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For Young, Job Fight Least of His Battles
First Baseman Trying to Cope With Diabetes

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

VIERA, Fla., March 4 -- Weigh-ins at spring training can be a formality, and the figure transferred to the roster is often an approximation of the truth. Why embarrass the 300-pounder if he's promised to slim down to 265? Be kind, and move on.

But here at Washington Nationals camp, there is a somewhat shocking number next to the name of one Dmitri Young. It is 291. That, too, represents Young's weight near the end of last season. When he reported here this spring, Young was up to 298 pounds.

Thus, as Young sat out Tuesday's Grapefruit League game at Space Coast Stadium -- the victim of a strained muscle in his side, one that has kept him out of action five straight days -- he understood that it is easy to draw conclusions about how he looks. Indeed, there are some in the organization who are disappointed in Young's conditioning, because the man who was Washington's most compelling story in 2007 -- overcoming a litany of personal and legal problems to become an all-star and earn a two-year, $10 million extension -- didn't pick up a bat in the offseason. He could be rapidly losing ground to Nick Johnson in the tussle for the first base job.

"People who judge, I could really care less what they think," Young said. "Their opinion means nothing. A lot of people do judge. The only judge I know is God."

Young spoke softly and without animosity Tuesday in an empty home clubhouse. Though there are pockets of disenchantment with Young's physical condition with the Nationals, there are just as many pockets of understanding. Through all of Young's travails in 2006, perhaps the least discussed was the fact that he learned he had diabetes. There is, Young and the Nationals are finding out, a fallout from such a fate.

"It's very difficult," General Manager Jim Bowden said.

"It's a lot tougher than people imagine," Young said.

Nearly 21 million Americans are afflicted with diabetes, and each must learn to handle it as best they can. Young, who received his diagnosis in late 2006, is still figuring what solutions best suit him. He currently takes insulin injections two, three or even four times a day.

Because Young's weight has not gone down -- even though he said he has "learned to eat the right kinds of foods" -- doctors have recently changed his medication. Again. Whether they find the right mix could determine whether Young is able to drop weight before the season opener, which is now just 3 1/2 weeks away.

"There's so much about it I don't even know," Young said. "I learn constantly when I meet people, things that they do to help manage it. I didn't even know that before I do any sort of physical activity, my blood sugar has to be well above 150, so when I do crash, I crash back to normal. It's a constant process."

It is one the Nationals must monitor, just as they have monitored Johnson's right leg, broken in September 2006. With Young out the past week -- he strained his side swinging in the batting cage, and though he is making progress, he will likely need at least a few more days -- Johnson has received most of the at-bats. He got three more in Tuesday's 5-3 loss to the Dodgers, and though he is still unhappy with his swing, he is healthy and fit. Monday, he even stretched a single into a double, sliding into second base.

"That's the test for me right there," Manager Manny Acta said. "That's what I was waiting for. . . . You can't tell. I'm telling you, if you came from Russia, and you didn't know what was going on with him, you wouldn't be able to tell how he looked last year."

That, too, is what Young would prefer to discuss. Spring training is less than three weeks old, and Young and Johnson have already joked about how many times they will be asked about their competition.

"I don't even like to talk about it," Young said, "because that takes away from what we should be celebrating, which is Nick being back out on the field."

Focusing on Johnson, too, steers the conversation from Young, from his condition. Tuesday, he was on an elliptical trainer before 9 a.m., and he underwent a series of stretching exercises while his teammates took batting practice. In 2007, when he hit .320 and resurrected his career, he had to shed perhaps 20 pounds during spring training. Thus, he refuses to offer a weight that might suit him better on March 30. He must take care of the diabetes first, he said, and his conditioning will follow.

"I'm not going to sit there and try and focus on a number, because that in itself is a whole other thing," Young said. "I just want to make sure that my health is right and to come out of here in good playing shape. The other stuff I'll worry about afterward. That's not even a concern."

The Nationals are trying to take it that way, too. "The good news is these problems are early in March and not late in March," Bowden said, "and we have plenty of time to get him ready for the season." Acta is unconcerned about seeing Young in games. "I know what he can do," he said.

When Young did play last week, in an exhibition against Georgetown, he chugged from first to third on a single. When he arrived at third, he bent at the waist. The season, at that moment, seemed a long way off.

"I'll know when I'm in playing shape," Young said. "That's being able to run and not get gassed, not cramping up. Being able to do everything -- get down on a ground ball, slide, doing everything that's baseball-related and not being fatigued afterwards. I know my body, and I've played this game long enough to know what I need to do."

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