PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – Lastings Milledge threw some guy out at third base in an intrasquad game here Monday afternoon, a tracer from right field that seemed to carry most of the way at shoulder height, then hit the bag on a low skip.
It was one of those gorgeous here-and-gone moments that makes a muggy spring day in South Florida.
And Milledge knew it.
He grinned and glided to the first-base dugout, where he bounced from fist bump to high five and back, mouth wagging and braids flopping. He was having fun, allowing himself to be young and unafraid and altogether bullet-proof.
Hidden were the hours Milledge had worked to tighten his mechanics, correcting an arm-angle flaw that had caused his longer throws to veer left. When almost everyone went home from camp every day, Milledge was programming his body to throw a baseball straighter.
It was not so much the out that stirred him – a singular experience that carried your eye from him, along the arc of the ball and then back to him – but the result of an exacting commitment repaid. He was celebrating a couple feet of progress, a ball on a bag a half-second ahead of a runner, a pure and obedient flight.
Flights just so rarely come that way.
Milledge, fleet and strong and athletic and leaning into Gotham's fanfare, was barely 21 last May when he took his first big-league at-bat for the New York Mets. Six days later, he hit a 10th-inning home run at Shea Stadium, stormed around the basepaths, and in the top of the 11th fist-bumped and high-fived every willing fan down the right-field line. Baseball establishment, as it does, folded its arms and shook its head at such exuberance, then chuckled at the karmic remuneration of the Mets losing in the 11th.
After spending July in Triple-A, Milledge returned to Shea Stadium to find a note tacked to his locker. It read: "Know your place, rook," and it didn't mean "right field."
He's still young. He's still competing for a place in the Mets' outfield. He spent the offseason hearing reports the Mets would trade him for an established starting pitcher, months after he'd been close to untouchable. Within the organization, they're already talking about two other prospects – 21-year-old Carlos Gomez and 18-year-old Fernando Martinez.
The fact is, the Mets still like and believe in him. He's still available for a good pitcher, but no one – not the owner, not the general manager, not the manager – has quit on Lastings Milledge.
So, here he is. Still defiant, yes. The Mets had asked him to play winter ball, he maintained he – and they – would be better served if he stayed in Florida, got stronger, ate better, challenged himself. The Mets did it his way, and Milledge rewarded their trust (such as it was: GM Omar Minaya called him twice a month to check his progress) by returning more prepared to play the game.
Where he once defended himself against baseball's stodginess, Milledge said his days of premature victory laps are over.
"I won't do it again unless I win the World Series," he said, smiling. "If I win the World Series, I will do it. You can write that down now. If I win the World Series, in Shea Stadium, with a game-winning home run, I will do it."
Beyond that, his only promise was to try to get better.
Early in camp, he taped a handful of photographs to his locker. In them, all captured in similar moments, were Stan Musial, Gary Sheffield, Ken Griffey Jr., Derrek Lee, and others. Back elbows tucked. Heads down. Hips through. Bats flat in the strike zone. Contact imminent.
He believes he can someday hold his picture alongside theirs. He is ready for his flight, he believes, now physically and emotionally closer to what he'd like to become.
"At times," he admitted, he'd acted immaturely.
But, he protested, "I'm not immature. At times I was, maybe, a little bit. But, all in all, being barely 21, playing in New York, I thought I handled myself pretty well. It's all about growing up. It's playing the game."
When his first season was done, officially finished when the playoff roster was posted, Milledge had batted .241 with four home runs and 22 RBI in 56 games.
There were the humbling occasions, perhaps made lonelier by those veterans who'd grumbled he was a bit light on humility. And while he didn't hit .270 or .280, which he'd planned, he could say now it was OK. His father, Arthur, a retired Manatee (Fla.) County cop, sought to soften the season by informing him Barry Bonds had struggled his rookie season, that Willie Mays had hit .180.
Bonds did, indeed, hit .223 in 1986, but Mays hit .274 and was National League Rookie of the Year in 1951.
But, hey, whatever works.
On Monday, Milledge threw a baseball exactly where he'd hoped. Then, surrounded by pictures of great hitters, he took a shot at what Tuesday might bring.
"You can't take this game for a joke," he said. "It ain't no joke."