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Second chance

Mistakes behind him, Dmitri Young is thriving in D.C.

Posted: Monday August 20, 2007 10:24AM; Updated: Monday August 20, 2007 10:24AM
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Dmitri Young
Dmitri Young has made the most of his second chance in Washington, especially at the plate, where he is leading the Nationals in hitting.
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By Chris Ballard, SI.com

It is a muggy afternoon in Washington, D.C., and the air hangs over RFK Stadium, thick and stagnant. On the field, Nationals first baseman Dmitri Young is warming up -- though that is a liberal use of the term. While the team performs jumping jacks, Young, who is listed at 245 pounds, but appears to be closer to 300, stands in place and raises his arms above his head, as if trying to flag down a friend on a crowded city corner. His feet do not move.

Next comes long toss, and Young takes his place down the third base line, near the stands. Even though it is hours before game time, the smattering of young fans present take notice. Within seconds, they converge on the railing, asking for autographs. Young obliges, smiling. His size, grin and lumpy afro give him that lovable big-guy air, like John Goodman or David Ortiz, and the fans respond to it. He is the most popular player on the last-place Nationals, a big cuddly first baseman who hits line-drive double after line-drive double.

Young has become this year's feel-good story in baseball. Out of the game at the end of last season, he was the Nationals' only All-Star this summer, and through Thursday was leading the team in average (.333) and was tied with Ryan Zimmerman for the lead in RBIs (62). He was rewarded July 28, when the team signed him to a two-year contract extension. Washingtonians love him, as do his teammates, and his success on the diamond has led to so many resurrection-themed stories Young is sick of the reporters coming round to talk. The stories bear headlines such as: "Nationals' Young Turns Personal Turmoil Into Triumph" and "Nats' Young Completes Comeback."

The stories recount Young's timeline. In the past year he: completed a divorce, pleaded guilty to domestic violence charges (he was given community service), was released by the Tigers (for whom he had 29 home runs and 85 RBIs in 2003), sought treatment for depression and alcohol abuse and was diagnosed with diabetes. While Detroit played in the World Series, Young performed his community service. Last winter he signed a minor league contract with the Nationals and this spring he ascended to the big-league club. Ever since, he has anchored the Washington lineup. According to Nationals manager Manny Acta, Young has also been a mentor to the younger players and "a big-time leader" in the clubhouse. "Everybody loves him," says Acta.

However, if Young were hitting .232 or were still in the minors, would the baseball public be lauding his life's turnaround? Would they still make assumptions about his character based on his performance? And what does Michelle Schumaker think of Young's character these days?

Schumaker is the young woman whom Young pleaded guilty to assaulting last year. A 21-year-old college student from Toledo, she spent an evening at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham, Mich., with Young. According to reports, Young choked Schumaker, scratched her, bruised her and pulled out clumps of her hair. (She hasn't spoken publicly about the incident, and efforts to interview her for this story were unsuccessful).

And what of his teammates last season, the ones he left in the middle of a playoff race, the ones who could have used another big bat during the World Series, the ones he fell asleep on during the eighth inning of a game (he contends it was a diabetic episode), conking out in the clubhouse after being pulled for a pinch-hitter? Think they don't wish he'd had this "character rebirth" about nine months earlier? When the Washington Post's Dave Sheinin asked Tigers outfielder Craig Monroe about Young this spring, Monroe declined to comment, prompting a teammate to say, "I think what [Monroe] is saying is, 'If you don't have anything good to say about someone, don't say anything.'"

Still, plenty of good things are being said about Young in Washington, where the feel-good vibe continues unabated. Fans cheer and reporters keep showing up. "For a month now, every day," Young says of the questions. He's sitting at his locker, looking resigned to another interview. It wears on him, all this talk of how he has resurrected his career. "Quite frankly, I'm tired of talking about last year, because it's recycled and everybody knows about last year," says Young. "I'm not looking back at last year because I have so much success now."

Robert Fick, the Nationals' backup first baseman, played against Young in high school and was his teammate with the Tigers. He says he understands what happened. "He's had problems in his life and everyone eventually gets some type of problem in their life and not everybody knows how to deal with it," says Fick. "And if you look at the things that happened to him ... who could deal with them?"

Happened to? It's an interesting choice of words. Acta uses equally passive language, choosing the phrase "went through," when talking about Young. "He always had the reputation of being a nice, hardworking guy," says Acta. "I think what makes it easier for many people to forget what he went through is that it was the first time that this guy got into some kind of problem like that." As if to further minimize Young's past, Acta repeatedly refers to Young as "a kid," even though Young is 33.

Both Acta and Fick depict Young as an actor caught in the middle of a situation he couldn't control, ignoring that in each case -- domestic violence, drinking, his behavior while with the Tigers -- he was making conscious decisions. They are decisions Young owns up to, but that others seem less prepared to confront, including baseball fans. Because once we do confront them, once we picture Young ripping out a woman's hair, he's not such a cuddly first baseman anymore. And that takes the fun out of being a fan. Recently, Young gained some Internet celebrity because the actress Alyssa Milano wrote of him on her blog, "He is built for comfort and has the loveliest way about him." Wonder if Schumaker would agree with that.

Even Acta's contention that last season's incidents were Young's first brush with trouble is not entirely true. In the summer of 1995, when Young was a prospect with the minor league Arkansas Travelers, he went into the stands after a game and punched a fan, breaking the man's glasses. Young says the fan taunted him with racial slurs; the fan contends he was saying "Pork Chop."

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