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It is a balmy April afternoon at Ameriquest Field in Arlington, and a smattering of fans has arrived early to watch the Texas Rangers take batting practice. Because the Rangers' lineup is thick with power hitters, an impromptu home run derby breaks out. First, brawny first baseman Mark Teixeira, a switch-hitter batting lefty, sends a succession of moon shots into the rightfield seats. Next, heads turn--and a pack of preteen ball hounds scampers into place--as designated hitter Phil Nevin and catcher Rod Barajas, both righthanded hitters, take aim at leftfield, the crack of the bat followed by the rifle sound of baseballs hitting bleachers. � Then shortstop Michael Young steps in, and the show stops. As always, Young begins by bunting--who wants to watch bunting?--then systematically sprays the outfield with line drives, first pulling balls to left, then directing them the other way. He begins each swing in the same manner, by tapping his left foot in the dirt, then striding into the pitch. Likewise, the end result is metronomically consistent: Another ball goes skidding onto the outfield grass. "Most guys will take a round in batting practice to have fun, to hit some home runs," says Barajas. "You never see that from Michael. He's always working, every day the same. If he happens to hit one out of the park, it's by accident." � It is one thing for a scrappy reserve infielder to employ such a workmanlike approach, but this is a two-time All-Star and the defending American League batting champion, a player who has had 200-plus hits for three consecutive seasons and can hit for power (24 homers and 91 RBIs last season). Such numbers suggest that the 29-year-old Young was born into baseball's aristocracy, one of those five-tool players blessed with natural talent. But ask baseball people about Young, and they'll admiringly tell you that he is a "grinder," vernacular for a player who works his butt off. The subtext, of course, is that the grinder needs to work his butt off. He can't survive on his talent alone.
Young is the quintessential grinder made good, a guy who was considered by most major colleges to be too small to play at their level, too erratic to play shortstop and too light a hitter to play in the big leagues. Yet here he is, one of the game's most consistent batters and toughest two-strike threats, a player who can hit for power without sacrificing average. Consider: Over the past three seasons Young went more than two games without a hit only once. (By comparison, the Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki also did it once.) "Young is one of the toughest outs in the league by far," says Boston Red Sox righthander Curt Schilling. "He's just trying to make solid contact, so he hits home runs [when he's] not even trying. That's what makes him so dangerous."
That Young has evolved into an elite if relatively unglorified player is a testament to his work ethic, his upbringing and what his wife, Cristina Barbosa, who has known him since he was a scrawny 5'9", 145-pound high school sophomore, calls his "quiet, internal confidence." Says Cristina, "Mike never had a Plan B. It was always going to be baseball." His devotion to the game has won Young fans throughout the league. His manager, Buck Showalter, says Young "is everything that is right about baseball." Red Sox skipper Terry Francona, a former Texas bench coach, calls Young "as good a kid as you'll ever find." Rangers reserve infielder Mark DeRosa has patterned his game after Young's. Toronto outfielder Vernon Wells, who came up through the Blue Jays system with Young, went so far as to name his second child Christian Michael Wells, in honor of his former teammate.
Young grew up in Covina, Calif., a suburb 20 miles east of Los Angeles. His mother, Anna, was a school secretary, and his father, Fred, worked as an electrician and construction worker. Fred left the house early each morning, usually came home late and worked most weekends. Some nights he'd be so tired and sore that Anna had to take off his boots for him. "Stuff like that sticks in your mind when you're a little kid," says Michael. "I learned early that if you are going to work at something, you don't take it lightly."
Young's mother is Mexican-American, and some of his athleticism no doubt comes from her side of the family. Anna's nephew, Zachary Padilla, was the WBO light welterweight champion from 1993 through '94, and another nephew, Johnny Chavez, also fought professionally. When he was 13, Michael tried out for a Southern California travel team and was stung when he was cut. He made the squad a year later, and after the season he wrote a letter to one of the coaches, Bob Lamb (father of Astros infielder Mike, a high school teammate of Young's), respectfully pointing out that he should have been on the team a year earlier. "Usually when people are in the middle of their careers, things that happened to them when they were 13 are distant memories," says Young. "But for me, that's kind of where it all started, in terms of people always telling me what my limitations were."
Young played the outfield at Bishop Amat High and remained there through his freshman year at UC Santa Barbara, but then that innate confidence in his own ability led to a showdown with his coach, Bob Brontsema. "I had it all planned out," says Young. "If he didn't let me play shortstop, I was going to transfer to East L.A. junior college, and then I'd try to get another scholarship to a four-year school or enter the draft." When a shortstop recruit signed with another school, Brontsema relented, and Young returned to the infield with only a few hiccups. Like the time against New Mexico State when he overthrew the first baseman by so much that the ball ended up on frat row. "And frat row," Brontsema says, "was across the street." Nevertheless, Young established himself as a big league prospect with his bat, earning All--Big West Conference honors his junior year by hitting .359 with 12 homers.
A fifth-round pick by Toronto in the 1997 draft, Young played short and second base in the minors, alternating with Cesar Izturis (now with the Los Angeles Dodgers). But when the Blue Jays needed a starter for the stretch run in July 2000, they had to give up prospects to make a trade. Rangers general manager Doug Melvin offered righthander Esteban Loaiza, and asked for Izturis in return. Instead, Toronto G.M. Gord Ash offered Young and righthander Darwin Cubillan, and the Rangers agreed. "We liked his overall work ethic, and it looked like he played the game the right way," Melvin says of Young, who was in Double A at the time. "We weren't sure he was going to be the hitter he's become, though."
Called up in May the following season, Young hit only .249 in 106 games, then .262 as the regular second baseman in 2002. Playing alongside shortstop Alex Rodriguez, he did play solid defense. Before the '03 season Young made an adjustment in his swing on the advice of hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. "You could tell the bat speed was there, but there were too many fly balls because he was jumping at the pitch," says Jaramillo. They added the toe tap, which helped Young stay back, establish a rhythm and increase his power.
That year Young had a breakout season, hitting .306 with 14 homers. The following year he had refined his swing to the point that DeRosa, who arrived as a free agent from the Atlanta Braves, began mimicking Young's style. "I completely changed what I had done for 10 years after watching him in spring training," says DeRosa. "I'd go out and hit early with him, and it just felt right."