On a sunny February morning in Viera, Fla., Dmitri Young stood outside the Washington Nationals’ minor league clubhouse. He was overweight. His hair was a mess. He wore a tight, orange “Sanford and Son” T-shirt.
The last thing he looked like was a major league ballplayer, let alone an All-Star.
As he recalled that scene yesterday from his podium inside a San Francisco hotel ballroom, surrounded by his fellow National League All-Stars, Young couldn’t help but laugh a bit as he thought about how far he has come.
“All I could do was try,” he said.
Young’s inspiring story of redemption made him one of the stars of yesterday’s All-Star interview room. Sure, Barry Bonds commanded the most attention, as everyone expected he would. But few other players were as sought after as the Nationals’ first baseman, who understands why his story has resonated with so many people.
“I didn’t quit,” he said. “Good people don’t quit. Champions don’t quit.”
But he nearly did. Turn the clock back to late November 2006, when Young — having already endured a season of personal torture, including domestic assault charges and a 30-day stint in an alcohol rehab center — was rushed to a South Florida emergency room because he was dizzy, couldn’t stop vomiting and was losing his vision.
Doctors discovered Young had Type 2 diabetes, and his blood sugar level had risen to an astronomical 893. He was awake and coherent, but technically he was in a diabetic coma. Thirty more minutes, Young said, and he believes he would have been dead.
“I felt like I could have gone at any moment,” he said.
Over time, Young got his diabetes under control. He was up and walking again two weeks later. He started taking insulin shots every day, diligently watched what he ate and by January he felt “like normal” again.
What he didn’t feel like doing was playing baseball. He was ready to give up the only game he has ever loved, hop in an RV and follow his younger brother Delmon (an outfielder with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays) around.
Even when Nationals general manager Jim Bowden called with an offer to come to the club’s minor league camp, Young was reluctant to accept. But his closest family members — father Larry, Delmon, sons Owen and Damon, daughter Layla and ex-wife Rebecca — convinced him to give it one more shot.
Young couldn’t say no to the people he cares about most.
“Everything that went on, they were the ones that were behind me the whole time,” he said. “When I was doubting myself, they were all pushing me to do it.”
So the 33-year-old former All-Star showed up at the minor league camp, sandwiched between an 18-year-old outfielder and a 16-year-old shortstop, guaranteed nothing more than a shot. He didn’t expect the experiment to last long — until something funny happened.
“Slowly but surely, I started getting the love back for the game,” he said.
That love culminated on a late March evening in Vero Beach, Fla., when Bowden offered Young and teenage prospects Chris Marrero and Esmailyn Gonzalez a chance to play in a split-squad, major league game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. That night Young went 2-for-3 with a home run and an RBI single off ace Jason Schmidt.
Sitting in the first row near the Washington dugout, Bowden had an epiphany.
“When he hit the home run, I knew he was going to come back,” the GM recalled. “That was the day I knew it.”
Two weeks later, Young was starting at first base on Opening Day at RFK Stadium. Three months later, he was standing in the batting cage at San Francisco’s AT&T; Park, chumming it up with Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. as an All-Star, owner of a .339 batting average that ranks third in the NL.
“Aw, to me, that’s the best thing,” he said. “Everything I’ve done this year has been for them. I want them to enjoy this as much as I am.”
The Young children will be part of a contingent of 15 friends and family members in the stands for tonight’s All-Star Game. Right there with them will be teammate Robert Fick, friends with Young since the two played high school ball against each other in Southern California.
“I’m just so proud of him, everything he’s gone through, all the adjustments he’s made,” Fick said. “There’s something to be said for it. A lot of guys are given second chances and can’t seem to get over their off-the-field problems. He’s just been awesome.”
Players, coaches and others gathered in San Francisco this week were just as impressed with (and happy for) Young, one of the most popular players in the game.
“He plays the game like a little kid,” said Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, who went up against Young’s Detroit Tigers for five seasons. “I love to see players who do that. Obviously, he has talent. But I just like the way he comes to the ballpark with a smile on his face. He has a great time playing baseball.”
All the attention left Young plenty flattered and somewhat overwhelmed.
“A little bit of both,” he said.
But that didn’t stop Young from telling his story over and over yesterday to anyone who would listen. The last year has seen this larger-than-life figure overcome more adversity than most people face in a lifetime.
But Young knows he’s not the only one. He knows there are others out there who have doubts about themselves, and he wants them to see how far a little hope and a lot of love can take one man.
“There are people who have problems who may not be in the position I’m in,” he said. “To be in my position and to have gone through this and dealt with it, maybe that person will think, ‘Hey, maybe I can deal with it.’ ”