Lasting(s) Impression

Potential. That’s the word that eventually haunts Lastings Milledge most.

Potential has two definitions in sports: one, for a prospect, rookie or young professional like Milledge, potential is a hopeful, optimistic word. The second definition is reserved for mostly former first-round draft picks, ballplayers well into their thirties, lingering on a bench in Peoria, Syracuse or Las Vegas, hoping for one last opportunity. The latter is an ugly word, often shadowed by a question mark.

Milledge has the talent to be great but, based on his history, also has a greater risk of playing out his final years somewhere between Durham, Memphis and September on a major league bench somewhere. If Milledge isn’t careful the opportunity, the one thing that is keeping him on a major league roster in 2010 – potential – will rear its ugly head and become Mr. Hyde.

Potential is fleeting. It has a short shelf life in professional sports. How fleeting? Just how short is the life expectancy of potential? Four years ago today Milledge was considered a wunderkind. He was sprinting around the outfield in Port St. Lucie as a member of the New York Mets. He is the top prospect in the Mets’ organization, and one of the best in baseball, and Mets officials view him as an essential part of the team’s outfield for years to come wrote the New York Times.

Selected 12th overall in the 2003 June Draft by the Mets, Milledge’s future began almost immediately.

“It’s always good to start out your career on the chill, instead of being compared to David Wright, (Carlos) Delgado and guys like that,” Milledge, now a Pittsburgh Pirate, told the Bradenton Chronicle. “I was moving through the system so fast, I was on different teams so fast, that I kind of missed out on instruction.”

Fast? Milledge went from being “an essential part of the [Mets] outfield for years to come” to outcast. Met fans can hardly remember the 20-year old that wore No. 65 in his first spring games. Milledge was fresh, exciting, the future. He was running down fly balls and going from first to third on a single.

By June 2006 Milledge was wearing No. 44 and playing in the major leagues. He was 21 years old when he smashed a game-tying home run off former Met Armando Benetiz at Shea Stadium.

Then, the wheels fell off.

Milledge took the field for the 11th inning. He detoured to give Mets fans in the box seats along the right field line a series of high-fives. The act resulted in a public humiliation for then manager Willie Randolph and, in the blink of an eye, a media scrum.

The Mets eventually lost the game in 12 innings, 7-6. Milledge tumbled too, going 0-for-13 at the plate, misplaying a fly ball at Fenway Park and, finally, a ticket back to Triple-A. Milledge didn’t resurface until later that year, finding himself in the middle of more controversy in late September when a teammate taped a sign reading “Know your place, Rook” to his locker in Washington.

In 2007, Milledge broke camp with the Mets but was back in Triple-A within days. He eventually rapped his way out of New York. But the change of scenery didn’t help. He angered the Nationals by twice being late for meetings and he took casual routes to fly balls. Milledge was labeled “cocky” and “lazy.” His teammates privately said he wouldn’t succeed.

His days in Flushing may be over, but Milledge hasn’t forgotten them. “I was basically 20 years old, and maybe it was a little too much for me to handle, but being in New York really helped my career, learning about the game and what is expected of you and understanding people,” he said.

Milledge’s personal character and poor choices have collided with his baseball life since high school. In 2002, Milledge was expelled from Northside Christian High in Florida for alleged “inappropriate behavior.” But, throughout his career, managers and coaches have consistently given Milledge the benefit of the doubt, because he was always so young for his level and so remarkably gifted in so many aspects of the game suggested MLB.com.

Pittsburgh farm director Kyle Stark is taking the Extreme Makeover route with Milledge.

“I sat him down and told him our rules: wearing pants up (high stirrups), no facial hair, clean locker and how we go through each day,” he told the USA Today. “He jumped right in and took accountability with it. As he started to get stronger and started to show more discipline in different things, it started to carry over onto the field.”

For Milledge, every day in 2010 is carpe diem.

The potential tag is beginning to fade, even at the tender age of 24. Milledge has already been in professional baseball seven years, the last four between the major leagues, the disabled list and Triple-A. Since the day he signed a professional contract he has played for 17 different teams in nine leagues. Last season, Milledge batted .291 with four homers and 20 RBIs in 58 games for the Pirates.

Potential. That’s all it is — for now.

“I have a lot of expectations,” he said. “I could set up myself for a long career … The biggest difference in me is that I take the game more seriously. I don’t take the game for granted. This is probably the biggest year I’m going to have.”

“He’s got all the potential in the world,” former teammate Joel Hanrahan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He’s just got to prove it.”

There’s that word again – potential.

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