- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Paul Lo Duca has played the scene out in his mind for four months now, ever since he left the New York Mets, signed with the Washington Nationals and then appeared prominently in the Mitchell Report.

The veteran catcher knew he would return to Shea Stadium, where old teammates, rabid fans and intrusive media members would await his arrival. And on the eve of that event — the Nationals open a three-game series against the Mets tonight in Queens — Lo Duca still wasn’t sure how he will feel.

“It’s going to be interesting,” he said. “I really don’t know what to expect.”

Lo Duca hardly will be the only player at Shea tonight with conflicted feelings. Teammate and fellow former Mets player Lastings Milledge will make his first trip to New York as a visiting player. On the flip side, new Mets Brian Schneider and Ryan Church will be playing against their old team for the first time since they were traded for Milledge in November.

A promising young outfielder who became the center of attention following a couple of high-profile incidents both on and off the field, Milledge wasn’t worried what Mets fans have in store for him.

“You know, I haven’t done enough in the game to get ovations or anything like that,” the 23-year-old said. “Either way, it won’t matter to me. I’m also on the opposing team, so I’m not looking for them to really cheer for me.”

Few would look for New York fans to cheer for Lo Duca, either, even though his two seasons there were mostly successful. He was an All-Star in 2006 and hit .318 on a Mets team that was one game from reaching the World Series and remained a key player on last year’s club that seemed destined for a return trip to the playoffs until a catastrophic, late-season slide.

But Lo Duca’s story changed drastically over the winter. First, the Mets decided not to bring him back, a process that turned acrimonious. Then two days after formally signing with the Nationals, former Sen. George Mitchell’s report on the use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball was released with Lo Duca one of its key characters.

He has since apologized for his actions without getting into specifics, and fans in the District seem to have accepted him. Fans in other cities haven’t been so kind, particularly those in Philadelphia, who booed Lo Duca during the Nationals’ three-game series at Citizens Bank Park earlier this month.

Lo Duca isn’t sure what kind of greeting he will receive in New York.

“I really, honestly don’t know,” he said. “I’ve got a great last name. If they’re booing me, I can just say they were saying ‘Duc!’ … I got booed mercilessly in Philly, so we’ll see what happens. To be honest with you, I really don’t care.”

That kind of tell-it-like-it-is personality already has made Lo Duca the most-quoted player inside the Nationals’ clubhouse. He served as a team spokesman of sorts during the nine-game losing streak that ended Sunday, imploring his teammates to pick it up and not make excuses for their poor play.

Lo Duca has been just as hard on himself, admitting his performance to date — a .200 average, four RBI and several subpar at-bats in clutch situations — hasn’t been good enough.

He was equally honest Sunday when asked whether he remains upset at the Mets for the way things ended last season.

“Water under the bridge,” he said. “Over with. I learned a long time ago you can’t carry stuff around with you and hold grudges against people. You guys already know I’m a brutally honest person and I tell it like it is. If you don’t like it, so be it. And they didn’t like it.”

It takes a certain type of ballplayer to succeed in New York, where every moment is magnified by a fan base that loves players one minute and turns on them the next. The experience can be both thrilling and demoralizing, especially for a young player who goes through the typical ups and downs.

“I would say it was good for me,” said Milledge, who hit .257 in 115 games with the Mets but has gotten off to a .308 start with Washington. “If you don’t get the job done, they’ll let you know. So it kind of played in my favor. When I was messing up, they let me know, and then I tried to get it right.”

Lo Duca, who was born in Brooklyn but didn’t start playing for the Mets until his ninth big league season, became a sensation in the New York tabloids, which chronicled all sorts of details about his personal life.

But he still insists he wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

“You can’t describe it,” he said. “Everything gets magnified times 10. It’s tough. You’ve got to have a tough gut if you want to stay there and play there. It’s very different. They’ll pick on every little thing.

“But on the other side, if you win, there’s nothing better in the world than when you win in New York.”

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