While the Publix that nearly neighbors my house may not be the beautiful elite female showcase that Robbie Hilson depicted in his recap of a stop by his local Coral Gables establishment, there is a certain perk of living in Tampa this time of the year. That perk is spring training.
On Tuesday, I made one of my many annual 10-minute road trips to the stadium formerly known as Legends Field. It is now, along with everything else in Tampa, named after some guy called Steinbrenner. I’ll set the beautiful scene for you.
The temperature was in the high 60s, the clouds that many originally thought would cause a rainy day were quickly fading from the sky and Derek Jeter was playing long toss with Alex Rodriguez for a historically iconic photo opportunity. I sat filled with content in the stands as a game between the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates was set to begin.
In my right hand was a cold Bud Light, my left held an open peanut shell. In other news, George Washington never told a lie, Abraham Lincoln lived in a log cabin and apple pie is delicious. God bless America.
A group of business people in the row behind me joked about what bad employees they were.
“I have to write up a deal when I get back to the office. It’s sure going to be creative,” a Polo-clad man said between gulps of Miller Lite.
“I don’t think I’m even going to make it back to the office today,” replied a female co-worker.
One of the professionals joked that there was nothing but “college kids, housewives and us here.” This was not true. Hank Steinbrenner was sitting one section over and looking as unlikeable as ever.
Somewhat lost in the midst of these spring time ramblings was a legitimately good spring training baseball game. C.C. Sabathia got the start for the Yankees, which sounded much more intimidating before his first pitch than after. Sabathia was quickly dominated by his first two batters, and that’s when the message came across the P.A. system.
“Batting third for the Pirates…Number 85…Lastings Milledge.”
The crowd was on the edge of their seats, feverishly booing the hated opponent. And by that, I mean that the entirety of the 9,187 fans in attendance were chuckling in indifference.
After all, who cares about Milledge? Why should anyone care about Milledge?
On June 30, 2009, Milledge was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates by the Washington Nationals. The move was hardly a blockbuster trade. The deal was your average “outfielder and reliever for another outfielder and reliever” kind of transaction. Hardly the groundbreaking following that Milledge may have garnered during his days as a super prospect.
Those who know Milledge probably remember him primarily for one reason. On June 4, 2006, Milledge hit his first career major league home run. This particular home run came in the bottom of the tenth inning and helped the New York Mets extend a game against the San Francisco Giants.
When Milledge returned to the outfield for the top of the 11th inning, he jubilantly ran by the crowd, exchanging high-fives with the Shea Stadium faithful the entire way out. The backlash that this simple sign of (gasp) passion and fun spawned was equivalent to the backlash against those who are caught with steroids or moral dilemmas, a glaring reminder of what is wrong with baseball.
Milledge was a rookie. He was supposed to know his place, act like he’s been there before, you’ve heard it all. To watch “Baseball Tonight” that evening, you would have thought that Milledge assaulted Tim Kurkjian’s mother. Much like walk-off celebrations and baseball games at night, the 21-year-old outfielder was ruining the sport. Baseball was dying a slow and disrespectful death.
Over the next three years, Milledge would go from super prospect to an everyday player who wasn’t even relevant enough to be a punchline. He was traded to the Nationals, a team where he could possibly get his chance as the star. His star power shined about as bright as a street corner Elvis impersonator.
After a time of futility in the nation’s capital, Milledge wound up on the doorstep of the Pirates, baseball’s favorite purgatory club. However, while most would mark the Pirates off as hopeless (and likely be correct), their lineup appears to have potential.
Starting off with OF Andrew McCutchen and continuing with names like Akinori Iwamura, Garret Jones and Ryan Church (who ironically was what the Mets received in their own Milledge trade), the Pirates are filled with young offense. Just ask Sabathia, who watched McCutchen frantically circle the bases around him repeatedly like a hungry shark. Or you could ask him about the home run that he gave up to Jones, the one that nearly cleared the Tampa Tribune Party Deck in right field as Nick Swisher just stared like a kid seeing a UFO.
The Pirates weakness is clear. It is pitching. Bad pitching is what will push them to the brink of 100 losses once again and send these promising players that I mentioned to contending teams in midseason trades.
As for Milledge, he now has a third chance to launch his career. He will be given every opportunity possible to make something out of this 2010 season. If he fails to make progress, expect the steel city to be his final stop in an underwhelming career.
If he shows the potential that scouts once flocked to, he may be up for an eventual promotion out of purgatory.