Michael Young: Half Man, Half Hitting Machine
Let's see: There have been the firing of the hitting coach, the TV play-by-play voice and even the co-owner. A loyal father and fan leaned over a railing in left field and fell to his death. Every time you turn around a player is taking paternity leave. Last week the star player, Josh Hamilton, saved customers of a local flooring store about a half-million bucks with a rare grand slam.
And, both perfect and poignant in this surreal, successful season, the Rangers' Most Valuable Player in 2011 is a guy who desperately didn't want to be here.
Standing at his locker in the Rangers Ballpark clubhouse last Thursday night, after a victory over the Cleveland Indians that further cemented Texas as the best in the American League West, it nonetheless took Michael Young no time to surmise a crazy campaign — a season in which he first stubbornly accepted a diminished role and then surprisingly walloped 100-plus RBI to lead his team to a second consecutive division title.
"What? It hasn't been strange at all," Young said, almost bristling at the suggestion. "It's baseball. Once I got to spring training all that stuff was put to rest. It's all about the game. We've had a great season. I've had a pretty good year. But why wouldn't I get 100 RBI? I've done it before. Hopefully I'll do it again."
He says that now. But back around Valentine's Day, all this — Young being in Texas, Young being this good — seemed about as likely as 70 100-degree days on our horizon. In 2004 Young volunteered to move from second base to shortstop to accommodate newcomer Alfonso Soriano. In 2009 he publicly complained when the Rangers asked him to move to third base, to make way for a hotshot shortstop named Elvis Andrus. And last winter he was pissed and done when the Rangers acquired third baseman Adrian Beltre, then pursued free-agent designated hitters like Jim Thome and Mike Napoli.
Said Young at the time: "I'm asking for a trade because I've been misled and manipulated and I'm sick of it."
It wasn't about baseball. It wasn't about the game. It was about pride.
For years I interviewed Young at this same locker in September, most of those interviews taking place near the end of another depressing, losing season. He was always professional, doing his best to remain optimistic, irrational as it seemed. On bad teams he was a great leader, the clubhouse GPS unit for an organization that spent last decade chasing its tail.
But in the wake of breaking a 35-year drought in which they won a playoff series and advanced to the World Series, the Rangers and general manager Jon Daniels needed to keep improving. Beltre is a Gold Glove third baseman, a significant improvement defensively for the step-slow, reflex-diminished 34-year-old Young. And Napoli was a long-time Daniels favorite, a versatile player with pop who can play catcher, designated hitter or, in a pinch, first base. And that left Young ... where?
Traded? A part-time role player? Pouting?
"We'll get Michael his at-bats one way or another," manager Ron Washington said in Surprise, Arizona, in March, unconcerned about a player everyone else was frantically fretting about. "Don't worry about Michael Young. He'll play. He'll hit. Like he always does."
After a couple of clear-the-air meetings with Daniels and the comfort that his existing contract would pay him $48 million over the next three years, the inevitable departure was dramatically avoided. Young reluctantly grabbed a first-baseman's mitt and made a commitment to do his best. Just like that, he was the Rangers' first and only "Super Utility" player. And, turns out, a damn good one.
"Michael's been amazing," says team president and co-owner Nolan Ryan. "There were some tough talks about his role in the offseason, but he's a Ranger and we hope he'll always be a Ranger. Once we got to spring training he just picked up a bat and starting hitting. We've asked him to do a lot for us this year and he's excelled at all of them."
There were times last season when Young was a liability at third base. At the plate, he had a career-high 115 strikeouts and hit only .284, his lowest average since 2002. He appeared in decline, his value at an all-time low.
But last week, on a crisp night in Arlington, as Indians pitcher Fausto Carmona intentionally walked Hamilton to face Young with the bases loaded, I was reminded just how underappreciated Young is. Before I could do the math, he turned on a fastball, lining it down the left-field line and into the corner for a bases-clearing double and a 4-0 Rangers lead. Beltre then homered, the lead ballooned to 6-0, and the Rangers inched closer to 90-plus wins and another AL West banner.
Young's been both super and utility, playing 13 games at second base while Ian Kinsler was injured, 39 at third while Beltre was out, 31 at first to give Mitch Moreland needed rest and 70-ish games as designated hitter, even at times batting clean-up. The summer heat wave may have finally relented and, hell, Tony Romo even made positive plays in clutch situations on Sunday. But for Young nothing ultimately wavers. It's still about the continuing, consistent excellence of bat meeting ball. Hard.
The double against Cleveland — punctuated by this latest Rangers "Sitting Duck" hand gesture (the Claw, Antlers and Cliff Lee are so 2010) — put Young over 100 RBI for only the second time in his career. Earlier this season he surpassed 2,000 hits for his Rangers career, and has a decent shot at 3,000. He's headed for another 200-hit season, with an average around .330, 40 doubles and whispers that he should be included in the American League MVP discussion. For most of the season he's been the best player on one of baseball's best teams.
Just don't expect him to be giddy. Young is the Jason Garrett of the Rangers. All business. No bullshit.
"Doesn't mean much to me, honestly," he says of the 100-RBI milestone, reached for the first time since 2006. "It's another hit. And we got another win."
I carved out a crafty question for Young, aimed at excavating some insight on the team's mindset entering another playoff chase. It meandered through last season's unbridled joy of unprecedented accomplishment and arrived at a query to compare that attitude with this season's heightened bar of expectations. It prompted this response:
"Same. It feels the same. We gotta win games."
The Rangers, looking less like a one-year wonder and more like the defending AL champs, are a unique team authoring a special season. They entered this final week of the season with a chance to break the franchise record of 95 wins. They'll enter the playoffs with lefties as their top three pitchers — C.J. Wilson, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison.
Sadly, Brownwood firefighter Shannon Stone isn't around to enjoy the ride. Neither is Thad Bosley, the hitting coach dismissed in favor of Scott Coolbaugh. Nor Chuck Greenberg, the CEO forced out in March because his vision didn't mesh with Ryan's. John Rhadigan remains involved, though the Fox Sports Southwest voice has been diminished into studio host.
Thankfully, though, Michael Young is still here.
At first kicking and screaming. But now — same as always, but more than ever — just hitting.