What if Milton Bradley is right?
Isn't that the only question that matters? What if Bradley has been subjected to racial abuse at his workplace -- in this case, Wrigley Field? What if the Friendly Confines aren't so friendly? What if a handful of closet racists, fueled by hatred and too many cold beers, empowered by their anonymity and ticket purchases, are flicking racial epithets at Bradley like so many cigarette butts?
Just because Bradley is the centerpiece of this controversy doesn't make it any less true. If anything, it makes it more plausible.
Bradley rubs people the wrong way -- no surprise there. He's sandpaper, they're balsa wood. His career has featured a series of mushroom clouds, and six different teams in the past seven years. He is the radioactive ballplayer.
He arrived in Chicago with enough baggage to fill the belly of a tanker ship. And his first (and possibly last?) season as a Cub has been a disaster. Bradley got hurt. He forgot how many outs there were. Most of all, he forgot how to hit.
But nobody deserves to stand in right field and hear hatred. It doesn't matter that Bradley has hit only seven more home runs than starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano, or that part-timer Jake Fox has just one fewer RBI than Bradley in less than half the at-bats. The back of a player's baseball card isn't an excuse for racism.
Maybe Bradley is a nut job. Maybe he needs an entire line of Black and Decker equipment to tighten the loose screws. In the few times I've spoken with him he was helpful and agreeable enough. To some fans, though, he seems as embraceable as a cactus.
But none of that changes the essential truth he spoke Wednesday, when reporters asked him to provide specific examples of racial taunts. His sarcastic reply: "America doesn't believe in racism."
Dusty Baker, when he was manager of the Cubs, received hate mail. So did former Cubs reliever LaTroy Hawkins. Former Cubs right fielder Jacque Jones said he was the victim of racial abuse from Cubs fans. Now Bradley is suggesting he's the target of racial remarks. At some point, this quits being a coincidence and becomes a reality.
If racism exists outside the ballpark, then it can exist within it too. Just because Wrigley Field security says it is unaware of any reported racial taunts directed toward Bradley doesn't mean they haven't happened. It only means nobody has complained about them. It doesn't take a leap of faith to envision a scenario where some overserved Bleacher Bums go racial on Bradley.
Bradley hasn't done himself any favors when it comes to his nonrelationship with Cubs fans. But manager Lou Piniella, without even realizing what he's done, has indirectly enabled the fringe meathead fans to single out Bradley. That's because on more than one occasion, Piniella has done the same.
Piniella sent Bradley home during a June game because of a dugout tantrum. (Other Cubs players have had similar outbursts this season, but stayed.) And more than once, Piniella has been overheard ripping Bradley. You don't think the meatheads see this and think they can do the same to Bradley -- and worse?
Don't misunderstand: This isn't Piniella's doing. But perception has become reality. Bradley's troubled history made some fans predisposed to dislike him or, at the very least, be suspicious of him. So when he struggled on the field and the Cubs struggled with him, Bradley morphed into the official fall guy.
Bradley isn't the reason the Cubs are all but eliminated from playoff consideration. He's one of the reasons -- but so is the shoulder injury that sidelined Aramis Ramirez, the seven-win record of supposed ace Zambrano, the blowups by the back end of the bullpen, the clunker seasons of Geovany Soto and Alfonso Soriano, and an overall lineup that has exactly one player with at least 20 home runs.
But Bradley is the most convenient target. He has that three-year, $30 million deal. He has attitude. He says he's counting the innings until he can get the hell out of Wrigley.
Bradley chooses not to do what management and some of his teammates suggest he do: Ignore the taunts. But there is a difference between heckling and hating, a difference between booing and bigotry. Until you've stood in right field, in Bradley's cleats, and listened to the taunts he's been subjected to, how can you simply write it off as being thin-skinned?
Skin is the issue here, but it has nothing to do with the thickness of it. You might not like Bradley, or his big-money contract, or his disappointing offensive numbers. But just because you buy a ticket doesn't mean you can reduce someone to subhuman status. Or to put it another way: How would the meatheads like it if Bradley stopped by their offices and started ragging on them?
If this were Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee, not Bradley, playing the race card, I guarantee you the credibility factor would increase tenfold. Lee is respected, Bradley isn't. Lee produces, Bradley hasn't.
But I don't doubt Bradley heard what he heard. Just as I don't doubt what Baker, Hawkins and Jones heard. Just as I don't doubt what other African-American big leaguers hear in stadiums around the country.
They check your bags, not your prejudice when you walk into Wrigley. Racism has at least one seat in the bleachers or the right-field stands. Sometimes that's all it takes.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.