Tuesday, February 20, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — Dmitri Young stood outside the minor league complex at Washington Nationals camp yesterday morning, a 33-year-old former All-Star first baseman beaten down and weathered by the events of the last 12 months.

There were his struggles on the field with the Detroit Tigers, leading to his outright release in early September. And more importantly, there were a spate of struggles off the field, from the substance abuse problem that landed him in a California rehab center last fall to the domestic abuse charge that landed him on probation in Michigan to the more recent discovery that he has diabetes, which nearly dealt him the biggest blow of all.

“I should have been dead,” he said.

That’s not an exaggeration. Young said he spent three days in a South Florida intensive care unit in November after his blood sugar level maxed out at an astronomical 893 milligrams per deciliter. That’s high enough to cause a coma or even death.

These days, Young says his diabetes is “under control,” as is the rest of his life. Which is why, only a few months removed from all those problems, he now finds himself trying to re-establish his baseball career.

He’s starting at the bottom as a nonroster invitee to the Nationals’ minor league camp. There’s no guarantee he will get a chance to join the major leaguers training down the road at Space Coast Stadium, and there’s certainly no guarantee he will somehow wind up on Washington’s Opening Day roster as a fill-in first baseman while Nick Johnson recovers from a broken leg.

But Young is here, and for that he thanks Nationals general manager Jim Bowden.

“I got a second chance on life,” he said. “Jim Bowden had his hand out, gave me an opportunity. That’s what you look for: just a little bit of an opportunity and run wild with it.”

Young’s decline from career .289 hitter and 2003 American League All-Star to wannabe hopeful at Nationals camp was swift and painful. He was supposed to be a starter with the Tigers last season, a key cog on a club that wound up going to the World Series.

But Young was hampered by a lingering quadriceps strain, hit only .250 in 48 games, left the club for 30 days to check himself into a Southern California rehab center and later was sentenced to one year of probation after pleading guilty to domestic abuse against his former girlfriend.

The Tigers released him in early September, but as part of his plea bargain from the domestic case, he was required to remain in Detroit to take daily blood alcohol tests. So while Motown was busy rejoicing over the Tigers’ first prolonged playoff run in 22 years, Young went into hiding.

“You talk about low point,” he said. “If I was in California or Florida, it wouldn’t have been so bad. It would have been like, ‘Aw, it [stinks] but wish the guys well.’ But being in Detroit … not good.”

Only a few weeks after the World Series, Young was dealt the biggest shock of all. He hadn’t felt well all season — his eyesight was fading, his weight was out of control and he had to make repeated trips to the bathroom — and he finally learned why. He had developed Type 2 (or adult-onset) diabetes, a disease that had allowed his blood sugar level (and he believes the rest of his life) to spiral out of control.

“I was actually relieved because it answered pretty much every question that I had,” Young said. “My mood swings. The inability to lose weight. The vision. The constant going to the bathroom.”

He’s now on medication designed to help his body’s natural insulin production break down sugars, but he has to watch what he eats, how he exercises and how he feels.

Given all that, Young strongly considered taking a year off from baseball and spending time with his family, including younger brother Delmon (a highly touted Tampa Bay Devil Rays outfielder who has dealt with his own well-publicized problems off the field).

“I kind of put it out of my head that maybe it wasn’t meant for me to play this year,” Young said. “I was prepared to get in my RV and travel and watch my kids grow up and watch my brother in Tampa.”

And then he got a call from an old friend: Bowden. The two were together in Cincinnati from 1998 to 2001 and always had a strong relationship. Bowden always has been willing to give a guy a second chance, and with Johnson out for the foreseeable future, the Nationals were in need for first basemen with major league experience. The two spoke about 10 days ago, and on Wednesday they struck a deal.

“He’s very apologetic for all he’s been through,” Bowden said. “This is a man that’s very sorry for the mistakes he’s made. … I know his heart. I know his character. He deserves a second chance, and we’re going to give it to him.”

There was one stipulation: The Nationals would have zero tolerance with Young. If he makes just one mistake, he will be released.

“I agree with it,” he said. “That was part of the deal.”

Young now must work his way back up with the rest of Washington’s minor leaguers. There will be no special treatment, no promises of anything.

Which is fine with Young. He wants to be an example for his new, much younger teammates.

“There’s a lot of guys that are future big leaguers in that room,” he said, pointing to the minor league clubhouse. “They can get some first-hand, big league talking to. … The only thing I’ve always been was good with is the young guys. They see how I act as a big leaguer. Hopefully that will rub off on those guys.”

And with that, a smiling Young bounded through the parking lot to his car, ready to take on this new challenge in life, grateful to have been given the opportunity.

“What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,” he said. “I came limping into 2007, but I’m still here.”

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