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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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My Ever Lastings Regret

Stephen Strasburg is baseball’s best pitcher. Not just now, but forever. I know it’s true because he pitched seven sensational innings Tuesday night and Bob Costas’s drool seeped through my television screen while it happened. As Strasburg struck out fourteen Pirates in seven innings, Costas all but dug up the late Walter Johnson just for the purpose of burying him again. The Big Train was great, Costas solemnly informed us, but he can move on now.

Strasburg was definitely enthralling. Costas could be forgiven his rhetorical excesses in speculating that the kid who had yet to win one game was destined to sit someday on a historical par with Johnson — Washington’s previous pitching legend, with 417 victories but one fewer appearance on MLB Network than Strasburg. Strasburg, who walked nobody and gave up only four hits, struck out the final seven batters he faced in his debut. He threw better and harder as it got later and later. I temporarily forgot (or tried to forget) that the day will come when he’s trying to replicate such a performance against the Mets up to six times a year. Instead, I reveled in and rooted for this display of astonishing ability. I didn’t want him to come out after seven. I wanted him to go nine as much as I wanted Mike Pelfrey to go nine Tuesday night. I didn’t realize that if Jim Riggleman left him in, he had a genuine chance to break Tom Seaver’s consecutive strikeout record of ten.

Of course he would have broken it. He’s already better than Walter Johnson. He must be better than Tom Seaver, too.

We’ll see what Stephen Strasburg becomes whether we want to or not. We’ll see if he’s a Seaver and, because it wouldn’t be fair to anybody, hope he’s not a Leary. Being a Strasburg looks pretty good for now. We as baseball fans, even if we’re not Nationals fans — and we’re not — are entitled to anticipate if not exactly project what he might do.

As Mets fans we’re expert at that sort of thing. We’ve had our youngsters and we’ve spoken for their futures before they had much chance to cobble together a present. The litany that constitutes the Youth of America, dating back to Casey Stengel’s touting of 17-year-old Ed Kranepool, is unnecessary to unspool, but it just so happened that one of the young Mets we marked for success not that long ago was on the scene for Stephen Strasburg’s coming out party. And since he was at Nationals Park instead of Citi Field, I guess that tells us what became of his future Metwise.

Lastings Milledge was Strasburg’s first strikeout as well as his third hit allowed. He was batting third for Pittsburgh. Batting third is pretty good. Pittsburgh isn’t. Lastings Milledge is 25. I’d hate to tell any 25-year-old his future has been decided. But Lastings’ future surely isn’t what it used to be.

We thought we knew what Lastings Milledge was going to be. Few of us wanted to err on anything but the side of optimism. He came up wearing No. 44. Mets By The Numbers hoped he’d be assigned 6. David Wright wore 5. Jose Reyes wore 7. Wouldn’t it be great if our three homegrown stars lined up numerically? I thought so, which is probably why I remember that.

I remember the weeks of Lastings Milledge, next big thing. I remember we were able to call him up because there was no way, no how we could trade him, not even for Manny Ramirez (though I couldn’t tell you whether that was ever a real possibility). I remember he came up wearing a wooden cross large enough to scare off vampires and made a throw from right to third that cut down a Diamondback. I remember his first home run was a cause célèbre, not only because it was the first home run hit by our hottest prospect, and not only because it tied a game for us in extra innings, but because Lastings Milledge reached out and touched the hands of the fans who reached out for him as he trotted back to his position in the game he personally extended. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard of or seen on a baseball field. But it turned out to be a serious breach of protocol. Word went out from the village elders: You just don’t do that, Lastings.

Lastings had to act contrite for breaking the unwritten rule that you don’t appear to acknowledge the fans. The whole non-issue made for a fantastic couple of days of WFAN fodder. Then Lastings Milledge gave us different fodder: a triple, a homer, three runs batted in and another big throw, this time nailing a Dodger at second from left to secure the first win of what would become an eight-game winning streak that would all but nail down our division by the middle of June. He had taken off his immense cross, but his arm was still a sight to see. Everything about Lastings was a sight to see…and a sight to foresee. After he played a key role in dismantling the Dodgers, I allowed myself to foresee his future:

He was going to the Hall of Fame.

I was half-kidding when I suggested after eight games that he was going to be “recreating the game as we will know it in the 21st century,” but I think I might have been half-serious. The game that sent me over the edge in not just believing the hype but advancing it was played in Los Angeles, late at night, so maybe I was just groggy. I know wanted to believe it. I wanted an outfielder who could hit; hit with power; run; run for years to come; throw; throw off sparks; catch; and catch lightning in a bottle. I wanted Lastings Milledge to be that ten-tool player.

He came up a little short. He came to the park a little late at the end of that particular road trip in Philadelphia. Everything had gone so well for Lastings and the Mets — 9-1, putting away the East — and yet there was this slight discordant note. Lastings Milledge didn’t show up on time. It couldn’t be ignored. It wasn’t ignored. By the end of the season, the Mets having clinched with only stray contributions from their game-changing outfielder, a sign appeared above his locker, admonishing him to “Know your place, rook.

Should have known then it was never going to work out for Lastings Milledge with the Mets. Should have known it the following season when he went into the hip hop business and rapped some lyrics a little less uplifting than, say “Don’t Sweat The Technique”. Should have known it at the end of that season when Lastings enjoyed maybe the best game of his Met career — 3-for-5, two home runs in support of the John Maine near no-hitter that kept the Mets alive on the final weekend of 2007 — but the facet of his performance that was examined in-depth was the expert and extravagant handshaking exhibition he conducted with Jose Reyes. Seems nobody cared for Lastings Milledge and hand gestures.

Lastings Milledge, despite being the future of the Mets, wasn’t long for the Mets. Two months removed from his two homers and his fleeting happiness, he was a Washington National, swapped south for the depressing Ryan Church and the morose Brian Schneider. That he was batting against and not on behalf of Stephen Strasburg the other night indicates it didn’t go so swell for him in D.C., either.

Milledge’s two-and-a-third seasons since leaving the Mets haven’t given anybody tangible cause to regret his absence from Flushing. He was a No. 1 pick who didn’t pan out for us and hasn’t panned out for anybody. He’s played for three teams in five years and it would be hard to argue the sum total of what he’s produced on the baseball field is any better than what he produced in the recording studio when he lent his voice to “Bend Ya Knees.”

Except I’m still enthralled by those early hits of Lastings, his throws, his high-fives, his promise that never seemed to get its big chance to become fulfilled in New York. It took Mike Pelfrey a while, but he’s done it. It took Heath Bell a while and a continental transplant, but he’s done it. Lastings Milledge hasn’t done it. He did not fit snugly between Wright and Reyes as a homegrown Met icon of the modern age. He is not here with them and Ike Davis and perhaps Ruben Tejada to form an under-30 system-produced Met nucleus for the half-decade ahead. In what may very well already be the post-Carlos Beltran era, it is Angel Pagan who has bloomed late but definitely blossomed as the outfielder in this picture. He’s a homegrown Met not yet 29 years old. He looks good in center. He sounds good after games. I watched Pagan and Bay and Francoeur all do their clubhouse interviews after the comeback win over the Marlins on Sunday and I realized how much I like our outfield as a unit and as individuals. They’re not perfect, they’re not particularly consistent, but they sure are likable.

But I was going to love Lastings Milledge. I was going to thrill to Lastings Milledge. A part of me remains oblivious to the immaturity that doomed him as a Met and the .264/.326/.388 that hasn’t distinguished him as a major leaguer. Part of me, now and again, wishes he had made it with us. On June 7, 2006, Lastings Milledge was tripling, homering and throwing out Nomar Garciaparra at second base. Exactly four years and one day later, he was one of nine mostly anonymous Pirates striking out against somebody else’s big hope for the future. The game has moved on to Stephen Strasburg, one month shy of 23 and slated for greatness.

Lastings Milledge looked so good there in spots in 2006. He was 21 then. He’s 25 now.

15 comments to My Ever Lastings Regret

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by You Gotta Believe!, Greg Prince. Greg Prince said: Ever Lastings Regret over a hyped #Mets prospect reduced to background player in Strasburg's debut. http://wp.me/pKvXu-1vP [...]

  • Ray

    And in five years he has a very good chance to be 30.

  • Like you Greg I go caught up in Lastings-palooza and it’s kind of sad to see him become a stumble bum. You could throw Greg Jeffries in with LMillz and go back to the day Don Bosch was to become another on the long line of great NY centerfielders.

    As for the Edward Emil Kranepool remember the number “1418″ for the all time hits leader in Mets history

  • March'62

    Milledge and Jeffries are great examples of why you need more than just talent to make it in the big leagues. Both had loads of ability but failed to ‘fit in’ with their teammates, caused dissension in the clubhouse, were ‘put in their place’, and eventually were put in some other place.

    That’s why the Ike Davises and Strasburg’s are such breaths of fresh air. More than the talent, they have their minds and hearts in the right place and bring the clubhouse together.

    As far as Strasburg causing the Mets trouble in the NL East; it will be only 6 years before he’s on the back page of the Daily News wearing the dreaded pinstripes. I prefer him in Washington.

    • CharlieH

      By that time, who’s to say the pinstripes won’t be royal blue and not navy?

      If, in 2002, someone had told you a certain Minnesota lefty phenom would be a Met — and not a Yank — 6 years hence, would you have believed them?

      • March'62

        One star does not a constellation make. $126 million only goes so far these days. George M. Vader feeds the horned toads with that kind of chump change.

    • Andee

      I don’t know…it seems that Jefferies was about 10,000 times more entitled and arrogant than Lastings ever was, at least that we were ever privy to. People really had their underoos bunched about him touching the fans’ hands? What petty, small-minded BS. (And as obnoxious as that rap record was, is regular clubhouse “discourse” really any worse?)

      But I’ve no doubt they successfully crushed his spirit. Not to mention given the message to potential young African-American ballplayers not to go anywhere near this game, because you will be on a much shorter leash than your Caucasian counterparts. But I guess they knew that already, right?

  • Joe D.

    HI Greg,

    For those afficiandos of Bill James, here is a comparision of what he predicted and what Lasings actually did.

    James: Games 134, AB 494, HR 15, RBI 67, BA.281, , OBP .347, SLG.439
    Actual: Games 65, AB 265, HR 4, RBI 21, BA .279, OBP .323, SLG .373

    Since he only played half the games as James predicted (due to being sent down and injured in the minors) let’s double his totals for the year:

    James: Games 134, AB 494, HR 15, RBI 67, BA 281
    Double
    2009 : Games 130, AB 530, HR 8, RBI 42, BA 279

    James hit it on the nose with batting average but was way off with power and run production. This year, Lastings has risen his BA to .255 but has yet to hit one over the fence.

    As I’ve always contended, calculations are great for use as an aid in game strategy but that predictions on one’s development should be left to the players, coaches and scouts and not the mathematicians.

  • Jacobs27

    Very interesting reflection, Greg. I was just thinking about Milledge ’cause I saw some Pirate making a catch on a highlight reel and it turned out to be him.

    I also had Milledge fever when he first came up, I had gotten his autograph in the minors, and I was at that Pedro-Brandon Webb duel where he nailed Counsell at 3rd with that laser beam throw. All that stuff…

    He never did himself any favors, but it always seemed like people were looking for reasons to disapprove of his conduct. If he were lighting it up like Strasbourg, would people have treated him the same way?

    Francoeur is an interesting contrast, though, huh? The annointed Brave now a Met. How do you think Braves fans feel about their erstwhile local boy? He’s a fan favorite-type, right, in terms of make-up. Great attitude, if a bit hard-headed. Can make those rocket throws. But can he get on base?

    • One thing they seem to have in common, besides great arms, is there’s always going to be a faction waiting/expecting them to fail. A cottage industry exists to tell us Jeff Francoeur is no good, just as there was a Greek chorus warming up their voices with tut after (“tut-tut”) for Lastngs Milledge. Some guys have to win not just games but win over doubters.

  • One of my fondest memories of Shea Stadium was being in-house for his debut the night after I saw him play in Rhode Island for the Tides. The transition from a AAA park to an MLB park gave me a thrill, so I couldn’t imagine what Lastings was feeling.

    The Boston series and his absolute inability to make sense of the Monster set off the warning bells for me.

    • He always looked better in center than the corners, better in right than in left. Center was taken, so Lastings had to play where he had to play. He was a disaster in left in the Fenway series.

      • Funny, I just went over the scorecard from Lasting’s minor league game and it appears I was watching the wrong prospect. Starting at 2B for the Paw Sox that day and going 0-3 w/ a BB was one Dustin Pedroia.

  • [...] pocket from April, had gone to 11-1, raising his ERA to 0.93. It had been barely 48 hours since Stephen Strasburg had struck out 14 while walking nobody in seven innings in his major league debut. Niese had struck out six but walked nobody in eight innings. He had [...]

  • Will in Central NJ

    It did seem to me that some were quick to criticize Milledge in the media and in blog comments elsewhere. I saw him in a handful of games in the minors (in 2005, B-Mets at Trenton; in 2006, Norfolk at Scranton/WB). For what it’s worth, Milledge was terrific with fans each time, in a genuine way. It seemed at odds with the way he was portrayed as a teammate and with the hip hop stuff. When signing autographs, he made frequent eye contact with fans of all races, genders and ages, spoke in Spanish with Latino fans; posed willingly for photos at the railing; and, in Scranton, when walking past autograph hunters, postgame, with his arms full of gear and a takeout food container, said that he’d return from the bus to sign autographs. To the surprise of many, he did exactly that, patiently, and professionally. I think Andee above has her finger on the pulse of things. Lastings was terrific with the fans, in contrast with how he was often portrayed. I wish he could’ve made it in orange and blue, and in a way, after my brief but good memories of my encounters with Lastings, I hope he finds some redemption someday (but not against the Mets, of course).