Milledge Trying To Develop Amid Controversy

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Give Lastings Milledge this much: With the Mets playing .600 ball despite a massive slump from Carlos Delgado, a black hole at second base, chaos in the back of the rotation, and a six week long stretch of winless starts from Pedro Martinez, the 21-year-old has been the biggest story on the club since being called up last week. On a team hardly lacking in enthusiasm or charisma, he stands out in both areas. He looks like a player.

I’ve spent more than a few column inches pointing out that the hype surrounding Milledge was out of proportion to his minor league performance, but his success in Queens doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Milledge’s talent has never been in question; the issue has always been his overall potential. He’s a pretty sure bet to be a major league regular. Some people think that as he fills out physically and refines his approach at the plate he’ll become a threat in the heart of the lineup, whereas I haven’t thought so. One week’s worth of at-bats isn’t much to go on, but it looks to me as if the holes in his game are quite correctable and that there’s a good chance they won’t actually be corrected.

To begin with, Milledge’s strengths and weaknesses at the plate are fairly intertwined. What he has going for him is an unusually mature approach, combined with complete impetuousness. His stance at the plate – seemingly off-balance,in a low, almost Rickey Henderson-type crouch – is completely out of fashion, and it’s good to see him using it, as it not only shrinks his strike zone and shortens his swing, but presents a novel problem for pitchers used to seeing hitters standing upright and coming at them with an uppercut.

The problems are these: First, his stance is out of fashion because by keeping the swing fairly level it lessens power, and today’s game is all about power. Second, Milledge is completely out of control at the plate. He corkscrews into the ground, sometimes releases his top hand and sometimes doesn’t, and lunges at inside pitches. His incredibly quick bat and refined approach – there aren’t many 21-year-olds who could demonstrate such awareness of game situations and ball-strike counts as he already has – have kept him in every at-bat, but he’s very raw.

This is an odd set of contradictions, which is what has made Milledge so fascinating to watch, and such a big story. How many players this young have a sophisticated awareness of what they need to do with the bat combined with a slashing, level swing, and whose weakness is an inability to control that swing?

Add in all the other shenanigans that have already surrounded Milledge and this tension between self-control and utter indiscipline, maturity and clueless self-absorption, transcends batting mechanics and makes him as unpredictable, lively, and interesting a player as we’ve seen in New York in a long time. The question of whether he’ll learn to master himself will be with us for years, and the controversies he’s already inspired are likely going to look mild in comparison to the ones he’ll inspire down the road.

As to those controversies, in their own right they’re the dumbest New York sports story in recent memory, including the one about Billy Wagner, Mariano Rivera, and Metallica. A 21-year-old ballplayer running around with a cross hanging out of his jersey, giving high fives to fans before a game had ended, and walking around like the cock of the walk is a dog-bites-man story. The ink would be better spent on Gang of Four’s second record, “Solid Gold,” which is really quite a lot better than their more popular first record, “Entertainment!”

It’s a mistake, though, to take all these fake controversies as stories in their own right. There are two real issues being raised. The first is the general question of Milledge’s self-discipline and how it will affect his development on the field – a genuine issue. The second is that the Mets, no matter how good a team Omar Minaya has put together, are still ultimately being run by the same hamhanded morons who brought you the last act of Mo Vaughn’s career and various other Knicks-style fiascos. (Is there still anyone who thinks picking Steve Phillips over Bobby Valentine was a good idea?)

Witness, for instance, last week’s revelation that a Mets official had threatened a Daily News reporter with a libel suit after he’d had the temerity to write that Milledge was unpopular in the minor leagues for thoughtless, hot-dog behavior. I can’t think of anything more petulant, clueless, or embarrassing for the Mets, but it perfectly illustrates their usual method of dealing with controversy dating back to the late 1980s: turn beet-red, impotently menace reporters, and whine childishly.

If Milledge is singled out for seemingly unfair scrutiny, it’s partly a result of his own behavior and partly a result of Mets commissars fulfilling their traditional function of making asses of themselves in an attempt to have their player look as good as possible in the press. It’s the same thing that happened with Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Bret Saberhagen, and various other Mets over the years under several different regimes, and it never, ever works. The less Mets officials go around trying to bully good reporters, the more the attention will be on Milledge’s corkscrew swing rather than dark intimations and scandalous whispers.

The truth will come out, whether it be about Milledge’s ultimate potential, his personal behavior, or anything else. In the meantime, the Mets might spend a bit more time promoting an exciting ballclub and less time making bad press for themselves and their young players.

The New York Sun

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