Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Lastings Milledge

What I’d like, thanks for asking, is for Willie Randolph to give Lastings Milledge a start before he sends him down to New Orleans on Friday to make room for Mike Pelfry. On some level, Randolph should just do it for the fans: we seem to be generally interested in the kid and it would be nice to see him play a game or two before he gets traded off for some geriatric pitcher.

On the other hand, giving Milledge a start, and Green or Alou a day off, seems to be generally in keeping with Randolph’s philosophy, at least in regards to the relatively inexperienced members of the bullpen. A couple of times now, Randolph has drawn the ire of sports writers and fans for leaving untested relievers in the game in tight spots. The logic behind doing that, I believe, is that with their line-up and the vast majority of the season still to be played, the temporary damage done by a bad relief outing is worth risking for confidence that these relievers stand to gain from success, and the information that Randolph and Rick Peterson stand to gain from watching them compete against big league hitters in meaningful games. By a similar token, it would be valuable to see the “new, improved” Lastings Milledge in a major league game while the opportunity still presents itself.

On larger levels, Milledge poses an interesting question to the club. With super-sub Endy Chavez on the bench; Francisco Martinez and Carlos Gomez, two outfield prospects who collectively embody all the qualities of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and The Flash, waiting in the minors; and Beltran signed to a long term deal, there is not much long-term future for Milledge with this club. His value to the team, at this point, seems to be primarily as insurance in case Green or Alou gets injured- or someone else gets injured and they need to make a quick trade.

It all goes back to last season, when Milledge spent some time with the club and exhibited a “bad attitude.” His crimes consisted of high-fiveing fans in the stands after hitting his first home run, showing up late for a game, and a couple of mistakes in the outfield. Also, he did something during his September call-up to inspire someone to leave a note on his locker saying “Know your place, Rook.” [UPDATE: at some point over the summer it became generally accepted that the note was left by Billy Wagner]

To me, all of that seemed like a classic case of sports writers creating a story out of a series of trivial incidents merely to have something to say, something with which to fill their quota of column inches for the week. All of Milledge’s transgressions seemed in keeping with a guy who was twenty-one years old, playing his first handful of games in the majors. The club itself, at least publicly, never seemed concerned about his behavior; if there had been any better off-field story lines (Paul Lo Duca’s divorce was a little messier, Pedro Martinez took a month off to attend space camp, David Wright dating Paris Hilton) we might have never heard of Milledge as anything other than a prospect having a slightly disappointing first outing.

Opening the real can of worms, I can’t shake the feeling that the media’s perception of Milledge, a black guy, was racially charged. Milledge’s crimes, showboating and laziness, are the particular shortcomings that the media likes to subtlety associate with African-American athletes. Given the paltry evidence available to me, the problem with Milledge seems to have been constructed- and the fact that it was constructed around Milledge, and not someone else, likely has something to do with his race.

The amazing turn-around that Milledge has exhibited, losing all that weight in the off-season, exhibiting a better attitude, and working harder, seem like the natural maturation of a very young player learning the ropes and coming into his own. However, the way that it is written about, serves to emphasize his initial delinquency- which I am inclined to believe was slightly fictional in the first place. Neither Milledge’s attitude nor his performance would have had to have been very bad for a little experience and a little more maturity to have led to a significant improvement.

As for the note on his locker, it seems to me that the real question is not what he did to deserve it, but what is so weak and vulnerable about the order of the veterans that it could be threatened by a 21-year old kid, and needed to be enforced with an anonymous note.

1 comment:

Wystan Bottomly said...

I suspect that your can of worms deserves to be opened. Just because Mr Milledge wasn't called a nappy-headed hoe doesn't mean that he's not being victimized because of his race and being branded with the white man's standard 'uppity' designation.

A NPR interview last Saturday revealed that far fewer African-Americans now play professional baseball than was the case in the 50s; I think the figures were 24% of players in the 50s versus 9% today. One has to wonder why, especially given the history of the Negro League, and the greatness that abounded from it.