A Lastings legacy: Mets’ Milledge is Rarity: a Top Black Prospect

By Courtesy of The New York Daily News
Updated: February 27, 2006

Cliff Floyd (l.) is the only African-American player on Mets, but young prospect Lastings Milledge (r.) hopes to be the second.

Cliff Floyd (l.) is the only African-American player on Mets, but young prospect Lastings Milledge (r.) hopes to be the second.

PORT ST. LUCIE – Even among all the stars, young and old, assembled here for what the Mets hope is a championship season, Lastings Milledge is a player you can’t help but notice.

His swing is the main reason. Milledge has the fastest bat this side of Gary Sheffield, and though his swing is shorter, less powerful, the bat speed is no less eye-popping.

It’s the reason he is considered a can’t-miss outfield prospect, the reason the Red Sox said they had to have him when they were talking to the Mets about a deal for Manny Ramirez last summer.

But Milledge stands out because of his appearance as well. An African-American, Milledge wears his hair long, in cornrows that stick out from under his hat and hang on his neck. It’s a style that is fashionable in the NBA and the NFL but is rarely seen in Major League Baseball, primarily because African-American players are becoming something of a vanishing breed in this sport.

As the percentage of foreign players, especially Latin ones, has risen dramatically over the last decade, the percentage of African-Americans has fallen, either because of lack of opportunity in the inner cities, or because kids these days are more drawn to the glamour, speed, and excitement of football and basketball – or both.

Cliff Floyd, the Mets’ only established African-American player, is concerned enough about the dropoff that he says he is establishing a foundation in the Chicago area, where he grew up, that will be dedicated to exposing inner-city kids to baseball.

“I think in some cases it’s the cost of maintaining fields and getting equipment that is the problem,” Floyd said. “But I also think it’s the glamour. The thing kids like to do now is watch and play football and basketball.”

In some ways Milledge himself falls into that category.

“I can sit down all day and watch football,” he says. “It’s really exciting. I mean, I like watching baseball too. But you get a couple of innings that go on too long, and you change the channel.”

In addition, Milledge, who grew up in Palmetto, Fla., near Bradenton, says he believes that black kids look at baseball as something of an establishment sport, a sport that demands conformity they don’t necessarily want imposed on them.

“I think a lot of kids see football as predominately black, where baseball in high school is predominately white. They kind of get into that thing where in baseball you’ve gotta be clean-cut, and there are a lot of rules, where in football, it’s more like as long as you get the job done, that’s all that matters, no matter how you look.”

Milledge says he was drawn to football, which is especially popular in Florida, and figures he’d “probably be playing college football right now” if not for his father.

Anthony Milledge was drafted by the Cardinals three decades ago, and played a year of minor-league baseball before recognizing his own limitations and enlisting in the military, a move that eventually led to a career as a state trooper in Florida.

“My dad and my two older brothers played football in high school,” Lastings Milledge says. “But he didn’t want me to play it. He saw that I had a future in baseball. I still played football until the eighth grade.

“I mean, if I really, really wanted to keep playing, I could have forced it. But I don’t really test my dad. He’s been a real big influence on me. I wouldn’t be here without him. He’s responsible for everything I know – my work ethic, the way I go about everyday life.”

Milledge stuck to baseball in high school, where he says he was the only black player on the team. He says he never concerned himself with race because he enjoyed playing baseball, and by his junior year began to see what his father had seen for years – he had a future in the game, a notion the Mets confirmed by making him their first-round draft choice in 2003.

“Other kids focused on football and track,” says Milledge. “It’s weird. African-Americans, whatever they see their race do, that’s what they want to do. They’re drawn to the speed and excitement of football and basketball.

“I always had a talent for baseball but it takes discipline to stay with it, and that’s where I have to thank my father. Without discipline, you’re nothing.”

Milledge, who last year hit .302 in Class A and then .337 after being promoted to Double-A, has his own career to worry about rather than the declining numbers of African-Americans in baseball, but Floyd is hoping to make an impact in that regard. He thinks it’s important for baseball as well as his race.

“A lot of good athletes don’t make it in football and basketball, but maybe they could make it in baseball if they played it,” says Floyd. “I know a lot of my boys back home had more talent than me in baseball when we were young, but they didn’t stay with it. “I want to do something to make kids realize baseball is fun, and it’s out there for them. Sometimes kids just need to be put in the right environment.”

The proof is a can’t-miss kid like Lastings Milledge