March 20, 2002 at 11:42 PM EST - Updated July 27 at 5:10 AM
By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (AP) - Milton Bradley came to the Cleveland Indians carrying some extra baggage, and he wasn't just hauling around his gloves, bats and cleats.
Young and talented, Bradley was labeled as a troublemaker. While in the minors, he spit gum at one umpire and served a seven-game suspension for starting a brawl.
However, the 23-year-old outfielder said he's changed.
"The way I was before is not the way I am," Bradley said.
The Indians are counting on it.
On opening day, Bradley likely will be Cleveland's starting centerfielder, a position previously occupied by Kenny Lofton for most of the past decade.
Cleveland acquired Bradley in a trade with Montreal last July, picking him up with the idea of having him replace Lofton, who became a free agent and signed with the Chicago White Sox.
"I take pride in the fact that they thought I could be the man to do that," Bradley said.
Just before last season's trading deadline, the Indians sent promising right-hander Zach Day to the Expos for Bradley, who never seemed to fulfill his potential while in Montreal's organization.
His temper had a lot to do with it.
In 1999, he hit a career-best .329 with 12 homers, 50 RBIs and 14 steals in 87 games for Double-A Harrisburg. He also hit a grand slam in the ninth inning to win the Eastern League title.
But his big year was overshadowed by big problems.
During an April game, Bradley charged the mound after being hit by a pitch and triggered a benches-clearing brawl. He was ejected and then spit his gum at the ump, earning him the seven-game suspension.
He was called up the next season, and played in 67 games for the Expos last year, batting just .223. He didn't cause any problems, but Bradley said he was never able to change people's minds about what had happened two years earlier.
"I had a lot of personality clashes," he said. "Montreal seemed to be on my back about every little thing. I was 20. That was three years ago. They said I didn't like umpires. I couldn't take authority. I couldn't get along with my teammates.
"But if you talk to any of my teammates and they'll tell you that I played hard and they loved to have me on their team."
So far, he has been a model citizen with the Indians.
"All I ask my players to do is play hard and to be on time," Cleveland manager Charlie Manuel said. "He's done that."
And after a slow start this spring, Bradley is finally playing better, too.
After going 3-for-3 -- one single a perfectly placed bunt -- in Cleveland's 10-9 win over Kansas City on Tuesday, he was batting .350 (11-for-40).
Bradley has shown some good range going into the gaps to race down balls, but he has also lost a few in the sun that dropped in and he hasn't taken charge in the outfield the way the Indians would like.
"He has been better," Manuel said. "He's hitting better and he's running the bases better. We knew Milton could run the ball down."
Bradley's next goal is to put some distance between himself and his past.
"It's time to let all that go," he said. "I can relax now and just be me."
Notes: OF Jolbert Cabrera, recovering from a gunshot wound in his buttocks, played for the first time this spring on Wednesday. Cabrera was used as the designated hitter in a minor league game. He was shot on Dec. 21 in Colombia during an attempted carjacking. He is likely to be sidelined for another month. ... The Indians hired Jeff Datz as their new bench coach. Datz, previously the team's field coordinator, replaces Grady Little, who left the club to manage the Boston Red Sox.
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)