By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
Each day, as he shuffled around the clubhouse in the hours leading up to game time, Dmitri Young wore a gray T-shirt. On the back was an innocuous phrase that meant nothing to most people but everything to him: "Field 5." It was an homage to the down-the-road, no-fans-around patch of dirt and grass where Young began the 2007 season with a group of Washington Nationals minor leaguers. His days in the majors -- which began in 1996 -- seemed distant.
"I definitely questioned myself here and there," Young said.
Yesterday, Young received the final reward for following through on those days at Field 5. Major League Baseball named Young the National League's comeback player of the year, an official acknowledgment of a season in which he hit .320 and was named an all-star, one that followed a campaign lost to a laundry list of personal, legal and health problems.
In between those two seasons, Young, 33, signed a non-guaranteed minor league contract with the Nationals, one worth $500,000. By the end of July -- after he had been the subject of trade talks -- he had signed a two-year, $10 million extension with a vesting option for another season that will make him a National at least through 2009.
So yesterday's news of the award -- which is voted on by writers for MLB's official Web site, MLB.com, in each major league city -- hit him hard.
"It was very humbling, to say the least," Young said. "This put the stamp on everything I've been through and what I accomplished this year from an individual standpoint. Shed some tears. Looked back, thought about my kids immediately. My parents, my brother, my sisters, all the friends that stuck with me when I was at my absolute lowest, and the people I met along the way on my way back up."
Other candidates included St. Louis's Rick Ankiel, once a rising star as a pitcher with the Cardinals who inexplicably lost his control but returned to the majors this year as a power-hitting outfielder; as well as Cincinnati's Josh Hamilton, the top pick in the draft in 1999 by Tampa Bay whose career was stalled by drug addictions and related suspensions.
Young, though, went through more than that. The list is well known: a divorce that began in 2005; issues with alcohol and drug abuse that led to a stay in a rehab center; charges of domestic abuse in relation to an incident involving choking an ex-girlfriend; and the diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. Given his personal mistakes, when Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden signed him last February, he made it clear to Young the standards by which he would be judged.
"He's got a good heart and good character," Bowden said yesterday. "He just had to understand that there was zero tolerance. He couldn't make a mistake off the field."
Now, the questions are about the future. Young said yesterday he would adhere to a diet that would help him lose weight and control his diabetes in the offseason. If he does, he said, "I can play some outfield," something he hasn't done since 2005.
Manager Manny Acta has said he has no intention of playing Young in the outfield. But with regular first baseman Nick Johnson due to return sometime in 2008 from the broken leg that cost him 2007, Bowden was asked if that remains a possibility.
"We're trying to get Nick healthy," Bowden said. "But as far as planning, going forward right now, Nick's hurt right now. Dmitri's our first baseman."
One who won't start spring training on Field 5.