Michael Young spins web of success
By Richard Durrett
The 34-year-old Young has that kind of impact. He's a leader without shouting; a hard worker without complaining. He's as reliable as 100-degree weather in August in Texas. And he's always willing to help teammates who seek him out.
"I had a sports hate for some of the guys on the team, playing for the Angels, but he wasn't one of those," said Napoli, the catcher who was acquired by the Texas Rangers from the Blue Jays for relieverFrank Francisco days after the Angels traded him this offseason. "He does everything the right way, plays the game hard and is a professional. The way he goes about his business and the way he handles things, I always thought, 'Man, I'd love to play with him some day.'"
Napoli nearly didn't get that chance. With spring training about 10 days away, Young figured he wouldn't be preparing for a second consecutive postseason run with the Rangers.
He made national news when he requested a trade because he felt there were trust issues with the front office that couldn't be repaired. He thought he'd be traded even before he set foot in Surprise, Ariz., in mid-February.
"It was never about me coming out and saying I wanted to be traded because of my role," Young said. "That's inaccurate. I agreed to do it, and I'm not the type of person to sit there a week before spring training and bail on my teammates. It's just not me. I came ready to prepare for the season and help us win games."
The Rangers weren't going to deal the face of the franchise and one of the most consistent hitters in the league unless they received fair value in return. And with three years remaining on Young's contract at a total of $48 million, that wasn't going to be easy. In the end, he remained with the Rangers and opened the season in a new role as the designated hitter and super-utility infielder. But he was also in a familiar role: team leader.
"I put all of that stuff behind me a long time ago," Young said. "I put it behind me the second I got to camp. Baseball has been my priority. I got to finally do what I really wanted to do, and that's play."
Young and general manager Jon Daniels had a few meetings during spring training, if for nothing else than to attempt to better understand each other's position. But Young has simply gone about his job of learning a new position (first base) and how best to stay ready for each at-bat as the designated hitter, when he doesn't have the rhythm of the game in the field to help him stay focused.
"It's not easy to DH," said second baseman Ian Kinsler, who has sat beside Young in the Rangers' clubhouse for the past four years or more. "I've done it a handful of times this year, and it's tougher on your concentration level rather than going out to the field and playing out there. He's done an unbelievable job at it. He's made it look easy. It's one thing to hit .300 or .310. But to hit .330 is exceptional. It's not normal. For him to do that and play four different positions is impressive."
What Young has done is put together a career year at age 34. Despite the offseason drama, Young managed to collect yet another 200-hit season, the sixth of his career and first since 2007. He had a career-high 106 RBIs. His average was .338 -- third-best in the AL, and the majors -- and he stayed around or above .330 the entire season, putting him in contention for his second batting title. He's just the fifth player since 1960 with more than one season of at least 200 hits, 40 doubles and 100 RBIs, and the first Ranger to do it (the only other Rangers with even one season like that are Buddy Bell in 1979 and Ruben Sierra in 1991).
Young isn't surprised by his season. He worked in spring training to shore up some things at third base on defense and to learn the intricacies of first base, a position he'd never played in his baseball life. The rest of it -- preparing to hit, staying in shape, going through his routine -- was unchanged from how he's done things for most of his 11-year career.
"I knew I was going to find ways to keep myself healthy," Young said. "Obviously, I don't want to see my teammates get banged up. I want everyone to stay healthy because we have a better chance to win games. But I knew I was going to get some time on the field. It's good to have depth and keep everyone fresh. If you can bounce around the DH, guys are fresh and have their legs."
Manager Ron Washington made sure early in the season, when he had a healthy infield, that he still got Young in the field about twice a week. He played some at first to get the hang of it and would spell Kinsler at second for a day or Adrian Beltre at third.
Then, in late July, Beltre went on the disabled list with a strained hamstring. Young became the everyday third baseman, handling the role Daniels and the front office felt was critical when they signed Beltre and shifted Young to DH.
"We felt he could do so many things, and we've seen that," Daniels said. "The way things played out and unfolded from a communication or relationship standpoint, nobody was happy with that, especially me. I'm not going to go back through that, but the bottom line as far as the construction of the team is that having a versatile club, having guys that can pick teammates up, he's one of those that can do that. I've been thrilled from that standpoint with the way it's worked out."
Young saw improvement in his own game, thanks to constant work in spring training and at times during the regular season with infield coach Dave Anderson.
"I have made some really good adjustments at third base this year because I knew exactly what I wanted to do," Young said. "I had two years under my belt. I know how difficult it is to switch positions. It's not a switch 20 feet to your right. You might as well be playing a different sport. It's that different. Your jumps are different, your setup is different, and to me I was really inconsistent with my setup and first step."
So that was his focus, and Young saw "a massive difference" in those skills as he spent a bunch of time at third base in late July and all of August. All the while, he continued to hit.
"He hits the ball to all fields and just gets hits consistently," Washington said. "He's an awesome hitter and a professional. Look what he's done out there. It's MVP stuff."
Young doesn't spend much time talking about the individual accomplishments. That's just not his style. That attitude has further endeared him to his teammates.
So Napoli, among others, has taken to showering Young with compliments in a fun-loving way. He created a "Ranger Man" T-shirt and even made a Superman "cape" out of one of the towels earlier this season, listing many of Young's impressive stats. It took him a while.
"Our lockers are close together, so we're always talking and I'm always messing around with him," Napoli said. "He's so humble and he's so focused on winning. He always overlooks what he does. He doesn't want any of that stuff, so I go overboard with it to let him know what he does. I think it's cool that someone like that can't even think about what he's done in this game. He thinks about team and winning."
And getting a taste of the postseason and advancing to the World Series, but losing, makes Young hungry to hoist a World Series trophy this time.
"It fuels the fire and gives you a lot of motivation," Young said. "I still have a ton of baseball in front of me, but it makes it easier to focus on the ultimate goal. I could see last year how much fun it is to get to the top of the mountain. I'm excited about the opportunity we have and the opportunity we'll continue to have."
Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.