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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 [1] 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 [2] 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 [3]. 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 [4]. 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 [5] (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 [6]and made a throw from right to third that cut down a Diamondback. I remember his first home run [7] 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 [8] 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 [9] 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 [10] 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. [11]

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 [12] than, say “Don’t Sweat The Technique [13]”. 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 [14] that kept the Mets alive on the final weekend of 2007 — but the facet of his performance that was examined in-depth [15] 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 [16] 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.