Playing his heart out

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BOWIE | Dmitri Young had a dream about a week ago, one of those clear-as-day dreams that become imprinted in your mind long after you’ve awoken and returned to reality. He was back home in California, standing in the kitchen, when suddenly his mother approached him with some advice.

“I just want you to go out there and play your heart out,” Bonnie Young told her son. “Whatever happens, happens.”

Dmitri Young didn’t listen to his mother as much as he probably should have in the 35 years he knew her, but since her death two months ago he has come to realize the importance of her words.

“So that’s my outlook now,” he said. “I’m going to play my heart out. And then whatever’s going to happen from here… ”

Young’s voice trailed off, and he had to put his hand up to his mouth for a moment to regain composure, then wipe away a tear or two from his eyes. Standing along the left-field wall at Prince George’s County Stadium late Tuesday afternoon, watching his Harrisburg Senators teammates warm up before their game against the Bowie Baysox, the veteran first baseman was back to a reality he never expected to face.

On prolonged rehab from a back injury he doesn’t believe is as debilitating as the Washington Nationals do, Young is in unfamiliar territory. He has spent portions of all of the last 13 years playing major league baseball, but he doesn’t know whether the streak will reach 14.

Though he found himself Tuesday a mere 20 miles from Nationals Park, he might as well be 20,000 miles from the big leagues.

“I’ve still got a lot of ball left,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys who are 36, 37, 38, 39 who are still playing. My best may be behind me, but I mean, I may pop another .300 year. I can DH somewhere. I can move around at first base some and feel comfortable over there. I want to go to a team that… I just want a ring before I’m done playing.”

Young certainly won’t get any rings with the worst-in-the-majors Nationals this season, even if they decide to activate him off the disabled list and put him back on their 25-man roster. So he would prefer the Nationals “do a favor for me” and trade him to a club that does have room.

The problem: There isn’t anyone interested in a 35-year-old singles-and-doubles hitter who is a liability in the field and who has a history of trouble with his back and with diabetes. And who is owed $5 million this season.

All of which leaves the Nationals in an awkward position: They don’t quite know what to do with Young, so they seem content to keep waiting and delaying the inevitable until their hand is forced.

Still earning the final portion of the $10 million deal he was awarded by ex-general manager Jim Bowden two summers ago, Young has been on the DL since Opening Day. He spent three months at the club’s spring training facility in Viera, Fla., working out for a couple of hours each day with recent draft picks and other injured players, insisting his back felt fine all along only to remain in that baseball purgatory.

Like some flower-pattern upholstered recliner sitting in a living room of contemporary European leather furniture, Young is the unwanted gift from Bowden the Nationals can’t return to the store.

“I feel like I’m part of that regime that was tied to Bowden,” he said. “I don’t know, I could be wrong, but that’s just my gut feeling.”

Acting GM Mike Rizzo, who took over when Bowden resigned March 1, did not return messages left for him Wednesday. Another team official said he’s unaware of any firm plan in place for Young and that the organization seems content to wait until they are forced to make a decision. One possible solution discussed within the organization: If the Nationals trade Nick Johnson before the end of the month, Young could take over at first base for the rest of the season.

Once Young began his 20-day rehab assignment with Class AA Harrisburg last week, it looked like a decision would be forthcoming at long last. But then he mildly aggravated his back injury, though not while playing, so the rehab assignment is on hold for at least a few days. Young, who went 0-for-6 with a walk in three games before the setback, hopes to return to Harrisburg’s lineup later this week.

In his mind, though, he believes he could have been playing in the majors months ago. Having shed 40 pounds from a 6-foot-2 frame that once weighed in at 330 and having successfully controlled his diabetes thanks to a strict diet, medicine and exercise regime, he said it has been four years since he has felt this well.

Young also said he was told at the end of spring training that he would remain in Florida “no more than a month,” then start a rehab assignment that would have him back in the big leagues by mid-May.

He has heard little from the Nationals since.

“After 13 years in the big leagues, I thought there’d be a little more communication than that. I thought I did some good for the organization in the time that I was here. If there’s something I did wrong that they didn’t like, let me know.”

Young insists he’s not bitter. Much as he wishes he was wearing a major league uniform - Washington or other - right now, the events of the last year has given him new perspective.

Bonnie Young was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January. She died May 18 at age 53 with her husband, Larry, and four children (Dmitri, Delmon, Detra and DeAnn) at her side.

“Knowing what my mom had to fight through, it made everything I’ve gone through small potatoes,” Dmitri Young said. “I didn’t exactly like what was going on, but I wasn’t fighting for my life.”

For now, Young will continue fighting for his baseball life, hoping there’s one final encore yet in a career filled with equal amounts of dizzying highs and painful lows.

And if not? If neither the Nationals nor anyone else comes calling, then what?

“Just like my mom told me to: I’m going to play my heart out,” Young said. “If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. If not, I had a nice career. I’ll just watch my kids grow up and enjoy them.”

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