Pirates' Milledge: 'I think I can do better'

Controversial recent acquisition making strong first impression



BRADENTON, Fla. -- "Strike one!"

Lastings Milledge made the call himself from the batter's box at Pirate City, his smile as sunny as the sky, his sweat-stained face appearing to steam from 90-plus heat. He was deeply engaged in a simulated at-bat with rehabilitating pitcher Phil Dumatrait and, because only a coach and trainer were watching, Milledge had to be the umpire, too, on the honor system.

Another offering.

"Oooooh, nice pitch!" Milledge shouted. "All right, 0-2."

He stepped out, dug into the dirt and stared back out to the mound.

The third offering.

Crack!

"Come on! Get there!"

It did, for a simulated double, one might say, to right-center. It came off a dynamic swing to connect with a low fastball and was followed by a playful celebratory twist out of the box.

If only Milledge could so smoothly avoid his third strike with Major League Baseball employers, if only he could translate that five-tool talent rather than finding trouble, it is easily apparent that the Pirates might have something special in this 24-year-old, power-hitting, fleet-footed outfielder.

He certainly seems to think so.

"I know I can play at the big-league level. I know I can be on the big stage," Milledge said. "At the same time, I have to put together a great season. Last year was solid, but I think I can do better, and I think this organization knows that."

In 2008, his first full season as Washington's center fielder, he batted .268 with 14 home runs.

"The Pirates know I have a really high ceiling," Milledge continued. "But all of that is really irrelevant unless you put the work in."

Which brings us back to that 0-2 count...

Strike one: While with New York, he was ranked the Mets' top prospect by Baseball America when promoted in 2006 at age 21, but he quickly ran himself out of town by, among other things, high-fiving fans after his first career home run, performing on a profanity-filled rap album and, in a general sense, infuriating some teammates by behaving nothing like a rookie.

Billy Wagner, New York's veteran closer, once hung a sign above Milledge's stall that read, "Know your place, rook!"

The Mets gave up on Milledge after 2007, trading him to Washington.

Strike two: Milledge opened this season as the Nationals' leadoff man, but it took only seven games -- as well as a 4-for-24 slump and two missed team meetings -- to get a one-way trip to Class AAA Syracuse.

And now, since the Pirates made Milledge the focal point of a four-player trade June 30 with Washington that sent Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett to the Nationals, he has been assigned here to the team's spring complex, competing with the rookie-level affiliate in the Gulf Coast League and, on days like yesterday, getting specialized workouts.

It could be that Neal Huntington, the Pirates' general manager, sent a subtle message by keeping Milledge in rookie ball an extra week, even though Washington was set to return him to Class AAA at the time of the trade. Or maybe the Pirates genuinely wanted, as Huntington explained, more healing time for the right ring finger Milledge broke on a bunt attempt May 11.

Huntington might also be pushing Milledge further by sending him to Class AAA Indianapolis later this week rather than directly to Pittsburgh, saying of Milledge's timeline, "He'll show us."

Yesterday, Milledge took the latest step in that demonstration with indoor batting practice, outfield work, the one-on-one session with Dumatrait, 50-meter sprints, and he then chased down conditioning man Bill Burgos to say, "Hey, still gotta do the core!" They went back inside for 20 minutes on the exercise ball.

The sweat that had been confined to Milledge's face now engulfed him.

"I'm going to put forth the effort," he said. "Down here, getting my work in, playing everyday, doing extra little things I can do not only to prove to people that I have the desire to play in the big leagues but also to prove to me and my family that I can be that person everybody expected me to be. It starts here. I'm just in rehab, but I'm taking everything seriously."

That much was confirmed by Bradenton manager Tom Prince, once a catcher with the Pirates.

"I don't worry about things in the past," Prince said. "He's been outstanding for me. He's showed up on time, he's getting his work, and he's right out there running along with us. Everything he's got going on is good right now. I don't try to read that other stuff."

The most difficult read with Milledge, perhaps, is determining his level of regret -- if any -- for all that went awry in New York and Washington.

Asked, for example, if he felt the Pirates' opportunity was one he needed to seize, given his past, he replied, "I felt like I took advantage of every opportunity I had. Sometimes, it isn't fair to kind of get labeled, but you take it with a grain of salt, you move on. I have pretty thick skin. All I want to do now is get the job done."

One aspect is easy to read: Milledge is plenty outgoing, as evident from his friendly interaction with the teenage prospects yesterday, as well as the child-like joy he showed on the field.

The catch, as he readily conceded, is that he hardly has been one to subscribe to standard baseball culture, a la Doug Mientkiewicz last summer correcting one of the Pirates' youngsters on how to set down his batting helmet.

"Maybe I get too comfortable sometimes around veterans, and I think that maybe might rub some people the wrong way," Milledge said. "I'm just not the typical rookie guy who comes in the clubhouse and sits there quietly. I joke around. If you've been in the game 15 years or one year, I'll mess around and joke with you. That's just the kind of person I am. I like to communicate with everybody, Latins or whites or blacks, whatever."

That was a sore spot with the Mets, particularly, as per his recollection.

"I think that rubbed people in New York the wrong way. I know I rubbed Billy Wagner the wrong way. But that's who I am."

Milledge also conceded that he did not focus enough on baseball's nuances.

"I have to push myself a little bit more. It's not enough to thrive on talent alone. I think I worry about the bigger things of the game rather than the smallest, like hitting the cutoff man, keeping the double play in order... a lot of little things I overlook that keep me from being the best player I can be."

He was emphatic, though, in rejecting a long list of accusations in New York and Washington that he was a poor teammate, especially as it related to his regular hot-dogging.

"I am a good teammate. I play the game hard. You see me play, and, if I hit a home run that's long, yeah, you know I'm going to stand there and watch it maybe a little bit."

He laughed.

"But that's expected, and it's nothing that anybody else doesn't do. I think people might come down on me a little harder because I wear my hair like this and stuff like that."

His hair is in puffy dreadlocks, similar to those being sported by Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen.

"But all that stuff is really irrelevant. All that should matter is that I play the game hard between the lines, that I play hard for my teammates, for the fans. I'm going to try to put my team in the best position to win. I would never put my team in a bad situation."

Milledge rejected the notion, too, that he is undisciplined.

"Are you kidding me? With my dad being a policeman?"

Tony Milledge is a retired Florida Highway Patrol trooper, now living across the river in Palmetto.

"Let me tell you a story: My dad was my football coach when I was 11, and I was pretty big for my age, so he put me on the offensive line. Do you believe that? The line! I wanted to be a running back, but he told me I wasn't good enough. I wasn't good enough! I listened to the man and got better. Believe me, there was discipline."

Milledge openly welcomed the trade, partly because he was born and raised in Bradenton.

"For me, it's like coming home. We used to go to McKechnie Field on school field trips. This is like finding out you just got a job right down the street."

"For all of us, it's a dream come true," Tony Milledge said. "A lot's happened to Lastings, but we really think this is going to be for the best."

Lastings Milledge added that the Pirates' young roster might best fit his personality.

"You're not going to have guys looking down on you because of how many years you have. Everybody's pretty much at that same level, on the same page, and I'm looking forward to it."

Looking forward to a fresh start, too, perhaps?

"Anytime you change a team, it's a fresh start. As far as my image and stuff like that, I don't really get caught up in it. You can't make everybody happy."


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1459. Catch more on the Pirates at the PG's PBC Blog . First Published July 7, 2009 4:00 AM


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