Saturday, August 16, 2008
Updated: August 17, 10:16 AM ET
Kinsler, Young form a close bond in middle of Rangers' infield
By Jerry Crasnick
Ian Kinsler and Michael Young share a baseball value system amid the double-play pivots in Texas. They believe in the sanctity of hustle, the importance of accountability to teammates and the need for major leaguers to take the field even when nagging injuries might put a crimp in performance.
But there's room for friends to disagree, and Kinsler and Young part ways on the subject of country music. Kinsler, an Arizona native, has tried to sell his teammate on the merits of artists Pat Green, Reckless Kelly and Cross Canadian Ragweed. Young, a California guy, is resistant, no matter how toe-tapping the stuff might be.
"There are some catchy little songs, but I don't know who sings them," Young said. "One time I said, 'Who's this?' and I think it was Garth Brooks, and Kins had a dirty look on his face. It was like, 'How can you not know that?'"
While the background music changes in Arlington, the story is forever the same. The 2008 Rangers lead the majors in runs and slugging percentage, but they're loitering around .500 because of a pitching staff that ranks last in the big leagues with a 5.45 ERA. Sound familiar?
Josh Hamilton and Milton Bradley are enjoying huge years, but they have nothing on Kinsler, who leads the majors in runs (100), shares the major league lead in hits (162) with Boston's Dustin Pedroia and ranks among the AL leaders in doubles (40), total bases (261) and batting average with runners in scoring position (.413).
Kinsler's breakthrough season at second base is a byproduct of talent, maturity, health and, some teammates insist, a more functional approach at the plate.
"I remember last September, we were getting on him saying, 'You have to go the other way in batting practice. If you can do that in games, it's going to add 20-30 points to your swing,'" said Rangers outfielder Marlon Byrd. "Ian told us, 'I don't like going that way.' But this year, he's been doing it since spring training, and look at the results."
Few people outside of Kinsler's immediate family take more pride in his performance than Young, his pal, mentor and professional role model.
The double-play partners have a synergy that defies outward appearances. Young, 31, is soft-spoken, intense and driven, while Kinsler, 26, radiates youthful energy. Before a game in Boston this week, Kinsler was ubiquitous in the cramped visiting clubhouse at Fenway Park. One minute he was camped out at a table watching two teammates play chess. Later on he could be found in front of the big-screen TV catching Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in "The Bucket List."
Kinsler, who wore a "What's Your Shtick?" T-shirt and a Rangers cap turned backward, had unruly locks of hair poking out above his ears. If he had pulled a frog, a yo-yo and a Boys & Girls Club admittance card from his pockets, you wouldn't have been surprised.
Young, in contrast, is less a chatter and more an observer by nature. He learned the value of following the right example when he arrived in Texas in 2001 and saw Alex Rodriguez display a blue-collar work ethic despite a $252 million contract.
"Since Alex has gone to New York, people can say this or that about him," Young said. "But I don't think I ever saw him take a day off in three years. For a young player, whenever you see veterans out there getting after it, it makes a lasting impression."
In reality, these mentor-protégé arrangements can't be forced. When Kinsler arrived in Texas two years ago, Young noticed how his younger teammate exuded confidence, liked to work and seemed dedicated to improving. But Kinsler and Mark DeRosa were competing for at-bats at second base, and Young didn't want to upset the natural order of things. It wasn't until Kinsler was anointed the starter that Young dropped by his locker and dispensed a few words to live by.
"I told him, 'Listen, I believe that rookies have to learn a lot of things on their own, so I'm not going be in your hip pocket all year long or telling you what to do. But I'll be watching. And if you have any questions or you need a friend, I'll be there,'" Young said.
After Kinsler hit .263 with 20 homers last season, his bond with his double-play partner was strengthened when Young moved to Dallas in the offseason. The teammates lifted weights three times a week, played golf and watched football together on the weekends. Kinsler, who shoots in the low 80s, is five or six strokes better on the golf course. But Young, a Dallas Cowboys fan, figures they're even because of Kinsler's allegiance to the Arizona Cardinals.
"I stomp him on that one," Young said.
Texas' second baseman and shortstop are borderline inseparable these days, whether they're eating breakfast on the road or playing dominoes in the clubhouse. Young wears uniform No. 10 and Kinsler is No. 5, and that's generated a few "Nickel and Dime" references. But their teammates' joking goes only so far when Kinsler freely admits that he's glued to Young's side.
"People give him crap all the time," Byrd said. "But what better guy to follow than Michael Young?"
|Rangers shortstop Michael Young, center, is a mentor to teammate Ian Kinsler.|
The Rangers envision Young as a role model for all their young players, for obvious reasons. He's played both second base and shortstop in Texas, based strictly on the team's need. Young has five straight 200-hit seasons on his résumé, and he's missed only five games this season despite two broken fingers, a groin injury and a bad Achilles.
More than anything, Young's metronomic consistency allows him to take everything in stride. Whether Kinsler is trying to work his way out of a slump or wants to maintain a hot streak, he gravitates to Young for advice.
"We'll sit down after a game after I've gone 0-for-5 two nights in a row, and I'll be like, 'What the hell am I doing?'" Kinsler said. "Mike might say something like, 'Just keep swinging.' It sounds simple, but I have to listen to him, because he knows."
Kinsler hasn't encountered many potholes this summer on his way to his first All-Star team. Byrd recently became aware of Kinsler's burgeoning popularity when he switched on the Little League World Series and one of the young participants listed Kinsler as his favorite player in his personal profile. That's when you know you've arrived.
It's hard to tell when a new legion of fans might jump on board. Kinsler is half-Jewish (on his father's side), and while he never had a Bar Mitzvah or considered himself observant in the faith, his background has helped elevate his profile in the Jewish community.
"If you have any kind of Jewish ancestry attached to your name, people are going to notice it," Kinsler said. "Whenever we're in New York, Boston or Chicago, I always get some kind of question about it."
Barring a surprise, he'll be in Texas for a good long time. In February, the Rangers signed Kinsler to a five-year, $22 million contract with a club option for 2013. Young advised Kinsler to keep his emotions out of the process, and their wives conferred numerous times along the way.
Although Kinsler has 100 runs scored and 25 steals out of the leadoff spot, the Rangers are convinced he could be equally productive as a middle-of-the-order bat. When Kinsler told the Rangers during contract discussions that he could be a 30-30 man, there wasn't a trace of swagger in the pronouncement.
"It's not cockiness," said Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine. "Ian really believes in himself."
This winter, Kinsler might have to survive with more sporadic tandem workouts. He and his wife, Tess, are expecting their first child in November. Kinsler has already solicited a few parenting tips from Young, who has a 3-year-old son. "Catch up on your sleep," Young told him.
To those who suggest that Kinsler is a budding version of his role model, feel free to try again.
"He's not a little Michael Young," Byrd said. "He's a big Ian Kinsler."
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.
People give him crap all the time. But what better guy to follow than Michael Young?
--Rangers outfielder Marlon Byrd on teammate Ian Kinsler