By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 16, 2009
VIERA, Fla., March 15 -- When everybody paired up Sunday morning for some easy warmups in the outfield, Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes formed Washington's most natural, naturally gifted tandem. They were also the loudest. For minutes, you heard only a few sounds: dozens of balls smacking leather, Milledge's laugh, and Dukes's laugh. Milledge, at one point, experimented with a submarine pitching windup. Both laughed again.
Coach Marquis Grissom stood in foul territory, watching the ready-made partners and said: "I want to see them get it. Not get it for a week. Not get it for a month. They've got to show it for a year, for five years, for a career. That's something that has got to come from within."
Since the Washington Nationals acquired the two outfielders within days of each other in 2007, Milledge, 23, and Dukes, 24, have formed the core of the team's risk-reward rebuilding gamble. They've also formed a friendship. Both were among the few bright spots from 2008. Both are cited as much for their abilities as their liabilities. Both merit watching at every moment -- even when they're just goofing around -- because their development in 2009 will help the Nationals stop talking about what they can be, and start learning about what they will be.
"I know what those guys are capable of doing," teammate Willie Harris said. "Especially Dukes. I think Dukes, his upside is a lot higher, his ceiling is a lot higher than Milledge's. But for the most part, man, Dukes and Milledge -- those boys are gonna be all-stars."
After the 2007 season, the Nationals wanted to get younger. Then-general manager Jim Bowden, always willing to bet on potential, traded on a Friday for Milledge. On the following Monday, he traded for Dukes. Milledge had played 58 games (184 at-bats) with the Mets. Dukes had played 52 games (184 at-bats) with Tampa Bay. The duo Washington obtained -- the total transaction cost the Nationals outfielder Ryan Church, catcher Brian Schneider and pitcher Glenn Gibson -- might well endure as the best part of Bowden's legacy.
At the time of the trades, the baseball world knew as much about the pair's potential as its problems -- though, indeed, Dukes's issues were of greater substance. Dukes had a history of arrests and suspensions. Milledge's expressive attitude sometimes angered veteran New York teammates, and even now his disdain for veteran-honored clubhouse rituals is apparent. ("You know, there's always a thing where, Oh, rookies have to be here 2 1/2 or three hours before stretch," Milledge said. "No! I'm not gonna be here three hours before stretch. If you're here and you get your work in, it shouldn't matter how early you're at the field.")
As teammates, Dukes and Milledge found a certain understanding. For one thing, they shared roots. They knew of each other in high school, often running into one another at Florida-based showcase tournaments. In 2002, the St. Petersburg Times named Milledge (from Northside Christian) to the all-region first team. Dukes (from Hillsborough) was on the second team.
Only last year, though, did the pair get to know each other. On the road, they often played card games with hitting coach Lenny Harris. Sometimes, in the clubhouse, they pulled out a laptop and competed in a computer version of the Tecmo Bowl video game. Even their seasons shared an arc: Milledge and Dukes, thrown into the same fire, both dealt with a few injuries and both overcame slow starts. It was enough that Washington's front office felt encouraged. Milledge's final numbers (523 AB, 14 HR, 61 RBI, .268 AVG, .402 SLG) compared with Tampa's B.J. Upton (531 AB, 9 HR, 67 RBI, .273 AVG, .401 SLG). Dukes, meantime, led the team in slugging percentage.
The first way to talk about Washington's expectations for the duo in Year 2 relates purely to their on-field development. Milledge has worked this spring with Grissom on the nuances of center field play: Here's how you approach the wall to play a carom; here's why you barehand a ball that isn't moving and glove a ball that is. Hitting coach Rick Eckstein wants Milledge, blessed with superb bat speed, to concentrate more on hitting to the opposite field. He wants Dukes, known for a good eye, to show that patience with runners on base -- when he sometimes tends to get too hyped.
"Wow," Eckstein said, talking about Dukes. "The potential is just off the charts. He is so strong, so quick, so powerful that he can do things with pitches that most can't."
Said Milledge: "I think [Dukes] can be the best right fielder in the game if he stays healthy. This year. I think he's a 30-30 guy."
Uniformly, members of Washington's coaching staff said on Sunday that they have no qualms about either player's diligence or approach, the second element that will determine how they develop. Both Milledge and Dukes want, more than anything, to be judged by results. They have decided to judge each other by a similar standard.
"Whatever happens off the field, your family, none of that matters," Milledge said. "Why does it matter if, you know, I have a disagreement with my wife today? That doesn't matter. But what does matter is that I went 3 for 5 today and helped the team win. It's not your business. What matters is what happens between these lines."