Nationals' Young Shows He's Still Got That Swing
Wednesday, April 1, 2009; Page D01
LAKELAND, Fla., March 31 -- The hardest thing to do is hit a baseball, unless of course you're Dmitri Young, in which case hitting a baseball is the easy part, and every other element of life feels hard by comparison. For that reason, when Young took his third swing in Tuesday's exhibition game, driving the pitch some 375 feet into a grassy hillside, it was not a stand-alone accomplishment, but rather a triumph -- at least momentarily -- over diabetes, blurred vision, back problems, fried foods and all sorts of other demons that don't stand on pitcher's mounds.
"I should have been six feet deep by now," Young said after the home run. "But I'm here."
Here, Young talked about his comeback -- what, his third? His fourth? His salvation is always the same. Because no matter what drags Young away from the diamond -- at various points, he's dealt with alcoholism, legal problems, a divorce and, more recently, numerous health problems -- he always returns to find a constant: that swing of his, one of the most natural in baseball, always there to lend a bailout.
"Dmitri," Manager Manny Acta said, "was born to hit."
"He's proven that on the back of his baseball card," acting general manager Mike Rizzo said.
Tuesday, Young played in his first major league exhibition game since March 1. Acta batted him sixth, as the designated hitter. Young had plenty of excuses not to play so well. He had missed the month because of a back injury -- and this, after missing the second half of 2008 when his blood-sugar level spiked above 400, and Young, a diabetic, feared for his life.
Viewed from one angle, it seemed unusual to have so much interest in a cameo exhibition appearance for a would-be backup first baseman who is 35 years old. Indeed, after Tuesday's game, Young will spend at least three weeks rehabbing with Washington's minor leaguers in Viera. He'll resume his comeback among quiet fields filled with teenagers. He'll try to work himself back into game shape, per orders. Maybe he will never make it back to the big leagues.
Interest in Young, though, is based on where he's been and what he's been through. A Tiger for five seasons (2002-06), Young became a Lakeland institution -- rotund, loquacious, instantly recognizable. Even as he sat in the visitors' clubhouse on Tuesday, ballpark attendants approached Young. One hugged him. One looked him up and down and said, "You're looking very good."
"I love coming here," Young said. "I know everybody over there including the grounds crew, ushers. It's always good to come back to a place where I made a name for myself, and got a nice little warm reception as well."
Young's first two at-bats lasted just about as long as the "D-Y!" shout-outs in the stands. In the second inning, he grounded hard to second base on the first pitch. In the fifth inning, he slapped the second pitch hard to short.
But then came the seventh. Facing Detroit reliever Nate Robertson, Young dug into the right side of the box. Washington had two runners on. Young took a called strike.
Next pitch, Young swung, short and level, and it was efficient like a karate chop through wood. The ball sailed. Fans behind the left field fence scrambled for a souvenir. Young had a three-run homer, which helped the Nationals toward a 7-2 win.