Healthy Bradley Tries To Put Self Doubt From ’06 In Past

By Janie McCauley
Updated: February 17, 2007

PHOENIX — Milton Bradley believes in himself again.

He endured a tough stretch last season in his first year with Oakland when he started to doubt whether he ever would be a consistent performer in the big leagues. He wondered if he could stay healthy long enough to do so, too.

A strong showing in the AL championship series helped change his thoughts. It didn’t hurt that his non-baseball friends noticed and pumped his ego this winter. Bradley was the only steady player for the Athletics in their four-game sweep by the Detroit Tigers, going 9-for-18 with two home runs, two doubles, five RBIs and four runs scored during the series.

“That series showed me that I can be that guy I want to be,” he said. “I think it was just the beginning of good things to come. Being healthy first and foremost, hopefully things will fall in place the way they did in that playoff series.”

Injuries forced the right fielder to spend nearly as much time on the bench as he did on the field for the A’s last year — providing him with ample opportunity to contemplate the idea that he might always be an underachiever.

Such a candid public admission of confidence issues is a rare thing for an athlete, especially for a player such as Bradley, who often prefers to keep to himself and stay behind the scenes.

“At this level, you think everybody has the confidence to say, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ You always kind of wonder, ‘Am I good enough?’” Bradley said. “I’ve averaged .270 and I had a good year one time and I hit like .320. You always kind of wonder, ‘Am I ever going to be the player people think I can be and I want to be?’”

The 28-year-old Bradley has yet to produce a true breakthrough season — and that coupled with his mercurial personality made him expendable for the Los Angeles Dodgers two years ago. A’s general manager Billy Beane took a calculated risk to upgrade his roster before the 2006 season, though he lost nothing to acquire the switch-hitting Bradley.

Bradley has been known nearly as much for his volatile behavior as his baseball skills. He didn’t play again in 2005 after accusing Dodgers teammate Jeff Kent of a lack of leadership and an inability to deal with black players on Aug. 23. The following day, Bradley learned he had a serious left knee injury that required surgery.

“Milton’s got a take-on-the-world mentality,” Beane said. “We’re all curious — I know he is — what he can do with 500-600 at-bats. He had some tough times in some previous places. It was natural for him to be a little withdrawn when he first got here. The fact of the matter is Milton is a high-energy, emotional guy.”

Bradley will arrive at spring training with Oakland’s position players Wednesday determined to show not only himself, but also teammates, more of what he can do as long as his body cooperates.

“It’s kind of like the same thing over and over again,” he said. “People say do you have goals or numbers you want to accomplish? The only thing for me is 162.”

Yes, a full 162-game schedule. Bradley hasn’t experienced that for a while.

“It’s always been inconsistencies, because I’m in there for a month or two months and then I’m out,” he said. “I’ve never had an injury where it only needs a day or two. It’s always something where I’ve got to have DL time. I’m hoping I can avoid that — make sure I slide right and stretch good and do all the things I need to do to stay off the DL.”

He played in 96 games last season and 75 the previous year. He also sat out the final six weeks in 2003 for Cleveland with a bruised lower back. In fact, in parts of seven major league seasons, 141 games for the Dodgers in 2004 was his closest thing to a full campaign.

Last year, Bradley missed 59 games during two stints on the disabled list — first from April 27 to June 5 with a sprained right knee and strained muscle in his right side, then again June 15 to July 13 with a strained left shoulder.

He batted .276 with 14 home runs and 52 RBIs, then came up big in the ALCS after managing only one hit — albeit a homer — in the A’s three-game division series sweep of Minnesota. His success against the Tigers helped him head into the offseason with a better mind set.

“I think when I got home and talked to my friends … your friends always support you even if you’re hitting .220,” Bradley said. “If you have a good series like that, they’re a lot prouder to be your friend and they’re bragging to your friends. You hear ‘I knew you were a pretty good player but I didn’t know you were that good.’ To hear your friends and people you respect and grew up with say those things, it makes you feel good.”

“You feel like, ‘Yeah, I did have some success and the team did some things — like get out of the first round — it hadn’t done in a while.’”

Now, he wants to help the defending AL West champion A’s make another October run, and perhaps avoid one of their signature slow starts in April.

Bradley might move to center field on occasion when Mark Kotsay needs a day off. That’s fine with Kotsay, who expects big things from his fellow outfielder in 2007.

“I think he was the guy we thought he would be, but obviously injuries take a toll on you,” Kotsay said. “If you ask Milton how the last week of the season went, he was struggling. In the postseason, Milton was Milton. If Milton stays on the field, he should be one of the best and most talented players I’ve seen in a while.”