"There are always problem players," an American League general manager once said, "and there is always someone who feels he can handle them."
He could have been speaking about Milton Bradley(notes), but he wasn't. This was 1971, the GM was Dick Walsh of the Angels, and he was talking about Alex Johnson, a troubled outfielder who holds the distinction of being the only player in the 20th century to play 10 or more years in the big leagues but never for more than two seasons with any one team.
Johnson, an AL batting champion for the Angels in 1970, played for eight teams in the course of a 13-year career.
Milton Bradley, in 10 seasons in the big leagues, already has played for seven teams – the Expos, Indians, Dodgers, Athletics, Padres, Rangers and Chicago Cubs. That number is expected to grow to eight this winter, with the Cubs looking to trade him after suspending him last weekend for the balance of the 2009 season.
Unless you count the 10 games Bradley played for the Indians after his trade from the Expos in 2001, he already has become the 21st-century version of Johnson, playing no more than two seasons wherever he has gone.
There are differences. As a free agent, Bradley elected to leave both the Padres and Rangers after one season. But there are striking parallels in the career arcs of two gifted hitters who confounded management, teammates and fans with behavior that often seemed self-destructive, rooted in reasons clear only to themselves.
Marvin Miller, the legendary union boss, defended Johnson in a grievance hearing after he was suspended by the Angels in 1971 for "failure to hustle and improper mental attitude." Miller was convinced Johnson had profound emotional issues that required professional help.
Johnson angrily rejected the notion, but Dr. Lawrence Jackson, Johnson's psychiatrist, testified that Johnson was suffering from severe reactive depression, and symptoms included excessive anxiety, anger and irritability. Jackson said that Johnson – like Bradley an African-American – had encountered racial injustice as a youth growing up in Detroit, and as a ballplayer, Johnson believed he had been treated unfairly.
While many of his teammates despised Johnson for his indifferent play, one, the late Tony Conigliaro, befriended him and expressed empathy.
"He's got a problem deep inside him that he won't talk about," Conigliaro told Ron Fimrite of Sports Illustrated. "He's so hurt inside, it's terrifying. He's a great guy off the field. On the field, there's something eating away at him."
Miller, who was openly contemptuous of Walsh's handling of Johnson during the hearing, won the grievance, and Johnson was reinstated. But Johnson's problems didn't end, even after he was traded by the Angels to the Indians.
"He tried the first half of the year, but it seemed halfway through the year he just quit," teammate Graig Nettles said. "Toward the end of the year, he bunted about eight times in a row, no matter what the situation. It looked like he didn't have any pride in himself. … Everyone was just kind of disgusted at the whole thing."
What does this all mean for Bradley, who underwent anger management therapy when he was with the Dodgers, had four relatively tranquil seasons with the Athletics, Padres and Rangers, but came unraveled in Chicago, clashing with manager Lou Piniella, hitting coach Von Joshua, the media and the fans, then saying the Cubs can't win in an environment of such "negativity"?
It took Bradley just nine months to exhaust the Cubs, who last weekend suspended him for "conduct detrimental to the organization" and probably will have to eat a good portion of the remaining $21 million on his contract to move him. His teammates expressed no support.
Like Johnson, Bradley will find another team willing to take a chance on a switch-hitter with a history of producing just enough to perpetuate the tease. Ron Washington, who managed him in Texas, said he would be willing to take him back. So did Padres GM Kevin Towers.
But like Johnson, it also seems clear that Bradley needs to address deeper issues, or the cycle never will be broken.
Finishing kick: As if Joe Mauer(notes) needed further support for his MVP candidacy, there is this: Since Aug. 1, the Minnesota Twins' catcher is batting .390, the highest average in the majors since that date. Only a handful of players have hit for a higher average in the season's last two months since 1990. Manny Ramirez(notes) batted .396 in his celebrated L.A. baptism last season, Magglio Ordonez(notes) hit .393 en route to winning the AL batting title with a .363 average in 2007, Ichiro Suzuki(notes) hit a stunning .419 in 2004 and .399 in 2001, and Barry Bonds(notes) hit .407 down the stretch in 2002. The surprising owner of the highest average for the best last two months of the '90s: Luis Polonia, who hit .386 for the Angels over that span in 1990. Thanks to David Pinto's Baseballmusings.com for providing the research tools.
Beware the Mexecutioner: It's something only a diehard Kansas City Royals fan or fantasy leaguer is likely to know, but Joakim Soria's(notes) strikeout ratio of 12.1 per 9 innings is the best among AL closers and trails only the Dodgers' Jonathan Broxton(notes) (13.5) in the majors. In Soria's last 11 appearances, he has 19 whiffs in 11 1/3 innings, a 15.1 per 9 ratio. And lest anyone believe he was loading up on losers, seven of those appearances came against teams headed to the postseason.
'Tek-nical difficulty: Boston's decision this week to start Victor Martinez(notes) behind the plate with Josh Beckett(notes) on the mound Wednesday was not made lightly. The Red Sox appear to have little choice but to start Martinez at catcher, displacing the captain, Jason Varitek(notes). Varitek is batting .129 with only five extra-base hits since Martinez was acquired at the July 31 trading deadline, the lowest average of any major leaguer with 75 at-bats or more in that span. He has whiffed 29 times, giving him almost three times as many strikeouts as hits. Martinez, meanwhile, has galvanized Boston's offense, batting .332 since his trade from Cleveland, and he will take a 24-game hitting streak into Saturday's game against the Yankees. That's the fourth-longest hitting streak in the majors this season and within six of the 30-game streak Washington's Ryan Zimmerman(notes) had earlier this season. Martinez had caught Beckett just once, against Toronto in August, and it did not go well, Beckett giving up seven runs on nine hits, including three home runs, in 5 1/3 innings. The pairing worked better Wednesday, as Beckett gave up 12 hits but just two runs against the Royals. Unless the Red Sox are persuaded that Beckett cannot thrive without Varitek, Martinez gives the Sox their best lineup in October.
Maggs sags: Detroit outfielder Ordonez is batting .409 this month, his overall average rising to .295, the best it has been since the season's first week. But it is hard to conceive of a softer .400. Ordonez hasn't homered since Aug. 16, when he took Kyle Davies(notes) of the Royals deep. That's a span of 112 plate appearances and 95 at-bats, which is tolerable only in comparison to his 40-game homerless drought earlier this season. In 2007, when Ordonez won the batting title, he hit 12 home runs and knocked in 51 in the season's last two months. This season, he has two home runs and nine RBIs over a similar span, with just two RBIs this month.
Ari Kaplan, our intrepid statistical analyst (ariball.com), has data that supports Ordonez's transformation into an opposite-field singles hitter.
"Draw a circle, roughly 150 feet in diameter, ranging from medium to deep left field," Kaplan said. "So far this season, Ordonez has hit only seven balls there this year (five flyouts and two hits). Look at the same area last year, it was 59 (17 flyouts, 37 hits, five line-drive outs).
"Last year his pop-ups, hits, line drives and fly balls were sprayed nearly evenly to all fields. This year almost none of his fly balls are to left field (only nine of 89). Same for line-drive outs (two of 12). And only one of his 17 pop-ups was to the left side."
Fungo hitting: The Cardinals have scored a run in the first inning 90 times, the most in the majors entering play this weekend. According to STATS, they're 69-21 in those games, a .767 winning percentage. Only one team, the Colorado Rockies, has a higher percentage, .787. The Rockies are 59-16 when scoring in the first inning. Both the Cardinals and Rockies are headed for the playoffs, barring a colossal collapse by Colorado. … Seattle's Felix Hernandez(notes) has credentials that should make him no worse than a co-favorite with Kansas City's Zack Greinke(notes) for the AL Cy Young Award. Hernandez is 6-1 with a 1.94 ERA in his last 11 starts, is second overall in ERA (2.49), tied for second in wins (17) and fourth in strikeouts (207). For an extended portion of the season, Hernandez even put up better numbers than Greinke, who is 7-7 with a 2.74 ERA since May 31, while Hernandez is 13-2 with a 1.93 ERA in 23 starts since May 24. Both pitchers have two starts left, and judgment may be reserved until the end of the season, but here's why Greinke holds the edge: He started the season in otherworldly fashion (8-1 with an 0.84 ERA in his first 10 starts) and is ending it the same way. In his last six starts beginning with a 15-K win over the Indians, Greinke is 4-0 with an 0.63 ERA. No pitcher in the AL can point to two such stretches of dominance. … With 37 strikeouts to just four walks in six appearances for the Cardinals, John Smoltz(notes) is getting close to nailing down a spot in the team's postseason rotation. – And Doug Melvin of the Brewers will make history of sorts this Sunday in Milwaukee, when he becomes the first GM to have his own bobblehead day. That's according to bobblehead expert David Hallstrom, who tracks such things.