- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — A fan walking outside the right-field fence looking for a baseball on the ground made the mistake of keeping his head down. That’s not a good idea with Terrmel Sledge at the plate.

As if on cue, Sledge drilled a line drive that nearly struck the fan, who kept walking, unaware the blast had screamed behind him by about two feet. “Sledgehammer” didn’t even know his own power.

“It must have been the wind. You’ve got to watch the wind out here,” Sledge explained.

And the trade winds apparently. Sledge, 27, hit .269 with 15 home runs and 62 RBI in 133 games as a rookie last year, leaving him the subject of constant trade talk. He even could be dealt during spring training.

“I’ve been the subject of trade rumors for about a year now, especially in the offseason and now,” Sledge said. “Rumors are rumors. It’s not a bad thing. That means teams maybe want you. … I’m just trying to hit the ball as hard as I can.”

That showed last season, when Sledge ranked in the top 10 among NL rookies in 12 categories, including home runs (tied for second), RBI (third), hits (seventh with 107), runs (tied for seventh with 45) and slugging percentage (tied for seventh at .462).

Despite those numbers, Nationals manager Frank Robinson might not have a place for him. Jose Guillen, Brad Wilkerson and Endy Chavez are the Nationals’ projected starting outfielders, leaving the 6-foot, 185-pound Sledge on the bench.

“I like everything about him. I really do,” Robinson said. “This kid is a manager’s delight, really. He’s a student of the game. He’s a student of the game because he takes the game seriously. He studies, he asks questions, he works on his skills. He’s not satisfied with what he’s doing, how he’s doing it. He wants to improve and keeps working at it.

“He doesn’t question why he’s not in the lineup, although he wants to be there, and he keeps himself ready for when he’s called upon to do a job.”

If Chavez, the center fielder, does not improve his on-base percentage (.291) as the leadoff hitter this season, Robinson might be forced to move Wilkerson to center, insert Sledge in left and rework his batting order. Robinson ruled out Sledge playing center, but Sledge has been working out some at first base this spring, Robinson said.

“If [Sledge] goes out there and performs and does what he’s capable of doing and what he did last year, I think he’ll be in the lineup every day,” Wilkerson said. “There’s four or five weeks left to decide who is going to be playing. I think he is right there. He’s going to be on this team whether he does good or not. If he does good, I think he’ll be in the starting lineup.”

That will happen only if Sledge gets off to a better start than last season. He went 1-for-34 in his first 14 games but recovered to hit .291 for the Montreal Expos the rest of the way.

“I think more so than being athletic, he knows how to play the game,” Wilkerson said. “He goes out and plays the game hard, and he reacts well. He’s one of those guys that puts up good numbers, plus he does the little things right, and I think that’s why he’s such a good ballplayer. He carries around a big bat every day.”

The more Sledge plays, of course, the more chances fans will get to say perhaps the best — and most unusual — name on the team.

“There was ‘Terminal,’ ‘Hormel,’ ‘Termolt,’ ‘Termoil,’” Sledge said. “That’s why my nickname is ‘Tee.’ You can call me ‘Tee.’ It makes it a lot easier.”

And that doesn’t even account for his nickname, which has nothing to do with his sweet left-handed swing.

“It goes with the last name. The last name is Sledge. So what else goes with Sledge but Sledgehammer, so it fits right in,” Sledge said. “I can’t go up there with a last name like that and hit Punch and Judy, hit weak pop flies. I’ve got to have a little pop. I’ve got to live up to my name.”

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