By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
SURPRISE, Arizona--It's a damp, overcast day. Not what you'd expect in the Cactus League. The Rangers are playing another intra-squad scrimmage. No one, save the knot of fans sitting just behind the Rangers dugout, is particularly thrilled with the idea of another intra-squad scrimmage. The players least of all.
The Rangers, in their current incarnation, are a bunch of merciless ball busters who delight in each other's misery. And that's when they're preoccupied. Put them on a field, in the rain, and pit them against each other in a meaningless game with little distraction, and you're just asking for trouble. Or wisecracks.
Michael Young--formerly a second baseman, currently the filler for A-Rod's shortstop void--watches strike three go by without so much as blinking. He turns, defeated, and walks back to the dugout, the bat still on his shoulder. He's greeted by Hank Blalock, the team's third baseman and one of Young's best friends. He plays Hutch to Young's Starsky. "Dude," Blalock says in his best Cali, Valley-Boy accent, "take the fucking safety off."
"That was just beautiful," manager Buck Showalter says, chuckling. "I've never heard that before--'take the fucking safety off.' Must be a California thing. Mike just laughed it off."
It's how Young operates. He's single-minded when it comes to baseball, confident that he'll get the job done; if not sooner, then later. It's how he approached things when he was trying to crack the starting lineup a few years back. No one gave him much of a shot to stick, much less excel. It's how he approached things heading into last year, too, when everyone was lauding his defensive ability but, at the same time, taking gut shots at him for batting .262 the previous season. It didn't matter to the pundits that it had been his first full year in the Bigs and that he was still adjusting.
Young didn't let it bother him. He conducted himself as a professional--at least while the media were around, which is more than you can say for some of them--and went about his business. He did it quietly, without much chest-thumping or obvious bravado and, before you knew it, he had turned in one of the better seasons by a Rangers middle infielder not named A-Rod. Last year, he led all American League second basemen with a .306 average and complemented that number with 14 home runs and 72 RBIs. As always, he was brilliant in the field.
Young was beginning to get the respect he deserved when his station in life, or at least with the Rangers, was once again shaken. Alex Rodriguez was traded, which was less important than for whomhe was traded. In exchange for shipping off the league's MVP to New York, the Rangers got Alfonso Soriano, a lithe, 28-year-old Dominican with enough pop in his bat to hit .290 with 38 homers and 91 RBIs in 2003. His offensive numbers were decidedly less significant than his position in the field, which, as it turns out, happened to be the same as Young's.
Even the dimwitted know you can't have two second basemen. Young is not dimwitted. Despite rumors that had Showalter moving Soriano to center field or giving him a look at shortstop, Young could sense that his chances of remaining at second weren't good. Especially after Soriano, regarded by one and all as a "good guy," popped off to the local writers about not wanting to have to change teams and positions. Blah, blah, bitchity, blah.
"I don't think there was any one moment where I thought, OK, this is what's gonna happen," Young says. "But I thought about it for a while, and I figured after Alex was traded and Alfonso came in that they were going to play both of us at second or see both of us at short. But then someone was going to have to make the move eventually, so I wanted to get it out of the way. If it was going to happen, I wanted to get as much work in as possible. And plus it made it easier on him. He had to come from another team and fit in here with a new group of guys. This is probably best for the team all the way around."
Yeah, it probably is. Soriano has enough trouble in the field as it is--his 19 errors last season were among the most in the AL--while Young, who finished second in the Gold Glove voting behind Bret Boone, had an exemplary fielding percentage (.987, good for third in the AL among second basemen) against just 10 errors. If you're going to have to move one of them, better to move the one who can actually catch the ball. Less adjustment time that way.
Young could have cried about it or complained to the media. He could have made Soriano feel unwelcome. He did none of those things. Instead, he did what he always does--he shut his mouth and grabbed his glove.
"I was never worried about Mike making waves," Showalter says. "Mike gives himself a chance no matter where he is. He doesn't use the new position as an excuse. Shortstop, catcher, first base, he'd move and do whatever the club asked him to do. You never have to hold your breath when the ball is hit to Mike. Now he'll have to get his clock adjusted, but I think his clock is getting there already. Mike has great aptitude."
All of which--the numbers and the fielding and moving to a new position without saying a word--should have made Rangers General Manager John Hart leap in his direction with a pen in one hand and a multiyear contract in the other. Never happened. Instead, the Rangers signed him to a one-year deal worth $450,000, which is only $150,000 more than the league minimum for which they inked could-be center fielder Laynce Nix. Young says it doesn't bother him. He says he's OK with the way things are going. It's hard not to believe him, because he's convincing and affable. But, at some point--perhaps after watching his pal Blalock get a five-year deal worth $15.2 mil tossed his way--wouldn't he also want to get paid?
"It'll eventually take care of itself; right now I just want to concentrate on playing shortstop," Young says. "I think I have something to offer. And I think I can make the transition easier for Sori, too. You can see he's already feeling more comfortable with us. Like the other day, I was standing over there in front of the mirror, and he caught me flexing a little bit and started ripping on me for it. He kinda loud-talked me in front of the guys. It was pretty funny. I was fine with it."
Not surprising. Not at all.