The Young and the Peerless

Baseball's best-kept secret plays in your backyard

No steroids? No ego? No national ad campaigns? No paparazzi pics wearing only eye black and a jock strap in the back seat with a Bachman Lake stripper? No obscenity-laced insults hurled at Mike Doocy? No 3 a.m. alcohol-related arrests after taking in Ted Nugent at Billy Bob's?

What? Texas Rangers shortstop Michael Young thinks he's going to earn fame and fortune simply by being a good guy and a great player?

No way.

Michael Young: a good guy, a great player
Mark Graham
Michael Young: a good guy, a great player

Like Terrell Owens, he needs to be misunderstood. Like Alex Rodriguez, he needs to be phony. Like Dirk Nowitzki, he needs to be blond. Like Rusty Greer, he needs to make simple plays appear sensational. At the very least he needs, like, a controversial Web site. But michaelyoung.com is a re-direct to a generic celebrity site. And mikeyoung.com boasts the discount prices at a Pontiac dealership in something called Frankenmuth, Michigan.

So in this eerie era of manufactured role models, what exactly is Young's plan to superstardom? Without tattoos or earrings, he looks more CEO than MVP. His name--Michael Brian Young--evokes images of white bread with the crusts cut off. In his own state he's not even the most popular Young (right, Vince?). In his own locale, he's not even the most popular Texas Ranger (right, Walker?). And in his own stadium, he's not even the most popular position (right, Dot Race winner?).

But there is indeed a blueprint and, no, it doesn't include using a stage name or an amped-up Q rating. Instead, Young is concocting an old-school recipe--equal parts hard work and easy demeanor--to build a career and a character that will eventually be respected by peers and popular with fans.

It goes something like this: Keep your nose clean, your uniform dirty and your batting average higher than Cheech Marin. And whaddyaknow? It finally started gaining momentum at last week's Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Pittsburgh when, instead of punching a cameraman, Young smacked a fastball.

Producing the best 0-2 comeback since the Miami Heat stunned your Dallas Mavericks, Young lined a two-out, two-strike, two-run triple into right center field to propel his American League to a dramatic 3-2 victory over the National League.

"It was a blast," Young said last weekend from Baltimore. "Obviously it was one of the biggest thrills of my career."

With one swing, Young did more for his image than in his previous 3,350 career at-bats. He was named the All-Star MVP. He won a Chevy Avalanche SUV. And, most important, he introduced the world to Michael Young.

Joked Young, "My phone's been blowin' up."

This season the Texas Rangers won't win the World Series. Increasing their sad streak to 11 years, they won't win a playoff game. But after his official coming-out party in Pittsburgh, Young will win fans.

In his seventh season, the 29-year-old is one of baseball's better players. And best bargains. Since '04 he has had more hits, homers and RBIs than a certain shortstop named Derek Jeter. He won the '05 batting crown, is working on his fourth consecutive 200-hit season, recently went a club-record 42 games without an error and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting the last two seasons.

Not bad for a kid who was cut from a Southern California select team at 13. Or for a guy who makes only a measly $3 million, making him baseball's most valuable production-to-paycheck player.

Though he is among the league's top 20 performers, Young is only the 8th-highest-paid player on his own mediocre team. Platoon catcher Rod Barajas makes more. Around the league, spares like Kenji Johima and Jack Wilson make more. Former Rangers abortion Chan Ho Park steals five times more. Jeter earns $20 million.

Put out cleaner cover pages on your TPS reports than the dude in the next cubicle, only to see him quintuple your take-home, and most of us would pull a hammy jumping up to complain. But Young never shows it publicly and never airs it privately. (If he keeps his production high and his profile low, teams will break the bank to sign him as a free agent after 2008.)

Equally impressive, he's always selfless and never skips batting practice. When Alfonso Soriano balked at moving from his cherished second-base position in '04, Young seamlessly slid to shortstop. He attends winter carnivals and signs autographs in 100-degree heat. He's accessible and honest with the media. He shows up. He hits. He hits some more. All the time quietly blending in. Which, come to think of it, isn't all that difficult when you're about as fancy and functional as a No. 2 pencil.

During the All-Star Game, the FOX folks were gushing over not Young, but rather the New York Mets' David Wright as the game's best young infielder. Young's 1,000th career hit--a worthy milestone--was passed with all the hoopla of table salt. In the AL All-Star voting he finished fourth--at his own position. And in this very space a week ago some knucklehead ranked Young only 33rd on the list of the area's 50 most powerful people in sports.

Not that any of that troubles him. Growing up in Covina, California, Young learned early that humility trumps familiarity. During a weekend interview with ESPN, however, he was convinced to ditch his trademark baseball cap. Slowly but surely, fans are recognizing his skill. Next, they'll know his grill.

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