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Embracing the Momentum
Nationals' Young Turns Personal Turmoil Into Triumph

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 8, 2007

During the past year, Dmitri Young was arrested, finalized a divorce, was treated for alcoholism, lost his job, trimmed shrubbery, endured a four-day hospital stay, thought he was going to die, believed he would never play baseball again, won a starter's spot at first base for the Washington Nationals, hit .341 and was named an all-star.

"You don't have enough paper," Young said recently, staring at a reporter's notebook, one waiting to be filled with the whole story.

The whole story, it turns out, doesn't begin with Young's dismissal from the Detroit Tigers, who were en route to the World Series. It doesn't begin with his battles with substance abuse, or with the charges that he choked a girlfriend, or with a diagnosis of diabetes. The whole story follows a meandering path of a military family, from Mississippi, where Young was born, to the District, where he arrived when he was less than a year old, on to Virginia Beach and to Montgomery, Ala., eventually to Southern California, where he ended up in high school. It begins in a batting cage where Larry Young, a Vietnam veteran and former F-14 pilot in the U.S. Navy, bought his eldest son 200 swings a day.

"What time do you want to practice today?" Larry Young would ask.

"I don't," Dmitri would say.

"Okay," the father would shoot back. "We'll leave in five minutes."

Larry Young will be in the stands Tuesday night at AT&T Park in San Francisco, where his boy will be an all-star 16 years after he was drafted, some 25 years after those relentless hours in the cage. All that has happened in the past year has made Larry Young think about the way he handled Dmitri when the whole story was just beginning. "I was like a dictator back then," Larry Young said by phone.

"I kind of blame myself," he said. "That's the only way I knew."

The way Larry Young envisioned life involved adding links to a hypothetical chain. Master one task, one skill, and you earn a link. Perfection, mastery, meant a 100-link chain. Back then, in Virginia Beach, Dmitri Young was working on his fifth link, then his sixth.

"By the time he got those, I'd be moving on to nine and 10," Larry Young said. "He'd want to be satisfied, and I'd want to move on. I was always working on stuff, and I would end up breaking his confidence rather than building it."

When the batting cage opened in Virginia Beach, the owner created a special -- $200 for 200 swings a day for three months. That's 18,000 hacks.

"We would work," Dmitri said, "and we would work."

At times, Dmitri would take 100 swings or so, then complain about being tired.

"We got 100 more swings," Larry Young would say. "You better get on the other side."

So Dmitri became a switch hitter. He is to this day. He enters the All-Star Game hitting .365 from the right side, .330 from the left.

"He was a masher from both sides of the plate," said Robert Fick, a Nationals teammate now, an opponent in high school way back when. "Just an absolute stud."

Wayward Son

That's what he was supposed to be, at least. But the pain of his son's unrealized potential first hit Larry Young in the years after the St. Louis Cardinals made Dmitri the fourth pick in the 1991 draft. He was supposed to rocket to the majors. Instead, he rose slowly. Baseball America, Dmitri remembers now, had him listed as a "has-been" at 21.

"I questioned whether I'd make it," Dmitri Young said. "I wasn't exactly taking the game serious, not really working out or trying to be in any sort of baseball shape."

He was coasting, going out with friends until all hours, flailing his way through more than two years in Class AA. There was no off-field supervision, no one to keep his thumb on Dmitri, who badly needed the restraints of home. The routine by that point was familiar: He would come home in the winter, tell his dad he was going to work out, and lie around instead. He would arrive at spring training not to compete for a job, but to get in shape.

"To tell you the truth, it was extremely depressing," Larry Young said. "When he was in high school, the focus was on a process -- you need to do these things to be able to get where you want to go. But once he got out on his own, he was out from under me, and he just kind of backed off. That was sort of frustrating that I couldn't get through to him to get him to apply himself."

So Dmitri Young was wayward. In summer 1995, while playing for the Arkansas Travelers, Young and fellow outfielder Keith Jones were being taunted by fans in Wichita. "They said they were yelling 'Pork Chop,' " Young says now. "But it was racial slurs."

Young, 21 years old, had a moment to decide what to do.

"It was one of those things where either you let it slide," Young said, "or you do something and pay the consequences."

After the game, Young and Jones did something. They went into the stands. Young punched a man, breaking his glasses. He was thrown to the ground by a mob. Jones entered, wielding a bat. He whacked another man in the back. The next day, they were suspended by the Texas League.

"I look at life as a cycle of ups and downs," Larry Young said. "That was, definitely, a down."

Gaining Perspective

Alan Trammell cut off the question before it was finished.

"Awesome," Trammell said. "He's always been awesome. He is a quality person, gets along with his teammates extremely well. Always been a favorite."

Fick would pick up the paper last year, see the words "Dmitri Young" printed in bold in an item about his fight with a girlfriend or an update on an impending hearing or his release by the Tigers.

"To read those things about Dmitri Young," Fick said, "was real hard to believe."

Trammell managed Young on those sorry Detroit teams from 2003 to 2005. Fick has known him since high school and was a Tigers teammate. They have both pondered the questions themselves. How can a man filled with such promise -- with, as he said, "no coordination for anything else" but the natural ability to crush a baseball -- end up misusing and abusing his talent, a reputable career in disrepair?

"The divorce," Trammell said. "I could see it back at the end of '05. People expect these guys to be robots. They're not."

Young describes himself as "an open book," but he is reluctant to discuss publicly the details of an April 2006 incident in which he was charged with choking a 21-year-old woman at a hotel in Birmingham, Mich. The record shows that he first pleaded no contest, later pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to community service, placed on a year's probation. What he is not shy about is the trouble it caused him and his family.

"You find yourself doing things you'd rather not be doing," he said.

Young was married for nine years. He and his wife, Rebecca, had three children, Owen, Damon and Layla. When the marriage began to unravel in 2005, Young's life spun away from him. Too much alcohol. Some drugs. The charges. A trip to the disabled list to deal with the problems. A stint at a Malibu, Calif., rehabilitation center. A return to the Tigers that was, ultimately, embarrassing, because he hit .292 but was released anyway, his team less than a month from clinching a playoff berth. For 30 days, he had to stay in Detroit. He couldn't see his kids.

"When you lose your family and something happens to you off the field, what do you do?" Fick said. "It's like all these things were thrown at him -- your team going to the World Series, and you were part of building it to get it to the World Series. I mean, there was a lot of things he had to deal with, and he just had no clue how to do it. And how can you blame him? Who would know?"

Young didn't. As part of his probation, along with daily sobriety tests, he was required to perform labor in the Detroit suburbs. The Tigers beat the Yankees in the playoffs. Young trimmed hedges. They won the pennant on a walk-off homer. Young mowed grass. The Motor City hummed. Young plugged his ears.

"I didn't turn on the television," he said. "I severed all ties."

With the Tigers and, to an extent, with his family. When Dmitri Young wasn't quite 12, Larry and Bonnie Young had another boy, their third of four children, and named him Delmon. By the time Delmon was old enough to pursue baseball seriously, Dmitri was in the minors, and Larry Young had tweaked his parenting style.

"He seemed laid-back to me," Delmon said by phone. "He just wanted work every day."

Still, Delmon contributed to the Youngs' summer spent at a baseball crossroads. The first pick of the 2003 draft, he was suspended for 50 games after he tossed a bat in the direction of an umpire while at Class AAA Durham last May. At 20, his road to the majors for Tampa Bay stalled, just as Dmitri's had 11 summers earlier.

Larry Young breathed deeply.

"I had to kind of put everything in perspective," he said. "I just told myself: Neither one of them have come back from jail for killing someone. Neither one of them is in Iraq fighting the war."

Consolation, however he could find it. The military man whose sons seemed undisciplined.

"Just stay centered," Larry Young told himself.

Seizing Opportunity

Dmitri Young was throwing up blood. He had to use the men's room constantly. He was, as he said, "delusional" that night last November. His ex-wife took him to a Florida hospital. The world was racing by him, out of control, "Like when you're on the subway, and everything to the sides is blurry, rushing by," he said.

The diagnosis, finally, was diabetes. Baseball seemed over. Not because of the disease. But because with all he had been through -- self-inflicted and otherwise -- he didn't know if he could go back. Worse, he didn't know if he wanted to.

"I started talking to him about quitting," Larry Young said. "I said to him, 'If you were sitting here talking to your kids, and they told you what you just told me, how would you feel?' "

"I wouldn't feel good at all," Dmitri told his father.

"Well," Larry said, "that's the way I feel."

"It seemed," Larry Young says now, "like he was defeated, like he had conceded to everything. 'No one wants me.' "

Delmon, by that point, had put his suspension behind, had made a successful big league debut. He pressed his older brother.

"I told him not to give it up," Delmon said. "All he needed was an opportunity."

That, though, was tricky. There was but one call all winter. The Nationals, with first baseman Nick Johnson out indefinitely with a broken leg, were willing to give Young a chance, albeit with a minor league contract. He would be stuck down the road from the big league complex, working with 18-year-olds in the Florida outpost of Viera. General Manager Jim Bowden, for whom Young had hit .300 for four consecutive seasons in Cincinnati, was offering yet another troubled player yet another second chance.

"It was an opportunity to see if I had any love for the game," Young said. "I questioned that. Big-time."

For anyone in the Nationals' clubhouse now, that seems unlikely, foreign. There is no more dominant personality, no one who draws more amusement by resting his oversize shades atop his puffed-out Afro, watching Owen and Damon wreak havoc with his teammates.

"I just love his smile," Bowden said.

The whole story is not over, not by a long shot. But the smile is there, the love is back. Today, Dmitri Young will play his final game before the all-star break.

"I'm put in a situation where people actually look up to me," Young said. "Think about that. I'm an open book to them. They know what went on with me. I got a second lease on life. Not just baseball. Life. And now, I just have to do more with it."

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