For Milton, indelible impression Ex-Terp makes big run at Twins' rotation, shows he can take the needling

March 26, 1998|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Permit Eric Milton to take control of at least one rumor in his life.

No, he didn't get the letter X tattooed over the New York Yankees emblem that adorns the back of his left shoulder. Such a suggestion causes Milton to roll his eyes and chuckle. It also brings the burden of proof.

"You can see for yourself," he tells a visitor, pulling on the edge of a bandage that holds an ice pack in place. Sure enough, the Yankees' logo hasn't been crossed out.

The former University of Maryland pitcher is sitting inside the Minnesota Twins' spring-training clubhouse at Hammond Stadium, about to tackle the sandwich he prepared for lunch.

Though manager Tom Kelly hasn't settled on his rotation, Milton has a great chance to open the season with the Twins, finally in control of his destiny after all the waiting and wondering.

His winter was filled with questions. Would he go from a single season in the minors to the pinstripes of the Yankees, the team willing to gamble on a late bloomer by selecting him in the first round of the June 1996 draft? Was he ready? Would he be able?

Not if the rumors came true.

Teams hoping to strike a deal with the Yankees insisted that the left-hander be included. Montreal was ready to move Cy Young winner Pedro Martinez. Seattle would part with Randy Johnson. Minnesota no longer could justify keeping Chuck Knoblauch. Milton was a must in every prospective trade.

"For a while there, I just blocked it out because I was hearing it every day," said Milton, who was a combined 14-6 at Single-A Tampa and Double-A Norwich. "When it started getting pretty serious toward the end, I kind of knew it was going to happen. I was excited. I just want to get to the big leagues; it doesn't matter where."

It will happen in Minnesota, which landed Milton and three other prospects in exchange for its All-Star second baseman. It will happen because Milton seized the opportunity with gusto, allowing only three earned runs in 19 2/3 innings this spring, striking out 16 and exuding a confidence not often seen in someone so young.

"He's got good mound presence; a lot of composure," said manager Tom Kelly, before Tuesday's 7-2 loss to the Orioles. "He has the ability to throw different pitches other than his fastball when behind in the count. He's aggressive, and he can field his position and hold runners.

"But I will say that these things are said guardedly because spring training is a different story than the regular season. I'm optimistic that he would handle himself at the major-league level, but you just never know."

This is Milton's second big-league camp, but it feels brand new. The expectations for the Twins are considerably lower than in New York, as is the amount of attention they receive.

"It's a lot different here than with the Yankees," Milton says. "There's 15, 20 reporters in their clubhouse and it's a little more hectic. It's a lot more laid-back here. I really like it."

Milton had been working out with the Yankees and came into the Twins' camp in excellent shape. But he brought more than just stamina, displaying a good fastball, curve, slider and change, along with the intangibles that get a player noticed.

"The Yankees did a nice job of picking this young man and then developing him," Kelly said. "He's very well-schooled, and part of that obviously comes from instruction that he's had throughout his baseball life. He seems to have some stomach about him and some mental toughness. It's a good combination. He's got a lot of positive attributes."

"He has great composure for a 22-year-old pitcher," said veteran catcher Terry Steinbach. "It's not just his mannerisms on the mound. More importantly, it's the thought process in getting hitters out and his ability to execute his pitches. There's nothing in a game that the guy can't do."

He's even getting a handle on the rumors. The latest involves Milton's shoulders, which are double-jointed. He missed part of his sophomore year at Maryland because his left shoulder popped out of joint, but he adheres to a strict weightlifting program and hasn't suffered a reoccurrence.

Still, he knows the condition, called "multidirectional instability," has led to some talk in baseball circles that he's a health risk.

"I feel like I'm in midseason form. I feel as strong as I did last year," he said. "I had a little soreness my sophomore year in college and was out for a little while. I don't know if the Yankees are just dragging that up out of nowhere. There's not a problem with me. I'm as healthy as can be."

And grateful each time he looks around the clubhouse.

"I don't take it for granted one bit," he says. "I step back every day and thank God where I am. A lot of people would like to be in my shoes."

At least the feet inside of them are free of artwork. He's got a University of Maryland insignia -- the letter M and a terrapin -- on his right ankle, and a new addition to his right arm.

"I couldn't come to this camp without getting a Twins tattoo," he said. "They're kind of addicting once you get started."

And if other trades are in his future, will Milton continue to trace each stop in ink? Even a walking canvas knows when to draw the line.

"I don't know if my wife would put up with that."

Pub Date: 3/26/98

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