Milledge proud to shed bad reputation

Milledge proud to shed bad reputation

PITTSBURGH -- Lastings Milledge's season is likely over, the result of a left oblique strain the outfielder sustained taking a batting practice swing on Tuesday.

"It's going to be tough," Milledge said, when asked of his chances of returning. "As of today, I don't think I can generate enough force to play. I play 100 percent. I don't know how to play 80 percent. That's going to be the tough thing."

However, labeling this a disappointing end to a disappointing season would be all wrong, Milledge cautioned. It's not reflected in his numbers, and it may not have been obvious in the struggles he had defensively, but Milledge ends the season believing that his career is at the best point it has ever been.

Speaking at length in his typical hushed tone prior to Saturday's game, Milledge relayed a perspective to his season that those focused solely on statistics would never venture to consider. This season, as Milledge explained, was much more than his .277 batting average, his 34 RBIs and his seven home runs.

It was about addressing the past and redirecting his future. It was about redemption.

"I broke a lot of labels," Milledge said. "I broke a lot of things that were said about me. That was a goal, as well to get that negative vibe from over my head this year. I think that's bigger than hitting 30 homers. I think that's bigger than anything else, because now teams see that I've gotten a lot better as a player and a lot better as a person."

Milledge's past had been laced with negativity. He joined the organization with the reputation for being a bad teammate, a clubhouse cancer and a lazy, young player who relied more on talent than hard work. The origins of all the unflattering labels weren't always obvious. But they stuck. And to Milledge, they hurt.

Now, though, ask anyone associated with the Pirates about Milledge's work ethic, effort and desire, and you will get the same unequivocal and unanimous response: It couldn't have been better.

"Now I can be, quote, unquote, trusted," Milledge said. "I think that's bigger than anything. That's bigger than having an All-Star year. For me, it's huge to be able to be looked upon as a leader, and a guy that gives everything he has and is willing to make any adjustment at any given time. I think I've gotten a lot better. I just want to put everything together."

Milledge is hopeful that his being able to put everything together will begin with an offseason of winter ball in Venezuela. The outfielder's decision to participate in the winter league is two-fold.

It will allow him to collect additional at-bats after getting only 379 this season. Milledge's inability to hang on to an everyday role cost him in that department. Winter ball will also afford Milledge the chance to "be myself again," as he described it.

"I think I changed my game a lot this year, and it kind of cost me some playing time," he said. "I changed my approach around a little bit to get more hits and be more adequate on the field. I think I just need to be the player I am instead of changing so much. That kind of put me in a situation where I don't know what I'm going to be next year. I just have to make sure that I go back to the drawing board, and do what I feel like I need to do to be the best player I know I can be."

Milledge was asked to elaborate on what exactly it was that changed in his approach.

"I maybe gave myself up too much in situations that I could be more aggressive," Milledge said. "I think I was a little bit passive sometimes. It's just trying to have a fine line between being aggressive and knowing when to give yourself up. I think I've got to learn that. When I learn that, that's going to be the year where I put everything together."

He then added: "I missed a lot of that on my way up. I got a little later start than other people."

That was in reference to the Mets' decision to rush Milledge to the big leagues less than two months after his 21st birthday. He played on and off in the Minors after making his Major League debut in 2006, but also felt forced to learn on the job in the big leagues with New York and Washington.

Though Milledge can hang his hat on his .333 batting average with runners in scoring position this season, his decrease in playing time reflects the outfielder's tenuous hold on future playing time.

The Pirates acquired Milledge with the expectation that he would become a regular outfielder. However, defensive issues and struggles against right-handed pitching this year have made such an outlook fuzzy.

The organization might be considering moving on, though general manager Neal Huntington hasn't explicitly said as much. Milledge could become a platoon player next year or serve as the team's fourth outfielder. Or, as Milledge hopes, he could be given another chance to earn regular playing time.

"I think that I've been a winning player," Milledge said. "I've done everything possible that I can do physically and mentally to put my team in a better situation. There is nothing that I regret this year. I gave it over 100 percent every day.

"I think I still see myself as a cornerstone guy. I don't know what the team views me as. I know what I view myself as, and I know that I'm going to do everything that I can do to be able to do that. I want to be a starter, so I've got to work as hard as I can to show all that I have."

Milledge's future with this ballclub is one of numerous decisions that Huntington will be forced to make this offseason. The Pirates are expected to pursue options for right field and/or first base, and an acquisition at either of those two positions will likely signal the end of Milledge's opportunities to prove he can be an impact player in Pittsburgh.

On the other hand, the outfielder is still relatively young -- he won't turn 26 until next season -- and no one has ever doubted the talent he possesses. The question is only if Milledge has run out of time.

"I have a little over 500 at-bats here, and I've done a good job," Milledge said. "Is it good enough? I don't know. But myself, I think I've done a great job on the field and off the field in the community. I've turned my whole career around character-wise.

"I want to be an everyday starter. I want them to look at me and say, 'This guy is going to do anything to win the game. Anything.' That's what I want."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.