Sunday, March 13, 2011Posted: 4:53 p.m.
By Brett Ballantini
GLENDALE, Ariz. Its just three weeks into his tenure with Chicago, but Lastings Milledge is looking more and more like hes been around the White Sox for a lot longer.
Hes quick to look for tips from coaches, and even faster to trade quips with teammates, especially another new member of the Pale Hose he knows as a teammate with the Washington Nationals, Adam Dunn.
Milledge of course wears his White Sox cap with considerably less security than Dunn, who signed a four-year, 56 million deal with Chicago this offseason. Milledge? Hes not even on the 40-man roster.
The White Sox were the first team interested in me, but also were honest with me, Milledge said. "They told me it wasnt going to be a big-league deal, that Id have to come here and prove myself. But I knew I had to do that, anyway. The honesty, and the talent on this team made signing here a no-brainer.
For a player whos seen his maturity questioned at every stop, Milledge exudes unusual calm and precise perspective discussing his current role with the Chisox.
Things happen. I am where I am now. I cant change it, he said. Right now, the main focus is being a player who can be called upon to do anything the team asks. I know that Im not going to start, so now Im just trying to get better at what Im asked. If somebody goes down, I want to be able to be productive in those times.
The 2011 White Sox are not a short-term proposition for Milledge, either. Not that hes angling to fall short of making the big club, but hes already anticipated any setbacks along the way.
Im definitely going to Charlotte AAA if I dont make the club, Milledge said. We already talked about it. I dont have a problem with that. Whether starting at AAA and going from there, Ive been there and done that as well. I just want to be the best at what I do when Im called upon and the team needs me to step up. Whatever the case may be, I want to be able to step in and be productive when Im called upon.
So far, so good for the multifaceted outfielder. Entering Sundays play, hes played a solid outfield, starting mostly in center field, and sits at a .414 OBP and .391 SLG. Plate discipline has never been a strength of Milledges (104 career walks, 286 strikeouts for a rate, barely one walk for every three Ks), but this spring the outfielder has just four strikeouts against five walks.
White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker has been quick to praise Milledge for his work ethic and willingness to listen. Walkers modus operandi is to craft practice plans that adhere to a players particular style, not take on a dictatorial stance.
With Lastings, weve simplified things, Walker said. Hes had a lot thrown at him in a very short period of time, and hes had a lot of people telling him how to hit. He knows how to hit; thats why he was in the majors at 21. Were just working on getting him back to where he was where he found his most success.
That work has been met with approval from manager Ozzie Guillen, who no sooner had called out some of the players fighting for the last spot on the bench than acknowledged the fact that Milledge had stepped up his production across the board.
Its important to become a complete player. I have all the talent, I just have to build myself up, Milledge said. I just have to put it all together. With all these good players around me, it makes me up my game. I can learn a lot from these players in here. Theyre real easy to talk to. I feel like I have everything I need right now.
Part of everything includes teammates that are providing some of the first mentorship the 25-year-old (who started on the New York Mets two months after his 21st birthday) has ever received in his career.
Im talking to guys like Paul Konerko, Dunn, getting comfortable with JP Juan Pierre, Milledges locker neighbor and asking him stuff. Right now, I have everything I need. Everything I ever wanted. Im learning a lot, and trying to put everything together, the young outfielder said.
Pierre speaks of Jeffrey Hammonds mentoring him as a young player, Matt Thornton learned the ways of the mound from wizened lefty Arthur Rhodes it seems that any successful major-leaguer can point to a veteran whos helped him along the way. Plunged into the majors at such a young age, with a five-tool phenom label tagged on him as a No. 12 overall pick, only with the wisdom of hard knocks has Milledge realized what he missed not having a mentor in his career.
I had to learn everything on my own, Milledge said after a long pause. Being 21 and in New York, it was tough. I learned on the fly. Now, its my fifth season and Im starting to know what people expect Its there for me to be an explosive player and a game-changing guy. Its there. I just never put anything together on a consistent basis.
Through some tough setbacks, Milledge has been able to see the value in failure, something in abundance in baseball, but rarely something players want to acknowledge.
I got to the big leagues early, and its great to fail earlyIve been through a lot, seen a lot, he said. Im glad I already have my back up against the wall. I know what I can and cant handle. Ive been everywherefrom being a top prospect, to being released. Its an advantage more than a disadvantage.
Confidence, despite having been dealt from his first two big-league teams (New York and Washington) and left untendered by the Pittsburgh Pirates after a decent 2010, is something Milledge still possesses in abundance.
I definitely believe in my talent; until the day I retire, Ill always believe in myself, he said. Maybe Ill believe in myself too much, or think Im better than I am , but I dont have a problem with that. Im a confident person. The day I let that slip away from me, Ill feel like I dont have an edge.
One thing too commonly overlooked about Milledge is the sheer love of the game he has. He was roundly criticized as a rookie for running to the outfield after crushing a game-tying, extra-inning home run, and celebrated his first round-tripper as a White Sox last week by pulling his helmet off some 15 feet before home plate.
Its just something I do, whether its spring training or during the season, I love the excitement, Milledge said. I love when I do good. I love when the team does goodIm the first guy on the step when somebody else homers. I just love the game. People can take it how they want, but I just love to do good.
Love of the game is whats kept Milledge going. And from the looks of things midway through camp, that love might push him all the way onto the Opening Day roster.
Brett Ballantini is CSNChicago.com's White Sox Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnik on Twitter for up-to-the-minute White Sox information.