- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2008

VIERA, Fla.

Dmitri Young reported for spring training through the back door last year. Yesterday, he walked triumphantly through the front door.

Last spring, Young showed up with little fanfare at the Washington Nationals’ camp and spent the next few weeks working out with minor leaguers nearly 15 years younger. The major leaguers he used to compete with, meanwhile, worked out in another part of the complex.

Young was an afterthought, a curiosity, a player whose career appeared to be over after a series of incidents during the 2006 season involving domestic violence and alcohol-related problems.

The playoff-bound Detroit Tigers cut Young loose with less than a month to go in that season. He was hospitalized that November and diagnosed with diabetes. Young, it seemed, was finished with baseball.

But Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, who as GM of the Reds had worked with Young in Cincinnati, needed hitters and first basemen. Bowden was willing to see whether Young had anything left and signed him to a minor league contract.

Last season, Young finished ninth in the National League with a .320 average. He was an All-Star, the NL Comeback Player of the Year. He also had a two-year, $10 million contract in his pocket.

So yesterday Young entered the Nationals’ clubhouse as one of the leaders of this team, a welcome sight for teammates who seemed elated by his presence as he walked through, hugging and shaking hands.

When asked whether he thought about the contrast of his first day in camp this year compared to last year, Young said, “Yeah, but I really wasn’t too concerned about it.”

Yes, this year Young’s concerns are a little different. He enters camp as the declared starting first baseman, but manager Manny Acta also has made clear there is competition for that job. Nick Johnson appears to be healthy and fully recovered from the broken leg that sidelined him for 18 months.

The player cut loose by the Tigers because of his personal troubles now is called upon by the Nationals to mentor their newly acquired problem child, Elijah Dukes — yet another example of the turnaround in Young’s life since he joined this team.

Young said the positive response from his teammates made him feel good.

“That’s a good thing, compared to what I heard the locker room was like in years past,” Young said. “It is always good to make a positive influence in the locker room, especially with a young team like this that is on its way up. I think we made some pretty good moves with the budget that we have and the types of players we brought in. And we got competition all over the place, which makes the team’s expectation level rise up some.”

Young, 34, will be part of the most-watched competition this spring. Neither Young nor Johnson is a bench player if both perform up to past standards, so one likely will be traded. The 29-year-old Johnson, the younger and better all-around player, probably is more marketable.

“There is always competition, and what that does is bring the best out of the guys who are competing,” Young said. “Nick is a heck of a competitor and first baseman. The guy can swing a mean stick. He brings leadership to the team. I bring leadership to the team. … Naturally, we both expect to start. Whatever the manager decides, that is on him.”

One factor working in Young’s favor is Dukes. The outfielder has a sordid history — numerous arrests for possession of marijuana, assault and other charges. Should Dukes miraculously survive spring training without incident and make the Opening Day roster, it would be difficult for the Nationals to trade one of his mentors.

Even yesterday, Young was busy on the Dukes watch. Shortly after coming off the field from his first workout, Young was asked by a team official to give Dukes a call.

“I believe he will be coming in the next couple of days,” Young said. “He is going to need someone to help him mature as a baseball player and as a human being and learn how to handle himself around the media, his teammates, the fans and how to conduct yourself as a professional and realize his potential. From what I’ve heard, this guy has the talent to put up serious numbers. He has to realize that. …

“He has to look at this as a chance to maybe help people that are disadvantaged and didn’t come from the best background in the world to see and say, ‘Hey, this guy made something out of himself. I can do it, too.’ He has to realize that is the message that he can pass on. He has to clear his mind, get his priorities in order and come out here and play ball.”

That’s a lesson Young learned a year ago.


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