Strawberry tutors young Mets prospects

Strawberry tutors young Mets prospects

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- They stood side by side near home plate Monday, an intersection of talented Mets outfield prospects over the span of two decades.

On the right was Lastings Milledge, the rising star in his first Major League camp, the one who could someday be the toast of the town. On the left was Darryl Strawberry, the former All-Star standout who has already been there, done that, seen it all.

They may have grown up a generation apart, honing their craft across a continent -- Milledge on the sun-soaked diamonds of western Florida, Strawberry in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles -- and making use of their gift to stroke baseballs from opposite sides of the plate.

But Milledge and Strawberry may have more in common than appears to meet the eye. Both were first-round draft picks plucked from high school outfields and put on a fast track to the Major Leagues; Strawberry's name alone created some of his buzz, although the prodigious home runs he littered across Minor League ballparks couldn't have hurt.

"It wasn't even close -- I was awesome," Strawberry laughed Monday. "[Milledge has] got [talent]. I don't think he's going to be a guy who'll hit you 40 home runs in the big leagues, but he's going to learn to use the whole field, and he's developing into a player. His instincts and everything are starting to come."

Strawberry, in his role as a roving instructor for the Mets, has taken an interest in Milledge, an athletic speedster who first met the Mets legend last season at Class A St. Lucie of the Florida State League.

Just 20 years old, Milledge is beginning to taste some of the hype that greeted an 18-year-old Strawberry at Rookie-league Kingsport in 1980. Then, Strawberry was a savior, a superhero asked to carry an entire franchise on his shoulders. By 1983, he was in New York.

"He was young, but he was a leader," Milledge said. "Everyone looked up to him, and when it was crunch time, no one looked at his age. They looked to him to be the best hitter on the team and get the job done."

Milledge files that idea away, realizing that he isn't being rushed or necessarily asked to duplicate the task. The Mets' franchise these days is so top-heavy with established talent, Milledge been asked to switch to a corner outfield position out of consideration to Carlos Beltran.

Even so, Milledge said he is beginning to apply some of the leadership qualities displayed years ago by Strawberry, though that can prove daunting at certain rungs of the farm system.

Upon joining Double-A Binghamton last summer, Milledge opted to sit back and listen more in a clubhouse populated by players with years of extra experience.

"It's tough moving up every year," Milledge said. "You have older guys who are a little bit better leaders than I am. I sit in and do my job. It'll be a little bit easier at the big-league level because everybody wants to win, and it doesn't matter how, as long as it gets done."

Milledge speaks of his pending Major League debut as though it is a certainty, and perhaps it is. Even Strawberry said he could see Milledge as a marquee talent down the road.

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"He's one of those types of players," Strawberry said. "I've seen him play. One thing I do like about him is that he's not afraid. Of course, he's going to learn what pressure is in due time."

Part of the reason for the increased scrutiny is that times are different now than they were in 1980, with interest in up-and-coming Minor League prospects seeming to increase by the day.

Milledge said he already recognizes the attention and expectations building from scouts, fans and baseball executives.

It is a spotlight that will only grow in anticipation if Milledge continues to fulfill expectations set for him. The Mets' first-round pick in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft, Milledge batted .337 last season at Double-A Binghamton and was a standout in the Arizona Fall League.

"We actually talked a little bit about it," Milledge said. "Last year, [Strawberry] said, 'I was young, you're young. You're on the same path as I was, and this is what you need to do. Don't get caught up into how young you are. You've still got to put up numbers.'"

The chat was just one of Strawberry's ongoing series with New York's Minor Leaguers, speaking less about the technicalities of baseball rather than the off-the-field knowledge he carries. He recognizes he has made mistakes, and said it is his goal to help younger talents avoid traps and temptations.

As long as Strawberry is speaking, Milledge said, he'll be listening.

"I take what I can get," Milledge said. "Any information you can grasp from that kind of ballplayer is good. He was a high-profile athlete when he was young. There's a couple of situations that could come up."

Bryan Hoch is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.