BRADENTON — Lastings Milledge just wants to be himself, which isn’t a bad thing.
In fact, Pittsburgh Pirates manager John Russell would be very happy if he got the authentic Milledge.
To Russell, it would mean speed on the bases, consistency at the plate, lots of ground covered in the outfield and a youthful talent that could dramatically change a franchise, which hasn’t had a winning season since Bill Clinton began his first term as president.
Milledge hasn’t always had the luxury of being the player who took Lakewood Ranch High to a state championship in 2003 and became an iconic figure in these parts before he was old enough to drive.
Due to turn 25 in April, he was barely 21 when he was brought into the fishbowl known as New York as a Mets rookie outfielder in 2006.
Milledge quickly found out nothing prepares you for the Big Apple, especially when you are the 12th overall pick in the MLB draft. But he believes it will make him a better player and enable him to reach the potential that so many people see.
“I was basically 20 years old, and maybe it was a little too much for me to handle, but being in New York really helped my career, learning about the game and what is expected of you and understanding people,” Milledge said from Pirates City this week as he prepares for his first full season with Pittsburgh.
The 5-foot-11, 200-pound outfielder spent parts of two seasons with the Mets, played for the Washington Nationals in 2008 and for the Pirates in the last half of 2009, when he hit .279 in 244 at-bats over 65 games.
“I am here now in a much more laid-back environment, and I think it’s going to be easier for me to reach my potential,” Milledge said. “In New York, all of a sudden you have to be Jose Reyes and David Wright. The main thing I learned from that is just be yourself.”
Russell would be more than pleased to have Milledge be like Milledge.
“He had a great offseason, came here in very good shape, worked hard and is really kind of on a mission to do what he is capable of doing,” Russell said. “He’s not out to prove people wrong and so far he has been outstanding. I don’t see any reason why he is not going to do some very good things for us.
“Lastings made great strides last year when he came back from a broken bone and wasn’t one-hundred percent, but fought through it and finished pretty strong.”
It appears Milledge’s talent is about to bloom if only because he has some added maturity to go along with his experience.
“The biggest difference in me is that I take the game more seriously,” he said, “I don’t take the game for granted. Now, I know how special it is and how much a privilege it is to play the game and to be here.”
Milledge also thinks he can be part of something special with Pittsburgh. He’s just not caught up in the annual spring optimism that hits every team this time of year. He believes the Pirates can be a legitimate contender.
“We are not here for laughs and giggles. We are all here to win,” Milledge said. “Whether we can remains to be seen, but everybody wants to win and go to the postseason. You shouldn’t be here if you don’t think that. We are major leaguers and wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have the talent.
“The biggest thing is meshing together and becoming a better offensive team. I think we are right in there now with our defense and pitching coming along and stuff like that.”
To be back home and out of a New York spotlight that sometimes wasn’t all that kind, Milledge hopes to thrive, and the Pirates brass feels he can based on his work ethic.
“Lastings has been great with us and worked really hard,” Russell said. “He has a lot of tools and can do so many things. I think his talent is coming to the surface now, and he is a ready to have a good year. He will start in left, but he is an athlete and can play anywhere out there. He will be a big part of our offense and defense.”
Milledge has no illusions about anything and is doing everything possible to have a good year and stay healthy for a full season where he can play 162 games.
“Management expects to win and expects me to do well,” Milledge said. “If I am going to start, I’ve got to be good out there, otherwise I will be on the bench. The only thing I can control is what I do on the field, and I’ve been doing everything I need to do to get better, putting in the work. That is all you can ask for, and that is my main focus.”