Apr 05

Why It Went Wrong For Lastings Milledge

I will remember it as if I saw it yesterday for the first time.

A sheet of notebook paper, with the words, “Know your place, rook … signed, your teammates,’’ was taped over Lastings Milledge’s locker in the Mets’ clubhouse in old RFK Stadium. This, in the late summer in 2006.

MILLEDGE: Once he burned bright.

MILLEDGE: Once he burned bright.

The Mets were en route to the playoffs and a veteran laden team was rubbed the wrong way by Milledge’s brashness and arrogance. Then-manager Willie Randolph – who reprimanded Milledge several times that summer – ripped down the sign, but knew he hadn’t ripped away the problem.

The Mets labeled it a misunderstanding, and Randolph called Milledge “a good kid,’’ but this clearly was not a misunderstanding with a teammate. It was the accumulation of several incidents that rankled several teammates.

Milledge burst upon the Mets, hitting over .300, was dazzling on the bases and showed a strong arm. He was going to be the next “fill in the blank.’’ Willie Mays? Roberto Clemente?

However, things quickly cooled after his first career homer, when on his way to the outfield he high-fived fans down the right field line in Shea Stadium. Randolph sensed how the Giants seethed in their dugout, especially since he saw some of his own players do the same.

Randolph reprimanded Milledge on the unwritten laws in baseball, but it didn’t take. There were ground balls he didn’t run out and times he didn’t hustle in the outfield. He was flash with the jewelry swinging wildly on the field, but in the clubhouse he often sat buried in his locker wearing headphones or playing a video game.

He came off as sullen and angry and clearly couldn’t be bothered by getting to know his teammates. Or, a baseball legend for that matter. During spring training then-GM Omar Minaya brought Milledge to the Nationals dugout to meet Frank Robinson, but Milledge was came off as being in-different.

Finally, he arrived in the clubhouse in Philadelphia an hour before a day game. Although it was early, the veterans made it in on time. David Wright had enough when Milledge strolled in with sunglasses and an iPod as if he owned the place and told him this wasn’t acceptable.

Wright wouldn’t belabor the issue Opening Day, only managing to say “seniority is big in this game,’’ which is the politically-correct translation for Milledge hadn’t earned his stripes.

Milledge popped into my consciousness today when I learned it was his 28th birthday, an age when he should be in the prime of his career. Instead, Milledge is one of hundreds of baseball prospects given the label of “can’t miss, but eventually did.’’

Seven years ago – the career lifetime of a select few – the Mets had three prized outfield prospects in Milledge, Carlos Gomez and Francisco Martinez. One by one they arrived, fizzled to the point of exasperation and were traded. Not one of them hustled like journeyman outfielder Collin Cowgill.

After turning down several proposals for Manny Ramirez, the Mets eventually traded Milledge to Washington as part of a trade that brought Ryan Church – he of the concussion fiasco – and catcher Brian Schneider. Milledge had his coffee to go with Washington, then Pittsburgh and finally the White Sox before heading to Japan. Milledge had his head-scratching moments in each place, but basically stopped hitting.

At 28, Milledge is still young. It’s about discipline in Japan and if Milledge comes back with a changed attitude perhaps he’ll get another chance. It’s a long way to Japan, and perhaps an even longer route back to the major leagues.

ON DECK: The 73 Series continues with “Ya Gotta Believe” slogan

 

Mar 22

No Conspiracy: The Mets Needed To Make Wright Captain

There is a conspiracy theory everywhere you look. I read one suggesting the Mets made David Wright captain to divert attention away from the field, where they are projected to be bad. Very bad.

C’mon. Are you serious? How long do you think that will last? With virtually no hope given to the Mets this year, they’ll be coming out to see Wright and the young players such as Matt Harvey, Ike Davis, Travis d’Arnaud and Zack Wheeler. The last two you’ll probably see sometime in June.

Smokescreens like that never work. Besides, Mets fans are like children and dogs in a way, after awhile, they know when they’re getting duped.

Besides, if taking the fan’s attention away from the team is the goal, they should have done this three years ago as the attendance at Citi Field has consistently dwindled.

Wright is simply the best player the Mets have, and arguably the best player – outside of Tom Seaver – they ever produced. And best, I mean both on and off the field.

As Major League Baseball goes after Ryan Braun and others in a witch hunt over PED’s, Wright has publicly stood up against drug users. A long time ago, when I asked Derek Jeter about steroids, he said: “I don’t use them, so it’s none of my business.”

Guess again. It is every player’s business for their sport to be clean and Wright, whether or not it comes from his father who is in law enforcement, has always stood for that goal. He should be commended for that alone.

I know some don’t feel Wright is clutch enough, but that’s nonsense. Baseball is about failing three out every ten at-bats just to be good, and Wright is the best the Mets have in that regard. Who else would you rather see at the plate in the ninth inning of a close game?

Jeff Wilpon said the appointment was for all Wright has done, and will do, for the organization in the future. The Mets have been awful on the field since 2008, and even worse off it with the Ponzi scandal, numerous bad signings and public relations fiascos. With all those around him losing their heads, Wright kept his, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling.

When it was clear the Mets were about to sack Willie Randolph, Wright spoke out for his manager – and against management – because it was the right thing to do. He blamed himself and the players, not the manager whom management had spied on with Tony Bernazard.

A leader sometimes deals with uncomfortable things, and yes, Wright spoke against Lastings Milledge coming in late. He downplays it now, but it had to be done. Players often take their lead from other players, and when somebody doesn’t hustle, Wright lets him know it in a low-key, yet effective manner.

He doesn’t get in their faces, just their minds. And, that’s what leaders, and captains, do.

Mar 21

Mets Have Habit Of Placating Pitchers For The Worst

What is it with the Mets and their starting pitchers? Giving them near total control hasn’t worked. It didn’t for Willie Randolph and Jerry Manuel, and it isn’t for Terry Collins.

The impression is the tail is wagging the dog when it comes to Mets’ starters, and this isn’t new. Pitchers tend to be divas by nature, but it has gone to another level with the Mets.

MARCUM: What's going on here?

MARCUM: What’s going on here?

Clearly, free-agent Shaun Marcum did not report to spring training ready to go by telling Collins and GM Sandy Alderson he only needed four starts to get ready. He was allowed to set his own pace, but obviously didn’t have the track record to deserve it.

Marcum received cortisone injections in each of the last three years, and last spring was down for nearly three weeks. Without question, this is a guy who should not be setting his own program.

Marcum vows 200 innings, a level he’s only reached once since 2005. His lifetime 57-36 record was why Alderson gave him the benefit of doubt, but his 124 innings last year should have accounted for something.

Wasn’t Marcum’s history and workout program discussed? If it was, then why agree to this?

Santana does have the resume to set his own program, but abused it when he threw off the mound without Collins’ knowledge the first week of March.

SANTANA: Won't make Opening Day.

SANTANA: Won’t make Opening Day.

The Mets said they monitored Santana in the off-season, and told him to go easy since he rehabbed the previous two winters. Something was lost in the communication as Santana wasn’t ready when spring training began and will open the season on the disabled list.

Collins said Santana knows his own body, but here’s a guy who hasn’t worked an inning all spring and at the beginning wanted to pitch in the World Baseball Classic. Had he done so, the results could have been career threatening.

Early in camp, after Alderson questioned Santana’s conditioning, the lefthander, angry with the Mets and media, threw off the mound without his manager’s knowledge. Collins wasn’t happy then and now must be fuming because Santana has done little since and has no set timetable. One must wonder how much that stunt set him back.

There are other examples of how the Mets let their starting pitches get away with setting their own routine that ended badly.

In 2009, Mike Pelfrey refused to go on the disabled list and miss a start and insisted on the start being pushed back. To placate him, the Mets brought up a starter from the minors, but to make room released reliever Darren O’Day, who only proved to be a key in the Rangers getting to the World Series twice.

O’Day has worked 247.2 innings in his five-year career with 217 strikeouts, 63 walks, a 2.73 ERA and 1.058 WHIP. The Mets don’t have anybody with that production in their current bullpen.

The Mets also let Pedro Martinez march to his own tune with mixed results for several years. Is Pedro pitching today? What’s going on with Pedro? It was like that every spring.

MARTINEZ: Where's Pedro?

MARTINEZ: Where’s Pedro?

The Mets did everything they could, including alienating a future Hall of Famer, Tom Glavine, to placate Martinez and his whims.

Of course, don’t forget Oliver Perez, whom former GM Omar Minaya signed to a disastrous three-year contract. The height of the absurdity is when Perez refused a minor league assignment – as was his contractual right – to work on his mechanics.

Consequently, the Mets carried him the rest of the season rather than release him and eat his contract, which they eventually did the following spring.

Funny, the Mets once had the stones – but no brains – and traded Tom Seaver, who wasn’t happy with his contract. Now it seems they don’t have either, as the trend is obvious, from Alderson to Minaya, and with each of the managers, to let some starters dictate to them how things would be and it turned out for the worse.

Will it be that way in 2013 with Marcum and Santana?

Sep 05

Mets Should Consider Returning Pelfrey

Mike Pelfrey surfaced on the Mets’ radar yesterday when he showed up in St. Louis to participate in the team’s fantasy football draft. Pelfrey was shelved almost immediately and underwent Tommy John surgery, May 1.

PELFREY: What is to become of him? (AP)

Most likely, he’ll be non-tendered in December because he’s arbitration eligible and made $5.6875 million this season. The rules state players must make at least 80 percent of their previous year’s salary, but in reality rarely take a pay cut.

Should the Mets re-sign Pelfrey for a lower salary, Terry Collins said he’d consider him in the bullpen, which is not the first time the Mets have done so. Willie Randolph thought about it during the epic collapse of 2007.

I realize Pelfrey has fallen short of expectations, especially when now compared with Matt Harvey. However, the Mets’ rotation is precariously thin with Johan Santana and Dillon Gee coming off injuries – Harvey unproven, and not knowing what to expect from their minor league system.

Pitching is always at a premium and three years ago Pelfrey looked as if he was making a breakthrough. That potential could still be there. I’d rather that the chance on Pelfrey regaining that previous form than the Mets shopping in the dark in the discount aisle.

Because, after all, who doesn’t expect a rotation breakdown next year?

 

May 15

Terry Collins Sticks With Frank Francisco As Mets Closer

I’m not crazy about the idea of the Mets sticking with struggling closer Frank Francisco, and definitely wasn’t as the ninth inning started to get away. However, when that ball stayed up in the right-center gap, it ensured Francisco would remain the closer for another day.

COLLINS: Being consistent.

Collins dismissed the idea of replacing Francisco, even temporarily, from the spot where the Mets will pay him $12 million for two years. I didn’t like the signing then, and I don’t like it now. Maybe Sandy Alderson is having second thoughts, but with that commitment unless Francisco becomes a total bust he’ll stay.

Collins didn’t say salary was the reason, but somewhere it must come into play.

The Mets are winning in part because their chemistry has been good, and mostly Francisco has contributed to that. Francisco’s recent struggles are too small a window to make the decision, Collins said. Removing Francisco has a trickle down effect throughout the bullpen. Jon Rauch’s role changes, so to does that of Tim Byrdak and Bobby Parnell.

There are rough times and there is unraveling, and changing everybody’s role alters the chemistry and changes everything. I recall the Mets doing than at the end of the 2007 season during their epic collapse.

Continue reading