By ALAN DELL
Three burning questions every baseball fan wants answered.
Is it harder to rebuild a baseball career or an image?
Is the sophomore jinx a real curse?
Can inspiration produce .300 hitters and 90 mph pitchers?
Lastings Milledge begins another spring in damage control mode.
Working hard to change his reputation from his days with the New York Mets and Washington Nationals when he was not exactly the consummate pro, Milledge took a step backward this past December while playing in the Venezuelan Winter League.
Now he has twofold task: Prove he can play in the big leagues and repair his image again.
The outfielder got into an ugly fight that was caught on video and shown on YouTube. It does not cast him in a good light as players from both teams stream onto the field in a display of human behavior at its worst.
Maybe Milledge should have read his current events before playing in a country that has had its political problems and can be volatile.
Milledge was a runner on second base when he mimicked throwing a hand grenade into the opposing team’s dugout. Sparks began to fly with him and the opposing team’s second baseman exchanging blows.
After things settled down, Milledge is seen rushing out from nowhere and attacking a player to ignite the melee all over again.
When he came home last spring to join the Pittsburgh Pirates, the former Lakewood Ranch High star had people predicting he would hit 20 homers and steal 20 or more bases.
His supporters said he was just a young guy who made silly mistakes that go along with being thrust into the limelight at an early age.
Milledge seemed to be a model citizen last year with the exception of that home run he thought he hit that wasn’t -- and that was more embarrassing than anything else.
Unfortunately he fell far short of expectations, hitting only four homers, stealing five bases in eight attempts and never showing that golden glove.
Milledge is now with the Chicago White Sox trying to resurrect his career and change his persona.
About to turn 26 in April, the Palmetto native is with his third organization in five years and fourth since becoming the 12th overall pick in the 2003 Major League Baseball draft.
The White Sox signed Milledge to a minor-league deal that would earn him $500,000 in the majors. He adds needed depth to the Chicago outfield and comes at such a cheap price, the ChiSox were willing to get him, especially in a deal that does not have any incentives.
He is still young enough to evoke visions of the five-tool prospect he once was, though his time is slipping away.
The sophomore jinx might be a curse or the figment of one’s imagination, but for the Pittsburgh Pirates it can’t be ignored.
The Bucs are banking so much on their young trio of sophomores -- Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker and Jose Tabata -- that General Manager Neal Huntington has already put in place a network to help these guys if anyone of them gets off to a slow start.
It’s necessary, so many things can happen, and baseball is full of first-year wonders who become second-year busts.
Remember the Marlins Chris Coghlan, the 2009 National League Rookie of the Year, who tried to throw a pie into a teammate’s face and tore his meniscus last year?
Before the season-ending incident, his .321 first-year batting average already pummeled 51 points, and his RBI and run production took a significant dip.
With not a lot of established depth, if any of the Bucs’ super sophomores falters things it could have a significant impact. Making adjustments is the best way to avoid the dreaded jinx, experts say.
When the late George Steinbrenner first took over, the New York Yankees’ critics claimed he was trying to use a football mentality to motivate his baseball players.
The argument went that you can get an offensive lineman to pancake a bigger defensive lineman on sheer motivation, but that won’t help a guy who can’t hit a breaking ball and it can’t turn an 85-mile-per-hour thrower into a 90-mph pitcher.
As time proved with Steinbrenner, deep pockets and a checkbook with no limits are the best ways to produce a winner.
The Pirates brass is hoping new manager Clint Hurdle can make a difference though management sees him as an effective teacher and not a savior. He brings excitement, and his communication skills can be empowering, energizing his players to work harder.
But if the checkbook theory holds up, the Pirates are going to have to part with some cash to make his managerial stint a successful one.