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A junior that has a major talent

Palmetto's Lastings Milledge is a possible No. 1 pick, and he isn't even eligible yet.

By JOHN C. COTEY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 13, 2002

The state baseball tournament begins today at Legends Field, a name seemingly destined to fit for Northside Christian's Lastings Milledge.

His stories already are earning him a place in area baseball lore.

There was the time, during an AAU game in Winter Haven, a 12-year-old Milledge hit a home run folks swear was 400 feet if not more. His father, Tony, says it was 500.

In one youth league, they wouldn't let him play unless he agreed to bat left-handed.

In another league, he said he went a week without taking the bat off his shoulder.

"They walked me every time, for three straight games, I never swung," Milledge said. "Not even a foul tip."

Another time, Tony said, when Lastings was 12, he was invited to the Reds spring training camp at Ed White Stadium in Sarasota by a family friend in the organization.

"I told them I bet he could hit a home run out there," Tony said, "with a wood bat. They didn't believe me, but he did it."

In Palmetto, where he lives, his exploits have been well-chronicled, none more than his performances leading Manatee East to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., in 1997.

Even so, Northside coach Darrell Don wasn't about to start printing up state championship T-shirts when he heard Milledge was walking the halls.

Not until he took Milledge out to the baseball field, threw him 40 pitches, and saw 15 sail over the fence.

Milledge was a 13-year-old eighth-grader at the time.

Legends Field indeed.

"When people would ask me what he'd done, I'd tell them and they'd look at me like I was lying," Tony said. "They'd look at me like, 'Oh, that's his father talking.' So I don't say anything anymore. I just say to come watch him, and you'll see. It's all true."

Tony Milledge was a standout player at Palmetto and Manatee Community College, and was drafted in the spring and fall of 1972; later, so were his older sons, Greg and Tony Jr. He has coached Peter Warrick, Tommie Frazier, Tyrone Williams and others in youth football leagues. He says he knows talent better than most.

"I knew he was going to be something special when he was 8 or 9," Tony said. "I'll tell you this, Lastings was doing things when he was 12 that I couldn't do in college."

One more goal left

Lastings Milledge might be the best player in the state, and scouting services, area coaches and national publications think he could be the best in the country.

The outfielder has had throws clocked at 93 mph, 6.56-second speed in the 60-yard dash and has tremendous bat speed. Various showcases and an impressive performance last summer on the USA Youth Baseball team have put his name atop most rankings.

Today at 5 p.m., he leads the No. 1-ranked Mustangs into the Class A state championships, hoping to add to his lore.

"This is one of the only things I haven't done yet," said Milledge, 17, a prodigy who hides his self-confidence but is keenly aware of his potential.

"It'll be fun to show off my talent. I want to try and conquer and try to get all the accomplishments, and a state championship is the only thing I haven't accomplished yet."

So much, so soon.

Because of his youth baseball exploits, because he has put up big numbers everywhere, because he is a bona fide five-tool major-league prospect, Baseball America said Milledge could have been the first overall pick in next month's draft.

Just one problem.

Milledge is a junior.

'The kid is unbelievable'

Ranked No. 7 by Baseball America, Northside boasts an offense that has set every school record imaginable.

Milledge, a 6-foot-1, 170-pounder, has led this team beyond local acclaim. Without him, the Mustangs would still be a state favorite; with him and his avid following of pro scouts and recruiting Web sites, they are nationally recognized.

"He is incredible," teammate Justin Barnaky said. "You don't realize how awesome sometimes, but every once in a while it will just pop into my mind: I'm out here stretching with a major-league player."

Milledge has posted remarkable numbers this year. In a county that is sending a record four teams to Legends Field and has dozens of major-league and college prospects, the Mustang led in every Triple Crown category: he's hitting .571 with 15 homers and 74 RBIs, one off the state single-season record.

Milledge also has 8 doubles, 6 triples, 30 stolen bases, 58 runs and has struck out 4 times in 138 plate appearances.

"The kid is unbelievable," Don said. "His bat speed is incredible, he hits with great power, is very fast and has a great arm in the outfield. He amazes you one day, and then does it again the next. I'm not sure there is anything he doesn't do well."

A starter since midway through his eighth-grade season, Milledge has hit better than .570 every season but one; as a sophomore he only hit .546.

Despite his numbers and celebrity status, teammates say he has remained one of the guys and they treat him as such.

One time, they came running to tell him reporters were there to see him. Eagerly and briskly walking all the way across the field, Milledge was greeted by the laughter of teammates.

There were no reporters.

"Right when I was 3 inches from the door, they just busted out laughing," Milledge said. "I get a kick out of it. It lets you know they're really not jealous. It's good to have unjealous friends. They're really happy for me. I really think that. I could be wrong, but. ... "

Team player

Milledge is unfazed by the attention -- he practically relishes it. He is unbothered by the scrutiny and scouts. He is unconcerned about the promise of millions next June.

And he wants you to know one thing -- all this hasn't made him a prima donna. He is a team player, and is the first to point out that without such a talented collection of players around him, he wouldn't put up the numbers he does.

"You know what? If I was on another team and we played them, I'd be scared," Milledge said.

Teammates appreciate that humility.

"He's a great player, and he's not real flamboyant about it and I think that's what everyone likes about it," Andy Park said. "He's confident, not cocky. And attitude, that's the one thing we've never had to deal with here. There's a lot of guys not even near as good as he is that I've played in my life that are a lot more cocky than he is."

Though Baseball America says he'd be the top pick in the draft, Milledge said he wouldn't leave high school for the chance even if he could. He will be on center stage for the next two days, sharing it with the best players in the state. He will have an opportunity to help bring his school its first state title, and to help feed his obsession to prove he is No. 1, a burning desire ever since he was cut from an all-star team when he was 9.

"I wouldn't (leave) because I'm having way, way too much fun here," Milledge said. "To tell you the truth, if they asked me right now to go play professionally and I'd get $4-million, I probably wouldn't do it. I don't want to leave this.

"I just want to be a kid."

He might soon have to settle for being a legend.

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