Watching the Dodgers' Milton Bradley become, oh, the thousandth person in recent history to make a full-blown spectacle of himself during a pro sporting event, the question arose as to how long a team like L.A. could possibly tolerate the side effects of having such a loose cannon as an integral part of its organization.
And the answer is: How's he hittin'?
Or, to put it another way, Carl Everett. Another: Dennis Rodman. Rasheed Wallace. Albert Belle. Larry Bowa. Ty Cobb (Historic Huge-Load Category). Heck, Lou Piniella, if we're just going on sheer over-the-top theatrical antics.
Produce in sporting America, and just about anything can be forgiven. A volcanic temper can be received as the very epitome of aggressive competitiveness when it's encased in victory. You're only a sourpuss if you lose.
Allen Iverson can mock the very concept of practicing with his teammates because -- well, you heard the man. It's practice. And if Iverson then delivers wins to his franchise during the moments that count, isn't that what he ultimately gets paid to do?
So goes the mindset, anyway, and it is a mindset not so much of sandbox indulgence as of results-oriented benign neglect. Not to compare Milton Bradley and Barry Bonds too closely, but understand the bigger picture: The tolerance of both men can be traced directly to what they get done on the field, and that's actually the most common approach of coaches and managers in high-stakes American sports, where the difference between championship contender and out-of-the-race also-ran can sometimes be as thin as a single, talented, high-strung elite jock.
Few modern athletes have been accorded more individual leeway in a team sport than Bonds, who for years has either stretched or not stretched, taken infield or not taken infield according to his own feelings.
Dusty Baker, a man fairly famous for his ability to establish strong lines of communications and a good chemistry in his clubhouses, was always remarkably pragmatic on the topic of Bonds' special favors. Baker's take: If anyone else produced the way Barry produced over the course of a season, then Dusty would be more than happy to consider exempting them, too, from some of the rules that governed the rank and file.
Bradley has a history of borderline behavior, and by "behavior" we speak mostly of the little-kiddie, can't-control-that-tantrum style, and by "borderline" we mean he makes people decide on a rather ongoing basis just how much they'll be willing to take. He pushed umpire Terry Craft over that line the other night with his constant carping, then took ejection to another level by dumping that bag of baseballs onto the field and firing one toward left field.
But perhaps the most telling moment occurred two days later, when Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta responded to Bradley's four-game suspension (since appealed) by saying, "When we traded for Milton, we knew everything that came along with it ... I would take nine Milton Bradleys if I could get them."
Translated: He's hittin' OK. As of this writing, in fact, Bradley is at .271, with seven home runs and 22 RBI for a Dodgers team trying to take control of the anyone-can-have-it National League West. That may not be world-beating -- Bradley hit .321 for Cleveland last season, after all -- but it is certainly enough to cause DePodesta to have such warm and fuzzy feelings for his 26-year-old trunk-bed of trouble.
The Dennis Rodman comparison may not fit precisely, but work with me here. After his first few amazingly good years in Detroit, Rodman gradually became more and more bizarre a public character. His ejections from games got more frequent, his technical fouls more pronounced, his off-the-court lifestyle further from the mainstream. Yet he worked in the NBA for years more, essentially right up to the point that the Value Calculus broke down. Rodman finally just wasn't good enough as a player for teams to continue looking past the other baggage he hauled around.
It could happen to a guy like Milton Bradley, whom the Indians shipped off on the eve of this season because, despite his generally solid numbers from the 2003 season, he had gotten himself hopelessly on the wrong side of manager Eric Wedge -- and four trips to the disabled list in two seasons didn't help. For Cleveland, the numbers just didn't add up.
The Dodgers have hoped all along that the Indians' loss might prove to be their gain, and well it might. Still, you have to wonder about DePodesta. Nine guys like Milton Bradley? Shoot, most teams go back and forth over the question of whether they can handle even one. But of course they will -- right up to the minute the production wanes.
Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.