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He's a Player, but Where?

Nationals' Multitalented Sledge May Be Trade Bait

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2005; Page D06

LAKELAND, Fla., March 7 -- His name will come up as much as anybody's in the Washington Nationals' spring training camp, whispered by scouts and media members alike. He will appear in left field, in right, at first base and maybe a bit in center. He has the respect of his manager because of the way he handled himself during a miserable stretch to start his major league career. He draws the praise of his general manager because of the look in his eye every time he steps into the batter's box.

So while there are questions about whether he'll start and where he'll play, the most significant uncertainty about Terrmel Sledge continues to be: On Opening Day, will he be a Washington National?

The Nationals like outfielder Terrmel Sledge but are not sure where to play him. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)

"It'd be real hard for me to trade a guy like him," Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said Monday, "because they don't come often."

Sledge is almost as intriguing as anyone with the Nationals this spring because of what he could bring -- on the field or in a deal. Though Bowden said Monday he has talked to only one team about Sledge, the rumors have been strong enough that Manager Frank Robinson addressed them with his young player.

"I don't want all the negative thoughts getting into his head, and him standing there wondering, 'What?' " Robinson said. "I believe in telling a guy the truth. Most of the time, when a player's name comes up [in] trades and things . . . it's other teams asking about an individual. Very rarely would you go around, with a talent like him, offering him in a trade."

Sledge tries to let all this roll off his shaved head. He has been through enough, he said, that he knows better than to let it bother him. Sledge's father couldn't decide whether to name him Terrence or his own name, Melvin, so he combined the two, with unusual results. He turns 28 later this month, but has spent just one season in the majors. And in 2003, before the current steroid controversy blew up, he was accused.

"I was 170 pounds soaking wet," he said. "You'd know by looking at me I didn't take anything like that."

Yet he admits the issue embarrassed him. It came about in training camp for the U.S. Olympic team following the 2003 season. Sledge maintains he took an over-the-counter medicine that contained a steroid banned by the International Olympic Committee. He was suspended from international competition for two years.

"What I don't understand is why you take something someone gives you," Robinson said. "If someone gives you something, what's the first thing you ask? 'What is it?' "

Monday, Sledge said he was through talking about the incident. "It's about baseball now," he said.

That portion of his big league career didn't start in much better fashion. After five seasons in the minors, he finally made the majors last spring -- and promptly opened the season 1 for 34. That, baseball fans, translates to an .029 average.

"I started the season over," Sledge said. "Right there, I just wiped it clean."

He told Robinson of that approach, and Robinson stuck with him. It would have been easy for Sledge to merely wait to be sent to the minors and rebuild his confidence there. Instead, he handled it, as Robinson said, "like he'd been in the majors 10 years."

The rest of 2004, Sledge hit .291 to finish at .269 with 15 homers and 62 RBI, all while bouncing among four positions. He led the team by hitting .337 with runners in scoring position, and Robinson considers Sledge's season as impressive as any on the team. Though Bowden wasn't the GM then, he clearly believes Sledge's presence is enough to put pressure on first baseman Nick Johnson.

"If Nick Johnson were to go down, I don't think this club would miss a beat with Sledge in there," Bowden said. "I love his intensity. He's a student of the game. He wants it. You can tell he's a winner. You can look him in the eye, and you can see it. He has that eye of the tiger in him. He looks like the kind of guy, to me, with the game on the line that I want at the plate, because I get the feeling he's going to drive the run in."

Saturday against Baltimore, Sledge, a left-handed hitter, not only launched a two-run homer, but kept a ninth-inning rally going by singling the opposite way against Orioles lefty B.J. Ryan. That kind of discipline and maturity, Bowden said, makes it more and more likely Sledge will wear red, white and blue this year.

"Rumors are rumors," Sledge said. "If my name pops up, that's fine. But I'm a Washington National, and that's what I want to be."

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