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Friday, January 19, 2018

Milledge right at home at Terry

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – It would have been impossible for Lastings Milledge not to feel at home while he strolled around the Terry Park Sports Complex, which is nestled in a residential neighborhood not far from this city’s historic downtown river district.

It was on the fields at Terry Park – and later at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., and at the Roger Dean Stadium Complex in Jupiter, Fla. – where Milledge’s far-reaching and rather compelling professional baseball career first took flight in the early 2000s.

The 32-year-old Milledge was back at Terry Park early this month, taking in all the action and enjoying the fanfare at the 21st Perfect Game World Showcase. He was here with his parents, Anthony Sr. and Linda, and his longtime friend and business partner, Logan Wells.

He and Wells built a 2,500 square-foot facility in Palmetto, Fla., and are operating 1st Round Training where they’re working with youngsters in an effort to get them involved with baseball and send them down a path that leads to happy, healthy and productive adult lives.

“We’re trying to give back to (the community) and we’re definitely trying to make a strong push for inner-city kids,” Milledge told a curious note-taker. “Every body is welcome, of course, but we really want to get the Black American guys back into the game. …

“I’ve told myself from day-one that when I step away from the game I will do the most that I can do to bring Black Americans back into the game of baseball.”

But for about 10 minutes or so on a sunny early January afternoon, Milledge took the time to look back on a baseball career that took flight with PG in 2001 and eventually ended after 14 years of professional ball, playing for teams in dozens of cities and towns on three continents. After so much trial and error and so much sweat and success, he’s decided it’s time to give back.

“I was fortunate to play at the pinnacle of the sport and I know what it takes to be one of the best,” Milledge said. “I’m trying to hand it down to the kids and let it go from there.”

Milledge was a Perfect Game pioneer, competing at many of the company’s earliest national events. He was at the PG World Showcase at Terry Park twice – in December 2001 and January 2003 – and the PG National at The Trop twice, in 2001-02; he also played at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in both ’01 and ’02.

A smile never left Milledge’s face while he recalled the time he spent playing alongside several future big-leaguers at the World Showcase at Terry Park, and also while he remembered sharing the field at The Trop with the likes of Melvin Upton, Scott Kazmir, Joey Votto, Denard Span, Jeff Clement, Alex Gordon, Prince Fielder, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Andrew Miller and Chris Perez.

“The list goes on and on,” he said. “I’ve been around (PG) for a long time, and now I’m getting the guys to come to (these events) and making sure that they get seen in front of the Perfect Game scouts and in front of the major league scouts; this is the crème de la crème.”

A pair of older brothers laid the groundwork, but, according to Milledge, even though they had just as much talent – if not more – than he did, they didn’t have the same opportunities that he was presented with though Perfect Game. Milledge’s father, Anthony, recognized that the opportunities his older boys had missed out on were now there for Lastings to take advantage of.

“My dad said from day-one that, hey, we’re going to get you seen – we’re going to go to the top showcases – and whatever we have to do, we’re going to do it,” he said. “So, getting invited to the showcases and doing things like that, that helped to create a national buzz.  …

“I can sit here and go on-and-on about what Perfect Game has done for me in my career. … They gave me a big stage and I took advantage of it.”

The New York Mets used the 12th overall pick in the first-round of the 2003 MLB June Amateur Draft to select the speedy Milledge, an outfielder, right out of Lakewood Ranch High School in Bradenton, Fla. He spent parts of eight seasons in the minor leagues and parts of six seasons in the big leagues with the Mets, Nationals and Pirates; he took his last major league at-bat with the White Sox in 2011, one of only four big-league at-bats he got that season.

Milledge then spent the next four seasons (2012-15) playing with the Yakult Swallows in the Japan Central League, and played winter ball in both Venezuela and Mexico during those years.

“It was everything I’d hope it would be; I wouldn’t change a thing,” Milledge said of his professional career. “My dad and my mom put me a great position, my dad gave me the blueprint and I stuck by it; never once derailed from it.

“I had some bumps along the road … but you learn so much,” he added. It’s crazy the commitment to excellence that you have to have day-in and day-out, and the responsibility that comes with being a big-leaguer.”

When Milledge gets together with the young players he is now helping train, he talks to them about achieving greatness, but not in the way many of them might at first think. Achieving greatness isn’t about making a million dollars, it’s about mapping out some realistic goals and then working hard to accomplish them.

“We want to go to college debt-free; we want to have a career job; we want to be an asset to our family and our closest friends – that’s what we want to be,” Milledge said. “So, that’s what I emphasize the most out of anything.

“Baseball is a tool; baseball can help you be multi-cultural,” he concluded. “It’s a world game where you can meet Dominicans, you can meet Venezuelans you can meet Japanese guys … and just the opportunities that baseball creates is crazy.”

So here was Lastings Milledge, back at Terry Park once again, 15 years removed from the last time he stepped out onto one of its fields. His mission now is to introduce this “world game” to as many new, young prospects as possible.



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