confrontation left Bradley sufficiently shaken that he took it up with Dodgers manager Jim Tracy in a closed-door meeting after the game.
The basic disagreement now seems to be this: While Bradley sees his encounter with Kent as evidence of the second baseman’s usual hostility and presumption toward black players, Kent sees his stand as one of leadership.
Which was it?
First, Jeff Kent is no leader, and never has been. He’s belonged to six teams in his 13 seasons in the Bigs, and has a rep for being prickly. Kent was kicked off his high school team for confronting his coach, and ended up butting heads with the coaching staff at Cal, too.
He’s made it his habit to get to games on the late side, then hide in a corner locker with his headphones on, reading a magazine, without interacting with his teammates. When he finally sees fit to “lead” a teammate, probably the most persuasive thing to do wouldn’t be to call him an idiot.
Also, it’s important to point out that Milton Bradley is the only black player for the Dodgers, which he says he feels acutely. (Tracy recalled RHP Edwin Jackson, who is also black, back to the big leagues on Aug. 23, making Jackson the second African-American on the field for L.A. — well, at least every six days or so.)
Bradley mentioned the racially tinged locker room jokes that he usually doesn’t take too seriously, but clearly such banter has been bothering him. He told the press that some of the things Kent has said “may be funny to him (Kent) and maybe Jeff Foxworthy,” but Bradley wasn’t so amused.
Who would be, as the only African-American playing on a primarily white and Latino club and with Jeff Kent, who allegedly indulges more than is prudent in such joshing? (Alert Dodger fan Rob at 6-4-2 points out that Kent has a reputation for this sort of thing.) Third, though Kent defends himself from charges of racial insensitivity by pulling out his Berkeley creds, the fact is that Kent has always portrayed himself as something of a redneck ball player from the old school.
This pose, his on-field accomplishments, and his willingness to talk to the media have put him in good with sportswriters — which means he has never felt the heat of their displeasure the way those players have who’ve butted heads with him. Salon.com’s Joan Walsh eloquently said as much and more in a 2002 column entitled “If Jeff Kent were Black.”.
Although Kent has been known as an insensitive jerk and a major-league butt head, he still gets the kid-glove treatment from the sporting press. Even now, media types are suggesting Bradley has “played the race card,” and that race is likely not a factor in his and Kent’s feud.
Though Bradley hasn’t detailed specific incidents of Kent or anyone else engaging in off-color locker room jabber, and prob’ly won’t, we all know it goes on. I recall working in the newsroom at ESPN, a fairly integrated workplace, and hearing some of the white guys greet a black colleague by saying, “Hey, Bro!” or “What up, homey?”
Such talk does not meet the benchmark for overtly racist speech, but it often does highlight the differences among the people present. And even if this and other joshing aren’t meant to cause discomfort — indeed, are frequently intended as gestures of acceptance — such clowning usually serves only to make those in its sights feel even more anomalous than they already feel.
Further, if you think the pressure’s not on Milton Bradley this season, you’ve got another think coming. The center fielder returned to L.A. for his second season in Dodger Blue, the first having been marred by on-field temper tantrums for which he was required to attend anger management therapy.
Though Bradley has been a model citizen in 2005, one gets the feeling the press would pounce the first chance they got to remind him and us of his past indiscretions. To make things worse, Bradley spent all of June and most of July on the DL with a ligament tear in his right ring finger, and lately has been bothered by an irritated patellar tendon. All this, plus the Dodgers are on the verge of setting a futility mark for the worst record after a 12-2 start.
No doubt the pressure of losing has gotten to Kent as well, though ESPN.com’s Ray Ratto calls him not much more than a “gifted clock puncher”.
Nonetheless, one gets the feeling a showdown between Bradley and Kent had been brewing for quite a while, and clearly Bradley’s been giving it more thought than Kent: Bradley seems to understand the underpinings of all that’s happened, while Kent has just been defensive.
Maybe Bradley’s been a little more thoughtful about the scene with Kent and what led up to it than anyone’s giving him credit for.
NBC Sports.com writer Michael Ventre expresses the usual easy criticism in chastising Bradley for taking his complaints outside the clubhouse. In some cases, I’ll grant that publicizing one’s beefs with teammates, management or whoever is not the most prudent course of action.
One name speak volumes on the negative outcomes of such a decision: Terrell Owens. But what if by going public, Bradley accomplishes something that could not have been achieved in going through the proper channels?
Remember, the first thing Bradley did following his spat with Kent was meet with his manager, Jim Tracy. We don’t know what words were spoken in that meeting, whether Tracy said he’d talk to Kent or if he just provided an outlet for Bradley’s vent.
But we did get some idea in Tracy’s response to the media today about how he views his players’ dust-up — he thinks both are “vicious competitors,” and that Kent’s flare-ups aren’t discriminating.. Tracy further indicated he would sit down with the two at some point and hash things out.
But would this detente put an end to the “Jeff Foxworthy” locker room banter that so amuses Kent and possibly other players, but only alienates Bradley?
Clearly, Jim Tracy doesn’t think Kent has the problem dealing with black players that Bradley sees. And if Tracy doesn’t see this, then would he address it? Probab’ly not. And when the problem is not attended to, will it continue? More than likely.
Essentially, what Bradley did in going public was face the problem head-on, to make everyone, particularly Kent, think about what sorts of things get said in the clubhouse in the name of camaraderie and playful ribbing. Things that aren’t so funny once you see them in a different light.
And guess what? Bradley may have pulled this off without having to confront Kent or anyone else mano-a-mano. Sounds like successful anger management to me.
So what ends up happening? Bradley and Kent meet with Tracy, and make nice. The questionable locker-room repartee gets a second thought, and then it’s swallowed instead of shared. And Milton Bradley never loses his cool.
Isn’t that what real leadership looks like?