Randy Milligan sees himself as a major-leaguer, a potential star with the Baltimore Orioles. But he can't shake Shelby, N.C., a Class A baseball proving ground in the New York Mets minor-league organization.
It was 1981 and Milligan was 19, a player with one year of junior-college ball on his resume. He shared a two-room flat at the back of a fan's house in Shelby. Five hundred bucks a month split five ways for four beds and a couch. The bus rides through the Great Smoky Mountains were endless.
The players were characters. Long after he forgot the names, Milligan remembered the one guy who chewed glass, the other who chugged cans of beer in seconds. And there were the parks, tiny dots on a baseball landscape.
In Shelby, the ball yard was a high school field with weeds up to the ankles, lights that flickered like candles and metal bleachers positioned near the foul lines. Two nails on the wall and a spot on the floor served as a player's locker. A box fan whirred endlessly, serving only to turn the locker room into a convection oven on a Southern summer evening.
"When you're a kid and you see these major-league parks, you never think of the minor-league parks you have to play in to get where you want to go," he said.
Milligan may be an Oriole, but he is never far from Shelby, or Lynchburg, Va., or Jackson, Miss., or Buffalo, N.Y., or any of the dozens of towns he passed through on his way to the major leagues. A full seven years in the minor leagues makes a man appreciate what he has, and concentrate on what he wants.
"I made a point with myself that I would never quit," Milligan said. "I would never allow anyone to label me a quitter. They'd have to kick me out of the game."
Milligan survived. Now, he faces his greatest challenge. With all due respect, he will take on a franchise player named Glenn Davis for the right to start at first base for the Orioles. Davis has the career-long statistics and heavyweight contract on his side. All Milligan brings to the table is the ability and perseverance forged during a circuitous journey from baseball's back lots to Baltimore.
The hands give Randy Milligan away. Even a calm voice fails to cover his nervous energy. A tapping pencil beats in the background, knuckles are delicately massaged and a fist smacks a palm for emphasis.
It's the middle of winter, but already, Milligan is considering the perils of spring. He is a man who never tires of looking over his shoulder. In Milligan's baseball life, something always manages to gain on him.
Only when he reached Baltimore in 1989 did he find himself in the right place at the right time. In two years with the Orioles, Milligan has hit 32 home runs with 105 RBI. He went from part-time starter to full-time veteran, securing a place in the heart of the order.
But now, he is back where he started, trying to win a job and spot.
"For now, they've told me I'm playing first base," Milligan said. "They haven't given me any indication that I'm going to the
outfield. I'm gearing myself to play first base."
Milligan, more than most major-leaguers, is painfully aware of the capricious nature of baseball. He had to overcome his frustrations and his fears before becoming a major-league starter by the rather advanced age of 27.
For seven seasons he was lodged in the Mets' farm system. A year with the Pittsburgh Pirates produced frustration, and perhaps the realization that he was too nervous to perform in front of crowds. Before the 1988 season-opening game, Milligan couldn't even sleep. It was an omen for an unhappy season.
"I couldn't eat and I could hardly even speak before that opening game," Milligan said. "I don't know if that's normal. I was scared. I was scared to play in front of 50,000 fans and to play on TV."
Milligan was frightened and frustrated during his three months with the Pirates. By the time he was sent back to the Class AAA Buffalo Bisons in June 1988, he was hitting .220 with three home runs in 40 games, and his confidence was shattered. But in Buffalo, he discovered a minor-league team with a big-league atmosphere. He learned to relax at the plate and to enjoy performing for the crowds.
He waited for a the big break, and it came in November 1988. The Pirates shipped Milligan to the Orioles, who were stockpiling first basemen in preparation for unloading a disgruntled Eddie Murray. Pittsburgh got minor-league pitcher Peter Blohm.
"It was like being down to your last nickel in Las Vegas, putting that the nickel in the slot machine and hitting," Milligan said. "I was going to change my ways, think positive."
He hit Lucky Sevens. Milligan landed in Baltimore at the beginning of a near-incredible season in 1989. By the All-Star break, he was the everyday first baseman on a team that came within two games of completing a last-to-first finish in the American League East. Even now, he remembers the season-ending series in Toronto "as the highlight of my career. The pressure was intense. But that's why you play baseball."
Last season, Milligan emerged as a star, a feared power hitter who also had the good sense to size up the strike zone. He was on a 30-home-run, 90-RBI clip when his season came to a sudden halt Aug. 7 at the Oakland Coliseum. Trying to score from first on Sam Horn's double to left-center, Milligan slammed left shoulder first into Athletics catcher Ron Hassey.
"I was running hard, and I remembered watching Hassey to see where he was setting up," Milligan said. "He was straddling home plate, and I said, 'Oh, oh.' I hit home plate and dropped my shoulder and I was safe. I knew I had something more than a bruise. I couldn't lift my arm."
At first, doctors diagnosed the injury as a shoulder bruise. But it turned out Milligan had suffered a separation, and he was sidelined for six weeks. He returned late in the season, playing three games as designated hitter, proved to himself he still could hit and finished the season with 20 home runs, 60 RBI, 88 walks and a .265 batting average in 109 games.
For the first time in his career, he finally had achieved security. Then came the off-season. And then came the doubts.
First, the Orioles signed free-agent Dwight Evans, 39, a superb outfielder whose chronically aching back could reduce him to DH status. Then came the trade for Davis. Although he initially was rumored to be in the package, Milligan remained in Baltimore. Instead, the Orioles acquired Davis for outfielder Steve Finley and pitchers Pete Harnisch and Curt Schilling.
"These past few months have been good, bad, scary, and nerve-racking," Milligan said.
The moves have left Milligan's status with the team uncertain. The Orioles find themselves with a surplus of first basemen and designated hitters, positions that suit Milligan's abilities. Milligan was an outfielder during his minor-league career, which leaves open the possibility that he could be asked to experiment and play left field in spring training.
General manager Roland Hemond does not discount moving Milligan to the outfield, although he says, "Those are things, if and when we get into, we'd rather discuss with the manager and the player.
"Randy recognizes he'll play some first base and some designated hitter," Hemond said. "He is an upbeat guy and positive thinker. He is certainly part of our ballclub, and that hasn't changed at all. It's competitive, but others are competing against him, too. If the club improves and gets deeper, the only way to get deeper is to get good talent."
Hemond said Milligan's minor-league experiences will help him compete for a spot with the Orioles.
"Randy is not conceding anything," Hemond said. "That is the approach he takes. He is still an Oriole and is willing to do what it helps to make a ballclub win, and I know he is very sincere. He has been through competitive situations before and he has risen above them. Those are all pluses. This serves him well. He hasn't let the obstacles stand in his way in the past."
And Milligan won't let Davis stand in his way now. Although Milligan expresses admiration and respect for Davis' accomplishments, he says he not only wants to start, but he also is prepared to become a leader for the Orioles in 1991. For two seasons, Milligan watched shortstop Cal Ripken provide quiet leadership through the everyday act of playing. But Milligan said the team needs a dose of verbal leadership.
"Lots of times in the past, I wanted to go up to a guy and say, Let's go,' " Milligan said. "But I didn't do it. I didn't feel like I had the time and experience in the major leagues to do that. But not anymore. It will be my responsibility to pick up the team this year. I've seen us at our best and not quite at our best."
This season, Milligan expects the Orioles to contend for the AL East title. His struggle to win the first-base job is only a temporary competition. Win or lose, he plans to exert his influence on the field and in the clubhouse. He's not after personal statistics, he is trying to be part of a champion.
"What drives me? I look over my shoulder," he said. "I don't let anyone catch me. I've learned a lot. I know how hard it is to get to the major leagues, and I never take anything for granted."
Shelby, N.C., may be out of sight. But it is never out of mind.