Monday, July 2, 2007

PITTSBURGH - Dmitri Young stood in the visitors’ clubhouse at PNC Park yesterday afternoon, a man rejuvenated.

Informed minutes before he had been selected to his second career All-Star Game, the Washington Nationals first baseman couldn’t stop smiling as he thought about the arduous road he took to get back to the pinnacle of his profession.

“I’ve come full circle, and basically this made it official,” he said. “Let this be a lesson to people who deal with adversity. Never quit and keep fighting.”

Young’s perseverance following a troublesome year that saw him battle legal and health problems was rewarded yesterday by St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who selected the 33-year-old as the Nationals’ lone All-Star. Young will represent the club next Tuesday at AT&T Park in San Francisco as one of four first basemen on the National League roster (Young, starter Prince Fielder and fellow backups Albert Pujols and Derrek Lee).

Young’s .340 batting average ranks third in the NL. His .392 on-base percentage and .502 slugging percentage are tops on a Washington roster that desperately has needed his production.

“It would be kind of painful if we would have to go out there every day without him,” manager Manny Acta said. “He has meant so much to us.”

A career .292 hitter in parts of 12 major league seasons, Young didn’t even appear on this year’s All-Star ballot. Following a difficult offseason in which he went through a divorce, was charged with domestic abuse, spent 30 days in an alcohol treatment facility and was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, he was nearly out of baseball.

But Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, who knew Young from their days together in Cincinnati nearly a decade ago, offered the slugger a minor league contract and a chance to come to spring training with the organization’s minor leaguers and work his way back into shape. Young accepted the offer, which didn’t guarantee him anything other than a shot at redemption and $500,000 if he made the Opening Day roster.

“If Jim didn’t call, I wouldn’t have been playing,” he said. “He was the only call.”

Energized by the youthful minor leaguers working alongside him, Young showed the Nationals he could still play, was promoted to big league camp, wound up earning the starting job at first base and became the hottest hitter in baseball.

Since May 17, a span of 40 games, he has hit .423. That’s more than 50 points better than anyone else in the majors.

“This guy was on Field 5 in spring training, working in some accelerated camp program with the prospects, and he ends up being our first baseman,” Acta said. “Look what he’s done for us and for the game. Just a great story.”

Young’s value to the Nationals has extended far beyond the playing field. Universally beloved by his teammates, the always jovial, always introspective veteran has become the leader of this team.

“You’ve seen what he’s done to this clubhouse,” said teammate Robert Fick, who will travel to San Francisco to watch his longtime friend in person. “He takes time out for everybody: black, white, Dominican, whatever. It doesn’t matter. He really takes time for everybody else. And look what’s happened to him.”

This is Young’s second All-Star selection. He was an American League reserve in 2003 while playing for the Detroit Tigers but didn’t appear in the game. He made no secret that he would like to get a chance to play this time, an honor that would cap his remarkable journey back.

“A lot of my friends were texting me today, and they said it takes tremendous character to fight and get to this point, and they’re all proud of me,” Young said. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s about character. If you’re down, you don’t stay down. You’re going to fight.”

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