By Mike Steffanos
After a rough introduction to New York last season, Mets prospect Lastings Milledge came into spring training with a determination to change the perception about him. By all accounts, he worked very hard both on the field and with his teammates. For virtually the first time since he was signed by the Mets his coverage by the local press was more positive than negative. His play earned him a spot with the Mets to open the season, but a hot start by Shawn Green ultimately earned him a ticket to New Orleans. Still, it was a given that Lastings would be the first call-up if one of the outfielders went down.
Unfortunately for Milledge, he would go down with an injury himself before anyone on the major league club. Ben Johnson, Carlos Gomez and even Ricky Ledee got the opportunity that would have been his. While Milledge rehabbed in the hopes of getting a belated shot, word came out of Lastings using some objectionable lyrics on a rap song that his label is producing. It was a poor move, no doubt, but the coverage it received went over the top (as usual) in criticizing Milledge. This one from the Daily News' Ian Begley was fairly typical:
Lastings Milledge's rap has gone from bad to worse.
Milledge, who ticked off Met teammates last season with his on and off-the-field antics, has taken poor judgment to a new level, performing on a rap song that would make Don Imus blush.
The rappin' right fielder uses the N-word and bitch and also says "ho" in a song featured on his new record label's Web site.
Milledge, performing on souljaboirecords.com, raps about "rich (N word)," "wealthy (N word)," a "top-notch ho" and having "a different bitch for every night" on the sexually explicit song "Bend Ya Knees."
Milledge, the Mets' 22-year-old phenom playing at Triple-A New Orleans, is the CEO of Soul-ja Boi records, a Florida-based label. He performs on the Web site with rapper Manny D, a childhood friend who is signed to the label.
Not the kind of stuff to make parents proud, but fairly benign for rap lyrics. Unlike several other middle-aged white men who felt qualified to weigh in on rap lyrics, I will leave that discussion to those who have a clue what they're talking about. Having grown up in the sixties and seventies, I have memories of how objectionable my parents' generation found my music. I strongly suspect that Milledge hates neither women nor other black people, despite what you might have read in some places. The use of certain lyrics in rap music is a debate for others and other forums. To me, the song mostly reflected the poor judgment of a young and somewhat naïve man who fails to realize that every perceived misstep is an opportunity for some in the press to rehash everything negative about Milledge going back to before he was signed.
In the same article quoted above, Begley does a good job of dragging up the cherished old stuff:
Milledge was expelled from Northside Christian School in 2003 for having sex with a 15-year-old girlfriend and agreed to enroll in a juvenile arbitration program to avoid prosecution. Soon after the Mets drafted Milledge in 2003, the Daily News reported that he had been accused of having consensual sex with 12 and 13-year-old girls as well, which led to his expulsion from school.
Milledge made his big-league debut last May and immediately rubbed some teammates the wrong way by showing up late and high-fiving fans down the right field line after hitting a home run. Milledge, who hit .241 with four homers in 166 at-bats last season, came to spring training last March with a more mature approach, suggesting that he got a bad rap last season. Now he's just producing bad rap.
In a familiar pattern, everything that Lastings does is portrayed in the worst possible light. Once again, the pressure was being put on the Mets from the outside to get rid of Milledge. Thankfully, there is a different sort of regime in place in Flushing, one that makes decisions based on what they believe is best for the team rather than what would be popular.
I won't sit here and paint Lastings Milledge as some sort of martyr. He's made some mistakes, and has proven to be immature and lacking in media savvy. We've been spoiled by David Wright, who by all accounts on the day he was born shook hands with his Mom, the doctor and everyone else in the delivery room and humbly thanked them for their efforts on his behalf. Not to mention that he was an instant success from the moment he was called up, which Milledge certainly wasn't.
Unless I missed something, Milledge has not committed crimes or been accused of violence towards women (or men) since signing with the Mets. There have been no sex scandals or even rumors of such things, because rest assured they would have made it into the papers. Maybe it's time to stop dragging up his past and just give him a chance, on the field and off.
Of course, there are some who feel they already have enough evidence to pass definitive judgment on him. This column from the Post's Jay Greenberg appeared after the rap song stink commenced:
Just Sunday, I asked Omar Minaya about a player who would fit a current Mets positional need, who was talented and available largely because of his poor plate discipline.
"I don't want selfish guys who always try to hit home runs, they're not good for a team," said the Mets general manager.
That principle, a fundamental by which he has quickly built an almost thoroughly likable club, is going to be compromised if Lastings Milledge reaches the majors with the organization that drafted him. The Mets should move him sooner, because they are only going to end up moving him later, after they tire of waiting for a maturity that's never going to come.
Of course, having quickly and firmly expressed their disapproval of the vile, misogynistic lyrics Milledge has recorded in a rap song, the Mets could get away with laying him low in New Orleans until this blow over. If ultimately Milledge becomes a star, the fans, whose moral compass generally turns on wins and losses, not right and wrong, will love him practically unconditionally regardless.
I think it's a little hypocritical for Greenberg to be questioning the moral compass of fans, when he and some of his colleagues are willing to cast such a definitive judgment on a young man they barely know. The sports media has become much like the news media these days -- sensational sells, and trashing Lastings Milledge has become a tried and true topic for getting people to read your stuff. Perhaps someday it will bear out that Milledge is as bad as Greenberg and company so confidently believe. Then again, maybe he'll gain some maturity and become a decent adult and a good ballplayer. Until he does something that's actually a crime or even a misdemeanor, excuse me if I withhold judgment. I'm secure that my moral compass is pretty darned good, actually.
Again, for all the criticism Omar is taking for the moves that don't seem to be panning out, I'll give him credit for not bowing to pressure and overpaying a Barry Zito or underselling Lastings Milledge just to get him out of town. Right now he is helping the team win and saying and doing the right things. I'm sure if the right deal comes along Minaya will consider it, but in the meantime kudos for refusing to make the wrong deal.
Note: Our buddy Dan at Lonestar Mets offers a satirical take on Milledge's media perception. Check it out.