Milledge changes attitude

Some major league players find role models in their father, a high school coach or a favorite uncle.

Pirates outfielder Lastings Milledge discovered his in teammate Andrew McCutchen.

Milledge, a talented but temperamental player who irritated the Mets and Nationals by being a high-maintenance prospect who underachieved on the field, appears to have undergone a personality change in Pittsburgh.

He's upbeat in the clubhouse. He's finally showing consistency on the field. Off it, he was a hit on the Pirates' winter caravan, encouraging loyal fans who have waited nearly two decades to see the franchise win again.

McCutchen isn't the only reason for Milledge's attitude adjustment, but he's become a major influence on the man who plays next to him in Pittsburgh's outfield.

When Milledge arrived in Pittsburgh after being dealt last season -- a trade seen as so one-sided in Washington that it helped land Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo a contract -- he became fast friends with McCutchen, the Pirates' then-rookie center fielder.

Milledge watched how McCutchen played with a calm but not ego-driven attitude, how he carried himself. He also was impressed by how McCutchen, without campaigning for the job, effectively became the Pirates' captain only a few months after becoming a major leaguer.

"When you're that young but you're a leader like that, it's something special to watch," Milledge said.

McCutchen, 23, also appears to be motivating Milledge to reach the potential that neither the Mets nor the Nationals could tap.

Milledge, a former first-round draft pick, irritated the Mets by giving a fan a high-five after hitting a big homer. He frustrated the Nationals with a casual attitude that led him to be late for meetings twice. When he started 4 for 24 last season, Washington demoted him to the minors.

Milledge finally began flashing his ability after the Pirates acquired him and reliever Joel Hanrahan for left fielder Nyjer Morgan and reliever Sean Burnett. His average jumped from .167 to .279 and he had four homers and 20 RBIs in 220 at-bats with Pittsburgh, showing enough talent to settle in as the starting left fielder almost without competition.

First, though, the Pirates kept him in the minors until they felt he was ready for the majors again.

"Coming to Pittsburgh, it's kind of changed my life a little bit, changed the way I carry myself and changed the way I go about my business," said Milledge, who turns 25 on the day of the Pirates' opener Monday.

So did hanging around with McCutchen and seeing how a prospect who was as touted as he was deal with success and failure.

"I knew I had to change the way I go about my business," Milledge said. "I knew I really had to buckle down and just overall be a better person, and it's just jump-started my career."

Milledge will begin the season starting in left and hitting fifth, a position he expects to hold even after outfield prospect Jose Tabata arrives, possibly later this season.

After all, Milledge has been through this before. In New York, he found himself being compared to Mets players such as David Wright and Carlos Delgado long before he was worthy of such comparisons.

"It feels so good to be looked at as a different person. I had my [negative] articles, I had my downfalls," he said. "But it's just so good for people to look at Lastings Milledge as me. It's just a relief for me because my family and my friends know who I am, so it's just a relief that people look at you for you and not make any speculation."

He won't speculate what the Pirates' record will be as they try again to end a streak of consecutive losing seasons that's reached 17. However, he said the city and its fans must stop concentrating on merely trying to reach .500.

The Pirates won't start winning, he suggested, until they are convinced they not only can win, but can win big.

"We are 0-0, and the only thing that we think about is not to be .500, not to not lose 100 games, not to lose 90, not to lose 80 -- we think about winning, about getting ourselves in a position to win a World Series," he said. "We're not here for nothing else, no money, to hang out. We are here for business, and our business is winning the World Series."