Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Let's Hope That "Place" is Right Field

Lastings Milledge reported to Mets camp the other day, an event that's surprisingly significant given that Milledge is considered one of the team's top prospects. Significant because trade talk has swirled around Milledge for months now, spurred on by the perception of Milledge as a potential troublemaker. For all his talent, talk keeps seeping out about his "feel for the game" and whether he knew "his place" as a rookie last year (a teammate slapped a note reading "Know your place, rook" above his locker late last season; I'll bet you a thousand dollars it was Paul LoDuca).

At 21, he might be better served starting the year in Triple-A for purely baseball-related reasons, but I wonder about what effect his problematic rookie campaign will have on that decision, and about what this kind of thing reflects about baseball.

Let's be frank about our favorite sport here. Baseball is not an institution that has ever tolerated flashes of individual style to the extent that, say, the NBA has. There have been plenty of guys with flair to spare, but they always seem to get cast in the bad guy role, a la Rickey Henderson. It's a tricky point I'm trying to make. After all, showboating doesn't really serve any purpose other than to show up opponents, and often gets in the way of making plays. Even in basketball or football, the line sometimes gets blurry between the guys who marshall their style in the service of competitiveness and playmaking and those who seem not to be especially interested in their team or the game they're playing.

Milledge, if he succeeds, has a chance to be something baseball doesn't see much of: a five-tool player with style and attitude who doesn't get tagged with the hot-dog or loafer stigmas. He could be the ultimate Ballclub Player, the embodiment of style, swagger, talent, and on-field intelligence (I'm trying to think of a suitable baseball equivalent to basketball's "court sense"). I'm waiting to see not only if Lastings can pull it off, and you have no idea how much I'm rooting for him, but also how the league reacts. Will it accept a player like that? This is a league of gamers and grinders, where the David Ecksteins are celebrated, along with guys like our own LoDuca. This is a league that's too often threatened by cornrows unless they're being worn by Bronson Arroyo.

According to this Times article, Lastings is impressing the veterans and "saying all the right things." I just wonder about his future in a league so obsessed with appeasing vets and making sure everyone says the right thing.

Milledge Looks to Rein in Free Spirit but Retain Flair [New York Times]

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