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Thursday, August 27, 2009
Day in Wrigley bleachers yields minor incident

Milton Bradley looked as if he'd rather be anywhere other than standing in right field Thursday afternoon.

Bradley and fans
Milton Bradley with his back to the fans, as usual.
He sprinted out of the dugout a couple of moments after the rest of his teammates, unsure of what to expect when he reached his usual post in the outfield. He had tunnel vision. Always confident, he did not lift his head at all to acknowledge the Wrigley Field crowd. In his mind, it seemed, it was as if the fans did not exist.

As he got closer, I wondered whether people would boo him. Less than 24 hours before, he had told the assembled media that he felt "hatred" from a portion of the Cubs fan base and hinted at possible racism in the stands. I wanted to find out what the reaction would be, so I bought a bleacher ticket for $20 before the game and planted myself on one of the green planks in right field. Plenty of people figured that the big, bad bleacher bums would heckle Bradley all day because of his recent commentary. Some others assumed that all the frustration and resentment geared toward Bradley would spill over. As he crept closer and began his warm-up tosses with Cubs center fielder Kosuke Fukudome, I heard plenty of messages being spewed from people in the half-empty section, but they were all ones of encouragement. "Bradley," a man in his mid-30s yelled. "I love you, man."

"Come on, Bradley, do something today," another man shouted.

The outfielder's head did not go up.

"We love you, Milton," one more fan shouted.

The big, bad bleachers, these were not, although several security guards stood ready to kick out anyone who said anything derogatory. Bradley still didn't attempt to make eye contact with the fans, but it certainly didn't seem as if anyone was going out of his or her way to incite him. In fact, it seemed as though most fans, as is usually the case in the bleachers, were just at the game to soak up the atmosphere. To my left, a group of about 45 people from a wedding party seemed far more interested in drinking beer and taking pictures than in having anything to do with Bradley.

A group of middle-aged women sat to my right and discussed Bradley's situation briefly at the beginning of the game. "It has nothing to do with us being racist," one woman proclaimed to her friend. "It's the fact that he doesn't play well."

That was basically the last mention I heard about Bradley from them all day. They were far more concerned about whether the ball would stay in the pitcher's mound circle between innings.

The general mood in the bleachers was apathy, but that doesn't mean Bradley didn't face some criticism. When he failed to drop a bunt down in the first, a fan in the first row stood up and sarcastically shouted, "Good job, Milton, good job."

When Derrek Lee caught a pop-up in the third, another fan sarcastically shouted, "Way to hustle, Bradley," despite the fact that the outfielder was at least 50 feet from the play.

Fans were obviously frustrated with Milton and his teammates, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The Cubs were losing, the drinks were flowing and people were enjoying another day at the old park. The only thing that was truly strange was the fact that Bradley refused to look up into the seats. So often, you see outfielders play along with the crowd, throw up a ball or two into the stands, and, at times, have an ongoing discussion with the fans.

Bradley did none of this.

Bradley security guards
A member of Wrigley Field security poised to remove any troublemakers.
Obviously, that's not a prerequisite for any player, but Bradley wears the same number and plays the same position that Sammy Sosa used to, and Sosa made a living on involving the fans in the game, smiling and waving to the crowd and giving people the sense that he was one of them. Bradley doesn't seem to care how he's perceived.

"I'm always the story, whether I hit .500 or hit .100," he said after the game. "Somehow, some way, everything revolves back to me. I guess I'm kind of a big deal or something. People like talking about Milton Bradley. Never to my face, only behind my back."

In some ways, that statement seemed prophetic. As the day carried on, Bradley continued to struggle. He was 0-for-4 and looked lost at the plate. Between Bradley's lack of production and his lack of acknowledgment toward the bleacher bums, one fan finally had enough. "Milton," he bellowed while staring at Bradley's back. "You suck."

The plump security guard who had been waiting all day to pounce finally did. He motioned for the fan to come over to the steps so they could talk. The fan looked confused and hesitantly went over to the other side of the section. He walked up the ramp with the security guard while his friends followed behind. Two more security patrolmen arrived, and an awkward discussion unfolded. The security guard told the fan who made the comment to leave.

"Once they grabbed him and escorted him out, I got up and said, 'Milton Bradley sucks,' all the way up to the [top row]," Cubs fan Zack Stewart said. "[They kicked us all out] for saying Milton Bradley sucks."

According to the fans, when the security guards kicked them out, they said, "You can all leave because you don't support the Cubs."

The whole scene was bizarre. When I caught up with the fans on their way out, I asked them point-blank whether any racial slurs were involved.

"Absolutely not," Stewart said. "Race is not an issue. He sucks. Whether you're white, green, purple, it doesn't matter. I would go after people if they were using racial slurs. It's not about that. He sucks."

The men pointed out that Fukudome was jeered in the latter part of last season and managed to turn things around after getting heckled continually. Cubs fans only want production, and many feel as if Bradley and his teammates simply haven't lived up to the hype.

"Yes, he gets a hard time," conceded Stewart's friend Mike, who didn't want to give his last name. "But for a guy who hasn't produced in Chicago, it's expected to have that happen."

To that point, it should be noted that Bradley wasn't the only one who faced criticism on this day. Alfonso Soriano and his .238 batting average did, as well. After the $136 million outfielder grounded out in the eighth, a fan simply looked around and matter-of-factly said: "0-for-4. That's what $17 million a year will get you."

In talking to some fans, it wasn't even Bradley's 0-for-5 performance that bothered them most. It was the fact that he viewed them as nonentities.

"I've been to 26 games in the bleachers, and I have not seen him turn around and say hi once. Not once to right field," Mike said. "Soriano, Fukudome, all those guys turn around and say hi to center field, they say hi to left field. They'll throw the ball up there; they're nice to those [fans]. Maybe he should look at himself and actually throw the ball out to us. Turn around and be nice to us. We might be nice to him."

The anger and frustration were palpable. Bradley hasn't lived up to his $30 million contract, and everybody is starting to get upset. Each day, it sounds as if the schism between the outfielder and the fans is getting wider, but when you listen to both parties, it sounds as if Bradley and the die-hard fans actually have a lot in common.

"For the most, I just think it's the hunger to win. They got that same hunger [I do]," Bradley said after the game. "There's nothing that [anybody] can say to me or do to me that [would put more pressure on me]. I'm gonna be my own worst critic. I'm going to be hard on myself with anything. This season has been terribly disappointing. What can you do? You just keep fighting. … I just got a bat in my hand and a will and determination to win. I take that out there every day. Hopefully, it shows. Hopefully, somebody can recognize that."

In the bottom of the ninth, Bradley came up to the plate with two outs and a chance to win the game for his team. All the negativity of the day could have been washed away with one swing of the bat. Alas, almost fittingly, Bradley grounded out to second to end the game. A fan on my left stood up, booed loudly and then walked away. But that was all he did. There were no other negative remarks or slurs.

No matter what Bradley heard or didn't hear on this day, it became clear that his perspective on the "hatred" issue wasn't going to change any time soon.

"Stand out in right field one day with me and you'll see," he said. "Put on my Jordans one day and walk around and see right through my eyes. You can never do that, so when it comes to issues like this, there's no way you can give a fair opinion because you just don't know, because that's the honest-to-God truth."

Bradley's point is valid, and probably one that no one can truly understand, but from my perspective right behind him in the bleachers, I didn't see anything out of the ordinary in terms of the way he was treated on this day. All I saw was an emotional outfielder who wasn't enjoying the situation he found himself in.