- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — Lastings Milledge is hardly lacking in the confidence department.

Ask the Washington Nationals’ new 22-year-old center fielder anything — about his raw talent, about his sometimes-rocky tenure with the New York Mets or about his side ventures as a rap album executive — and he won’t hesitate to tout himself with a wide smile.

“I don’t ever say I’m the best guy on the team,” he said. “I just go out there and play to the best of my ability, and usually I come out on top.”

There’s nothing overtly wrong with that kind of talk. Milledge is a talented ballplayer who has been touted as one of the top prospects in organized baseball.

But a rookie playing in New York can’t get away with statements like that without suffering the consequences, and so Milledge’s time with the Mets became known more for the pseudo-controversy he created than for the job he performed on the field.

There was the time in 2006 when Milledge, who had been a major leaguer for all of six days, hit his first career home run and then proceeded to high-five fans down the line at Shea Stadium as he took his place in right field the following inning. Or the time he spoke up against a veteran teammate and later found a note placed in his locker that read: “Know Your Place, Rook!”

Both events turned into back-page news in the sensationalistic New York tabloids, which described Milledge as far too cocky and arrogant for someone of his age and inexperience.

While admitting he might not have known how he was supposed to act, Milledge doesn’t regret anything he did in New York, and he still doesn’t understand why his teammates reacted the way they did.

“I really don’t know,” he said. “Maybe because I didn’t fit into that rookie mold that everybody’s supposed to fit in. I kind of did things a little bit different. It’s nothing bad, but I just didn’t fall into that mold.”

Was Milledge a bit overly cocky for a young player with little big league experience? Probably. But were his actions so out of line that he deserved to be labeled a problem child? Not everyone believes so.

“I think it was misperceived a little bit,” said Paul Lo Duca, Milledge’s former teammate with the Mets who has been reunited with him in Washington. “Different guys rub different guys the wrong way. I’ve never had a problem with the kid. He comes in, and he works very, very hard. He respects the game.”

Both Lo Duca, who played in New York from 2006 to 2007, and Nationals manager Manny Acta, who served as the Mets’ third base coach from 2005 to 2006, say positive things about Milledge and are elated to be reunited with him following this winter’s trade in exchange for catcher Brian Schneider and outfielder Ryan Church.

“He has that presence,” Acta said. “He’s very sure of himself. But he’s a great kid, and you’ll find out.”

Milledge, rated by Baseball America as the Mets’ top prospect in both 2005 and 2006, brings plenty of talent. A .306 hitter with 163 RBI and 128 extra-base hits in slightly more than three minor league seasons, he possesses the “tools” to hit for power, hit for high average, flash speed and play sterling defense.

He hasn’t quite put it all together yet on the big league stage — in 115 games with the Mets over the last two years, he hit .257 with 11 homers and 51 RBI — but those who have watched him say he only needs to get regular playing time in order to blossom.

“He’s got unbelievable talent, unbelievable offensive talent,” said Lo Duca, who compared Milledge’s bat speed with Gary Sheffield’s. “This kid’s got potential to be a .300 hitter with 25 to 30 home runs. He’s probably got the most power I’ve seen for his size. He can hit a ball a mile.”

Milledge will get his chance to play every day and produce those kinds of numbers in Washington. Though Acta is quick to point out no starting jobs are locked up, the manager has penciled Milledge in as the Opening Day center fielder and intends to leave him there.

Milledge is perfectly all right with that plan. From the moment he walked into the Nationals’ clubhouse yesterday morning, he looked comfortable. He knows this organization thinks highly of him, and he knows he’s finally going to get the opportunity to realize his potential … without having to sacrifice his style.

“I play to win, and I play with a lot of energy,” he said. “If I do that and I play my game, then usually I’m a good ballplayer.”

Confident? Definitely. Cocky? Maybe. But that’s who Lastings Milledge always has been, and he’s aiming to show Washington there’s nothing wrong with that.

“I think the perception of him is the wrong perception,” Lo Duca said. “I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised here.”

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