July 14, 2009

UCSB's Young stars as baseball's transformer

July 14, 2009

Michael Young had his thoughts plugged deep into a laptop computer the first time we reconnected in a Major League Baseball clubhouse.

The young Texas Ranger from UCSB had to access some video of his previous at-bats against Angels' starter John Lackey before he could indulge the hometown media.

It took me the better part of a decade to figure it out, but now I realize that Michael Young had been actually interfacing that night, one computer to another.

He is baseball's automaton.

Nothing is ever out of place. Not the hair on his closely cropped head, nor the unwrinkled fabric of his form-fitting uniform, nor the quotes in his noncontroversial interviews.

Just look at how Young bears such a striking resemblance to the relentless T-1000 cyborg played by Robert Patrick in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day."

Even Young's explanation for his ability to hit in the clutch he enters tonight's MLB All-Star Game with winning hits to his credit in both the 2006 and 2008 Midsummer Classics suggests cold, bloodless calculation.

"I'm really not thinking about results when I get up there," he said. "I'm just prepared for those at-bats."

Young will be attending his sixth All-Game Game, but he reacted to his selection as though he were a fresh-faced rookie:

"It's incredibly humbling," he said. "You never want to take that for granted."

I looked back into my notes: It was nearly a replay of what he said after his first selection in 2004.

There were plenty of bugs in Young's system when UCSB coach Bob Brontsema brought him in from centerfield to play shortstop in 1997. He committed 27 errors for the Gauchos that season for a fielding percentage of just .910.

"Oh, I stunk," he admitted. "I was by far the worst defensive shortstop in our conference.

"But I know coach kept me out there because I was doing the job offensively. I was hitting, and I know he felt I had the ability to go out and play a big-league shortstop.

"That's one of the main reasons I'm thankful to him because he could've easily pulled the plug on the experiment and put me back in centerfield."

Thirteen years later, Young has become the face of Texas Rangers baseball. And he took the field that first night in Anaheim with some pretty recognizable guys like Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro and Mark Teixeira.

He is, in fact, the Lone Ranger remaining from the team that Texas put together at the start of this millennium.

Young, a career .301 hitter, is still riding high at age 32. His six All-Star Game appearances is second in Ranger history only to the 10 made by Pudge Rodriguez.

He explains that with a bit of dispassion, as well.

"I think one of the reasons I've gone is that I really haven't thought about it," Young said. "I haven't really worried about it."

His storybook career actually reads more like a manual. Young's book approach to hitting is what helped him crank out more than 200 hits in five straight seasons, from 2003 to 2007. Wade Boggs and Ichiro Suzuki are the only other Major Leaguers who've done that since 1940.

Young's 106 hits so far this season have him on pace for another 200. He also has 27 doubles, tied for fourth-most in the league, and is batting .308.

"He does it in such a quiet way," Texas hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo said, "that sometimes you don't even notice it."

That's probably why the Rangers figured that their favorite automaton, who played second base while Alex Rodriguez was still in Texas, wouldn't say boo about becoming a transformer again and converting from a shortstop into a third baseman.

But this time, the move simply did not compute with Young especially with that 2008 Gold Glove Award still fresh in his memory banks.

He shocked the Rangers by requesting a trade during the offseason, although he rescinded it just a few days later when it became a hot-button issue.

"The bad thing is that we never intended for this to go public," Young said. "We thought it was something we could handle behind closed doors. It got out, and that was unfortunate.

"But I think to everyone's credit, we squashed it after that. Probably two or three days after that, we squashed it and moved on."

Consider it a minor glitch and then a full-system reboot for Texas' dutiful cyborg.

And in the five months since, he's reprogrammed himself into a near-flawless third baseman.

Young's fielding percentage of .968 ranks third at the position in the American League behind only Joe Crede of Minnesota and Scott Rolen of Toronto. He's made just six errors in 84 games.

The eight Rangers who manned the hot corner last year committed 23 errors. No other team in the A.L. West made more mistakes at the position, and it was one reason why Texas finished 21 games behind the Angels in last year's division race.

The Rangers trail them by just 1 1/2 games entering this year's All-Star break. Seattle is four games back.

"We feel like all three teams are going to be in this until the end," Young said, "and it should be a lot of fun."

Even automatons, after all, like to have a ball.

E-mail: mpatton@newspress.com