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Reality for Milledge: Become Bland to Survive

Mike SteffanosThursday, June 8, 2006
By Mike Steffanos

Aditi Kinkhabwala has a story about Lastings Milledge on SI.com. It was obvious that she got a kick out of the Mets rookie, whom she felt "immediately injected some spice into an already flavorful clubhouse":

He was candid and talkative, and his uncensored streams of consciousness were appealing. He said he wanted the perfectly placed shortstop who caught his first line drive to drop it. He said he prayed he wouldn't fall down while he was legging out his first career hit. He said Tom Glavine congratulating him was "the greatest moment of my life," and he oozed charm the whole time.

... The rookie had his own style, he wasn't trying to hide it, and nobody minded. Until Sunday, when he chose not to ignore the fans hugging the first base line. Milledge's solo home run had just tied up a game with the Giants in the bottom of 10th inning. When he jogged back onto the field for the top of the 11th, he figured all those hands leaning over the railing were meant to be slapped.

Manager Willie Randolph evenly told him that may not have been the greatest idea, but by the time the Giants had won the game in 12 innings, Milledge was officially in the midst of high-fivegate. "I just wanted to let the fans know they're the reason I keep going every day," he nervously explained. "I didn't try to show anybody up."

High-fivegate. I like it. As much as Aditi Kinkhabwala enjoyed Milledge's uncensored exuberance, she noticed a change in the kid pretty quick, and understood why:

He'd had his first major league off-day three days before and, with a minute to breathe, he finally heard some of the chatter accompanying his call-up. He laughed when Randolph worried that the supersized cross he wore in his debut might whack him in the face and good-naturedly stowed it in his locker the next day. But then Milledge heard the jabbers on local sports talk radio getting on him for so "ostentatiously" expressing his religion.

Milledge's parents thought about putting their son's first big-league clips in a scrapbook, but then they read one columnist writing him off after that first game. The same tabloid that used the headline "Impression Is Lastings One" ran a complete rehashing of the misconduct allegations -- involving his underage girlfriend -- that dropped him from the 2003 draft's top three to the 12th spot.

Milledge had hoped he could prove his troubles were in the past, but while he was talking about "the biggest day of my life," the media were dredging up old baggage. By Sunday evening, after the on-field faux pas and with his teammates looking at him sideways, Milledge was ready to completely shut down.

Aditi Kinkhabwala goes on to explain why she hopes it doesn't happen. She doesn't want Milledge to become guarded and spout all the same old clichés that most athletes do. With respect to her sincere wishes, I hope that's exactly what happens to the kid. I hope he learns what David Wright has mastered a long time ago -- how to give the press their quotes without really saying anything. Not that I wouldn't appreciate athletes revealing their true selves and really learning something substantial about them, but in the long run, the athlete that elects candor over cliché only finds his words come back and bite him in the ass.

Milledge has been in the Mets system for several years, and there hasn't been a whisper of any sexual improprieties or scandals in all that time. Yet his parents, hoping to be able to put stories about his debut in a scrapbook, find all those old troubles with an underage girlfriend rehashed in the paper. Why were they considered relevant after all these years, when there hasn't been a hint of that type of problem in the interim? Because that's the world we live in now, where dirt, scandal or any type of controversy sell more papers than straightforward reporting of the kid's debut.

Ms. Kinkhabwala comes across as a nice person who appreciated the kid and didn't want him to change. But he will. He'll learn how to make himself more and more bland, because that's the only way to protect himself. And make no mistake, for the most part the very people that lament the blandness of today's athletes are the ones most ready to pounce on any slip-up. Willie Randolph understands this. I saw a lot of criticism among bloggers for Randolph advising the kid to tone it down after "high-fivegate". They felt Randolph was wrong to rein the kid in a little. He wasn't -- he understands more than most what will happen to Milledge if he doesn't tone things down. He'll be attacked on an off the baseball field, until he becomes bitter, defensive and loses some of that obvious love of the game.

It's a cruel world that we live in, full of cruel realities. We love our celebrities, but we love it even more if we can tear them down. It sells papers, and makes for great talk around the water coolers. Aditi Kinkhabwala longs for a "real", unguarded, non-cliché spouting diamond hero:

Fans need people to root for, not just athletes. New York baseball needs an every-day superstar who doesn't always play it straight, who isn't afraid to be mocked and mock himself. Milledge may not last the month, but he'll be here eventually, and on this trip out West it would be plain awful if the Mets start channeling Crash Davis.

It sounds really great, and I'd love to see it myself, except I know what they'll do to the kid. We've seen it already. Just ask his parents how they felt, having to read all that old crap on what was one of the happiest and proudest days of their lives. Ask Milledge what it feels like to be a 21-year-old kid, on the threshold of the dream that you worked hard for your whole life, only to hear endless debate about your character from a bunch of people that don't even know you at all.

New York Post: Lastings wants to win
Mark Hale quotes Lastings Milledge, who was asked if he's trying to prove he should stay with the Mets:

The only thing that I want to prove is that I play to win. That's the only thing. And I play the game hard. And I play the game with energy. That's the only thing that I want to prove to everybody.

Good answer.

Memories from the early years
Dave from Hawaii, who sends me some great e-mails from time to time, had a memory involving Mets catcher Choo Choo Coleman:

Speaking of Choo Choo (the "bub"meister)...my first live Mets game was at the Polo Grounds in 63 against Pete Rose (rookie year), Frank Robinson and the Reds. Choo Choo hit a shot down the RF line that hit the tin roof very loudly. Ump called it a HR and Fred Hutchinson came out to argue and ended up kicking the ump in the shins. I couldn't believe what I was seeing (I was 8). He was suspended for 10 games and fined $5,000 (big dough in those days). Subsequently, they named the "sportsmanship award" after him. Kind of like giving the press relations award to Barry Bonds. Wonder if we can find anyone else who was at that game other than my cousin Steve in Santa Fe?

If anyone reading this was at the game, please leave a comment with your own recollections. Oh, by the way, if you're into golf and would like to plan a golf vacation in Hawaii, Dave is your man.

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Comments (4)

Round 7: Dave Stegall , OF, Greenwood (Ariz) HS
An 18-year-old left-handed batter with a pretty swing.

'Hurricanes may lose QB to Mets
Signing bonus key to Stegall's choiceofsport'


Cool, maybe they'll come up with a sleeper.

Did you ever, by chance, see the "SNL" when Joe Montana co-hosted? There was a sketch in which Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks had come back to Phil's apartment on a date in which they said all kinds of harmless things to each other but we could hear their real thoughts which were much different. Phil complained about his roommated, played by Joe Montana. Joe enters the scene and says "it's really nice to meet you." And we can hear Joe thinking "it's really nice to meet her." Everything Joe says he really means. The payoff is when Joe says he's going back to his room to, uh, do something personal and that is also what he's thinking.

Anyway, that's how David Wright strikes me. While I'm sure he is savvy and polished, I also don't think he's operating with a J-chip in his mouth, the kind they use in other New York clubhouses.

Lastings? I was struck, nay amazed, at how smooth this kid was after his first game. He thanked "Fred and Jeff" for the opportunity. How many 21-year-olds thank the owners BY FIRST NAME upon their recall to the big leagues? I get the feeling he is going to be very candid and very real for a long time and that it won't be a bad thing for him, regardless of the jackals who will try to trip him up.

The hacks who tut-tutted him do not bring anybody any happiness. Lastings has already given us a great week. He's earned the benefit of the doubt.

Hey Greg, I just think that Wright is smooth and smart. He knows what to say and what not to say. Lastings will learn, too. I don't know, maybe I'm just too cynical, but stuff like this just makes me sad.

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