Nats' Young Sees a Rebirth

Dmitri Young, 33, struggled through a 2006 that included a divorce, treatment for addiction and a charge of domestic violence. He says he will start at first base for the Nationals.
Dmitri Young, 33, struggled through a 2006 that included a divorce, treatment for addiction and a charge of domestic violence. He says he will start at first base for the Nationals. (Evan Vucci - AP)
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 17, 2007

VIERA, Fla., March 16 -- From home plate on Field 1, at the complex of practice fields where the Washington Nationals' minor leaguers train every day, the lights and facade of the big league stadium rise in the distance. But here, both teams wear the same uniform. There are two people sitting in a small section of bleachers behind home plate, and one of them carries a clipboard and jots something down after each pitch. The bat boy is an idle pitcher. The one toilet that serves players on four fields is overflowing and spilling out the bathroom door.

Here, Dmitri Young takes his place in a lineup full of kids, tunes up his swing and bides his time. When he leaves here to make the short trek to the big league side of the Nationals' spring headquarters for good -- and in his mind, it is quite assuredly when, not if -- he will take with him pleasant memories of the spring he went back to the basics of baseball life.

"At big league camp, you can find some complacency," said Young, 33. "You lose that hunger when you're given a position early on, and you don't have to work as hard. But you come down here, everyone's working. These kids have a lot of energy, and I feed off the energy. And I feel like it's given me an opportunity to give something back. These kids want to be where I've been."

Where has Young been? Eleven years in the big leagues. One hundred fifty-four homers. An all-star appearance in 2003. More than $42 million in career earnings. And yet, after his career and his personal life cratered last year, the Nationals found Young on baseball's scrap heap, signing him to a minor league contract a month ago with little more than a promise that if he gets himself into shape and keeps his personal life in order they would find a place for him on their roster.

"We're very pleased with Dmitri's work ethic, his energy and the passion he's put into his work," Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said. "He's been a very good influence on our young players on the minor league side. He's lost a lot of weight since he's been here. He's been on a mission."

According to Manager Manny Acta, it is now merely a matter of days until Young is brought over to the big league camp. In his first appearance, in a split-squad game at Vero Beach, Fla., on Thursday night, Young homered and singled off Los Angeles Dodgers ace Jason Schmidt -- only to return to minor league camp Friday morning for another day of extra conditioning work, a 10 a.m. intrasquad game, extra batting practice and more conditioning work.

But Young speaks like a man assured of where he is heading.

"It's just a matter of time," he said.

Would he accept a bench job, if that's what the Nationals decide they want?

"It'll be a starting job."

What position?

"I'll be the first baseman."

At least officially, however, when Young joins the Nationals, he will enter a competition for the first base job, along with rookie Larry Broadway and veteran Travis Lee, while also -- according to Bowden -- receiving consideration as a bench player, owing to his switch-hit ability with power from both sides of the plate.

That Young would even be in this position would have seemed impossible a year ago, when he began the year as the starting designated hitter on a Detroit Tigers team that would go on to win the American League pennant. But Young was long gone by the time that occurred.

His year included a divorce, a two-month absence during which he received treatment for drug and alcohol addiction and a no-contest plea to a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence stemming from a May incident with a then-girlfriend. In between, he hit a career-low .250, and the combination of poor performance and personal issues led the Tigers to release him in September.

"My reputation has been good, but I hit a stumbling block," Young said Friday. "When you have a problem and tackle it head on, you find out things about yourself that you didn't know or chose not to know."

This winter, Young said he learned he had Type 2 diabetes, which he believes explains "everything" about what went wrong in his life last year, from his mood swings to his inability to lose weight.

Earlier this spring, when Young suggested in an interview that the Tigers had failed to support him during his troubles, Tigers Manager Jim Leyland fired back, telling Detroit reporters: "This guy missed a lot of the season taking care of a problem that he created, not the Tigers created. So that's very disappointing to me."

However, asked again about Young on Thursday, Leyland said: "He was no problem for me. I got along great with him. He just wasn't there. We were counting on that bat. . . . I hope he gets himself straightened out, because he's a good guy."

Tigers left fielder Craig Monroe declined to answer a question about Young on Thursday, and another Tigers player interjected, "I think what [Monroe] is saying is, 'If you don't have anything good to say about someone, don't say anything.' "

One Tigers official, informed that the Nationals plan to play Young at first, said, "Believe me, they don't want to do that." Young's last appearance there for the Tigers ended disastrously, with Young making three errors in a game July 31 at Tampa Bay. After that, Young would play only 23 more games for the Tigers -- all of them as DH.

On Friday, Young served as DH in his minor league intrasquad game, going 0 for 4 with four groundouts. In the down time of early morning and postgame afternoon, he sat and talked quietly with a handful of young players who pulled their locker stools up close to his.

"He's one of the best guys I've ever been around," said 23-year-old catcher Luke Montz, who spent last year in Class A. "He talks to us nonstop. One thing he said was, when you go over there [to the big league side], keep your mouth shut but act like you belong."

In a few days, Young will be able to show how well he heeds his own advice.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company