Lastings Milledge: From Mets Top Prospect to Wash-Up in Japan

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Lastings Milledge: From Mets Top Prospect to Wash-Up in Japan
Bryan Yablonsky/Getty Images
Lastings Milledge

How many times have New York Mets fans heard this one before? “He’s a can’t-miss top prospect.”

Or this: “He’s a true five-tool player.”

Or how about, “Expect to see him in the starting lineup for a long time.”

Such anti-prophetic words are often spewed by inside sources in the know or blogosphere pundits throughout the whole of Mets nation. And such words so very often end up being completely untrue.

Such is the case of Lastings Darnell Milledge, who but a half-decade ago went from being the Mets star outfielder of the future to an arrogant kid with a ‘tude who strikes out too much, walks too little and who cannot quite handle that breaking pitch.

Oh, how highly touted he was! Baseball America ranked him the 86th-best prospect in all of baseball before the 2004 season, when the 19-year-old young buck had just seven professional games under his belt.

Then, after hitting home runs like Piazza and stealing bases like Cedeno and hitting for average like Olerud that year, his stock soared higher and he was ranked the 11th-greatest blue chip in all the land for 2005—a mighty honor for one who was not yet legally able to drink!

And it just kept getting better for the baseball wunderkind, who had legs like a gazelle and arms like Paul Bunyan and eyes like a hawk. He hit for average, and oh, how he hit! He walloped home runs, and oh, how they flew! He stole base after base after base, and oh! Not even the greatest of diamond thieves could manage the thefts he managed on an almost daily basis!

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Lastings Milledge was a true five-tool player, a consummate superstar in the making. After an incredible, even superhuman 2005, Baseball America named the future Willie Mays the ninth—yes, the ninth—best prospect anywhere in the nation, from sea to shining sea.

He had accomplished all his amazing feats year after year playing at levels beyond his age. It’s not often a youngster of such incredible skill graces the presence of Double-A, and it is even rarer for a 21-year-old kid—yes, a kid—to start a season at Triple-A, the highest level of professional baseball below the major leagues.

And yet, that is exactly what Milledge did in 2006. The youthful young man was, after all, one of the best players in the minor leagues—Baseball America said so. He was, after all, compared to major leaguers like Adam Dunn and the Mets’ own David Wright, when both players were veritable superstars themselves.

His impending superstardom, however, would not be so easily reached.

He began the season at Triple-A and, to the complete shock of those following him, had hiccups along the way. It’s OK, we all thought—even the mighty Ruth wavered now and then—he is after all (gulp) human.

Lastings Milledge—merely human? Perish the thought! This lad was the Mets saving grace, it was he who would lead them to World Series victory after World Series victory, toppling the Yankees and Red Sox and whoever the American League would so foolishly throw in their way.

And yet his batting average was merely normal, his power just pedestrian and, perhaps a new eye prescription was needed, but it seemed as if, by the looks of things, he had lost a step, or a half a step, or just an eighth of a step on the basepaths.

Al Bello/Getty Images

But lo, it couldn’t be!

He was the ninth best player in the minor leagues! He trek to glory and fame and unrelenting stardom would not be interrupted by this, this mere aberration of a minor league performance!

And so, on May 30, 2006, the boy they called Lastings arrived at the major league stage.

And he tanked.

Oh, how glorious his first six games had been—the boy-man among man-boys hit .316, including a home run that tied a match against those most hated of foes, the San Francisco Giants.

After his heroic feat, the lad merely answered the call that had beckoned so many budding stars in the past. He had made his mark on the major leagues, and the ballpark denizens loudly, joyfully acknowledged their new favorite player, this new face of a most wonderful of chapters in Mets history.

He merely wished to acknowledge those who acknowledged him, he only desired to extend his hand to the mortals whom he held captive, entranced. It was a truly humanitarian gesture, those high-fives he delivered to the men, women and children in the front row, this god among men interacting with those of such a lower caste than he.

But while the fans wanted his hand, the Giants manager—and some of the press—wanted his head. How could such a thing be? But it was so.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Apparently, the youngster in his eagerness to please those for whom he played, had broken one or two or many unwritten baseball rules. He had exhibited a purported arrogance, a supposed hubris, and the Giants manager did not take kindly to it. At all.

Perhaps it was the fallout from his incident against the Giants that spelled his doom, or perhaps he was called up too soon, but Lastings Milledge never quite performed as well as he did for the Mets in those first six games.

No, from then on, the initiate from Florida hit a meager .231 with an on-base percentage of only .305 and a slugging percentage of .359. The hero, the quick and powerful and everything wonderful hero, had fallen, but not completely.

2007 was a whole new year. The mighty Milledge had taken some knocks during his first sojourn in the majors, and his minor league record was standard, but he was still Lastings Milledge—the kid who just last season was the ninth best prospect in all of baseball.

Such an incredible talent does not just fade away. It may dim, ever so slightly, but it should return to normal.

Milledge had an offseason to work out the kinks from the previous year. He ironed out the wrinkles, he became acclimated with major league culture, he was ready to take on the big show once and for all. He had to have been—he was Lastings Milledge, after all, right?

Wrong. His statistics were merely pedestrian once again, and even the loving throngs who supported this rising star grew impatient with he who was to deliver so much as he delivered so little.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

He flew and slugged his way through the minors, and nothing could get in his way. The restless masses wanted immediate results from this young buck at the major league level, but he couldn’t deliver. Everything, now, was getting in his way. He was only 22, but his ship, it seemed, had sailed.

Milledge was a brightly-lit bulb, burning too hot for his own good. His tungsten core ripped and tore and so his bulb was no more. He ebbed and dimmed and flickered out, and made the New York faithful shout:

“Lastings Milledge, go away. We want not you here to stay.”

And so, the superstar in the making-turned-pedestrian ballplayer-turned-disappointment was traded away, never again to wear a New York Mets uniform.

He bounced around the major and minor leagues in the seasons to follow, playing most recently for the Chicago White Sox in 2011.

And oh, how the mighty have fallen. The giants have crumbled. The colossuses have tumbled.

Lastings Milledge, he who was to be a cog in the New York Mets outfield for years and years—a name fathers’ children years from now would recognize and revere and remember so fondly—was cast aside by all of Major League Baseball following the 2011 season.

No reasonable offer to play was presented to him. No one on this side of the Pacific Ocean wanted his services.

And so, the former ninth-best prospect in all of baseball, the former speedster who could hit for power and average is now in Japan, just another major league castoff, looking to reclaim what once was and trying anew to become what could have been.

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