On those warm spring days in Viera, Fla., when he was nothing more than a former big league player working out with minor leaguers nearly half his age, Dmitri Young never thought about the possibility of being the comeback player of the year.
Young, who had been through a tough year in which he battled health and legal problems, wanted to rediscover his love for baseball.
Once the Washington Nationals first baseman found that, the rest took care of itself. He worked his way into major league camp, earned a spot in the Opening Day lineup and had the finest season of his career.
So when he learned yesterday morning he had been named National League Comeback Player of the Year, Young turned emotional.
“It was very humbling to say the least,” he said. “This puts a stamp on everything I’ve been through and what I’ve accomplished this year on an individual standpoint.”
Young’s on-field accomplishments in his first season with the Nationals were significant. He challenged for the batting title most of the year and wound up tied for eighth with a .320 average. His 74 RBI were his most in four seasons, and his 38 doubles were his most in nine. He was named an All-Star for the second time in his career.
More than any of that, the 33-year-old became a valued team leader almost from the moment he stepped into the clubhouse, one willing to sit and talk to teammates young and old and offer advice on baseball and life.
“Those guys were real accepting of me,” he said. “They made me comfortable, and I was able to give back.”
A panel of NL beat writers from MLB.com selected Young as the winner of the award, which the Sporting News handed out for decades. He beat out a deep pool of candidates, including St. Louis Cardinals pitcher-turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel and Cincinnati Reds outfielder Josh Hamilton, who overcame drug addiction to reach the big leagues.
Young’s ability to overcome all that he faced in the last year — time spent in an alcohol rehab facility, charges of domestic assault, a divorce and the discovery he has diabetes — made for his own uplifting story of redemption.
“It’s certainly an inspiration for a lot of people in life who have made mistakes that have been given a second chance and taken advantage of it,” said general manager Jim Bowden, who signed Young to a nonguaranteed contract in February. “I think it’s a great story for baseball. I think it’s a great story for life.”
Young is still learning how to deal with his diabetes — he nearly died last winter during a four-day stint in intensive care when doctors realized his blood sugar count was dangerously high — and he admits he needs to do a better job of watching what he eats, exercising and taking medication to keep the disease under control.
“Being a diabetic, you have to follow things precisely, and with our baseball schedule, I didn’t follow it precisely at all,” he said. “Now that I’m going to be with the organization, they got me some good doctors and all the things I need to take care of it.”
Despite all that, Young managed to become a mainstay in the Washington lineup, playing in 134 of the team’s first 149 games before a neck injury sidelined him for much of the season’s final two weeks.
He may have a tough time getting that much playing time in 2008 if starting first baseman Nick Johnson finally returns from the broken leg that kept him out this season. Bowden, though, didn’t hesitate to sign Young to a two-year, $10 million extension this summer, perhaps as insurance in case Johnson doesn’t make it back.
“Right now, he’s our first baseman,” Bowden said. “We’re trying to get Nick healthy. But as far as planning and going forward, Nick’s hurt right now, and Dmitri’s our first baseman.”
Whatever role he ultimately holds next season, Young knows he will savor every moment he has on the field and in the clubhouse. As he discovered on those long spring training days in minor league camp, his passion for the game remains strong.
“I didn’t have any fun last year,” he said. “This year, baseball, it was the best.”