By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 17, 2008
VIERA, Fla., March 16 -- On Monday morning, a bus full of New York Mets will ease into the parking lot at Space Coast Stadium and empty into the visiting clubhouse. Across the way, Lastings Milledge will pull on a Washington Nationals jersey and a Washington Nationals cap, preparing to play what, under normal circumstances, would be a mundane Grapefruit League game.
"Let's not kid each other," Milledge said the other day. "It's going to be different."
Rare is the 22-year-old who has developed such a reputation in the majors that he already has generated animosity from old teammates. Rare is the athlete who, five years after high school, spends some of his mornings during the season managing a nascent record label, because even while he was playing outfield at Lakewood Ranch High in Bradenton, Fla., he kept tooting away at the trumpet and trombone in the band.
Rare, in the eyes of Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden, is the kind of talent Milledge has. Bowden saw Milledge in the spring of 2003, back when the former was still running the Cincinnati Reds. "Loved him," Bowden said, and he listed all the qualities scouts and executives list, from bat speed to foot speed to intensity.
"And when I introduced myself to him," Bowden said, "he would look me right in the eye and talk to me."
This quality, this directness, can be seen as Bowden sees it, as one of Milledge's greatest strengths. But Milledge, with all of 350 at-bats in the majors, has learned that people can be put off by it. That does not, however, make him even think of changing. New York, and his time as one of the best prospects in the Mets' system, passed as soon as Milledge was traded, on the last day of November, for catcher Brian Schneider and outfielder Ryan Church. But he has his feelings about it.
"I used New York as a steppingstone in my career, because now I know I can play on the biggest stage," Milledge said. "I know that if there's 60,000 people in the seats and I'm the last out, I don't feel any pressure. I know I can do that."
Start, then, with that setting. On June 4, 2006 -- two months after his 21st birthday -- Milledge played his fifth major league game. With two outs in the bottom of the 10th, he faced San Francisco closer Armando Benitez. He got a fastball he could handle, and tied the game with his first big league homer.
As the Mets took the field for the top of the 11th, Milledge did a victory lap of sorts, high-fiving fans in the outfield.
Milledge's take was simple. "I was excited," he said, "and I felt like I owed the fans something from me."
That, though, differed from the take in a veteran-laden Mets clubhouse, as well as with the old-guard New York baseball media members, who skewered him.
"He did things that rub people the wrong way," said Nationals catcher Paul Lo Duca, a Met in 2006-07. "But I don't think he knew any better."
Nationals Manager Manny Acta was then the third base coach of the Mets, the guy who would call Milledge over in the dugout and talk baseball with him. "People are always asking us to be fan-friendly," Acta said, "and then if you try to be fan-friendly, you get bombarded by it."
Bowden takes it a step further. "Personally, I liked it," he said. "I think the fans are why we play the game. . . . I think if Derek Jeter had been the one to do it, people would've gone on 'SportsCenter' and said, 'Wow, that was really cool.' "
That, too, is how Milledge interprets his music career. Growing up in Bradenton, he and buddy Immanuel Dent agreed that if and when either came up with the money to buy recording and engineering equipment, they would. In August 2003, Milledge signed with the Mets for a $1.9 million bonus. Thus, Soul-Ja Boi Records -- now featuring Dent as rapper "Manny D" -- was formed.
"My whole life has just been music," Milledge said. "Nobody's going to stop that. Nobody can take it away."
Growing up, Milledge liked jazz, but hip-hop, he said, is the music that defines him. Yet when the public discovered Soul-Ja Boi Records, it wasn't the song "Get Cha Hands Up," or "Til I'm Gone" that gained attention. It was a tune called "Bend Ya Knees" that featured what most determined to be misogynist lyrics. Last May, the Mets denounced the song. Milledge took it down from the label's Web site, but he hardly apologizes for it now.
"It's becoming a hip-hop world," he said. "I don't know why people are thinking, 'Oh, my gosh, it's bad lyrics.' Everybody knows. It's surprising for me that people don't know what's going on. If you don't know by now that hip-hop is not the cleanest music, then you've been in a cave."
Milledge said all this in the comfort of the Nationals' clubhouse, sitting at a stool in front of his locker. He sounds not so much defensive as matter-of-fact, as if he gets it and the rest of the world doesn't. That kind of impression rankled some Mets. Closer Billy Wagner once hung a sign in Milledge's locker saying, "Know your place, Rook!"
"You got to look at it this way," Lo Duca said. "You spend more time here than you do with your family. So if you have somebody in your family that doesn't like you, then you take that hard. I think he did. Lastings is a kid that just wants to fit in, and I think he has that here."
That is precisely how the Nationals are pitching it. "He's going to be fine here," Acta said.
Milledge, too, believes that. Though he will face them twice more this spring and 18 times in the regular season, the Mets -- and all peripheral story lines he created when he was there -- are part of his past.
"Everybody respects me as a man here, and that's important," Milledge said. "That's important for a young player, because you come in, you don't really know if people respect you at all. It shouldn't be that way. No matter if you're young or you're a veteran, everyone should respect you for the man you are."