Tigers manager Jim Leyland sought out Dmitri Young recently, shook his hand and congratulated him on the way he was playing and, more important, the way he was living his life. It was Leyland's Tigers who released Young last year. It was not something Leyland wanted to do, but he told Young last week, "It was the best thing that's ever happened to you."
Leyland was right.
"Jim told me there were issues that I had to deal with," Young said. "Now I'm having the time of my life. Believe me, I know, after what I've been through on and off the field."
In straightening out his life, Young has resurrected his baseball career that began with such promise 11 years ago in St. Louis. He is hitting .338 -- third-best in the National League -- with seven home runs and 36 RBIs, batting in the middle of the order for the Washington Nationals. Since May 17, he has hit .431, the best batting average in baseball in that time. He has a chance to make the All-Star team. And, chances are, around the trading deadline, contending teams will want a veteran switch-hitter who can really hit.
"Amazing," said Nationals infielder Ronnie Belliard. "Good hitters never forget how to hit."
Young would like to forget most of 2006, but the issues he had to address were major. First was a divorce. "That was tough," he said. "We have three children. But we [he and his ex-wife] get along." Then, he said, "there was that legal thing" -- he pleaded guilty to a domestic violence charge after being accused of assaulting his then-girlfriend. Young was sentenced in September to a year of probation.
Then, around last Thanksgiving, he discovered he had diabetes.
"I had an infection that would not heal, and I had flu-like symptoms," Young said. "I went to urgent care three times in two days. After the third time, I called my parents to tell them goodbye. I told my kids that I loved them, and I hoped they would always be happy. I called 911. When the ambulance arrived, my blood-sugar level was 987. When it's that high, four things can happen -- stroke, coma, organ damage or death. They put an IV in me and got it down to 893. I spent four days in the hospital, three days in the ICU. I know how lucky I am today. I thought there was going to be a tombstone with my name on it."
He was alive, but his baseball career appeared to be over. "No one was knocking on my door," he said. "They were all scared off by last year. For nine years, I had been a great citizen for baseball, so that kind of puzzled me. You know, the whole second chance thing. Thankfully, [Nationals general manager] Jim Bowden believed in second chances." Young was invited to minor league camp in spring training. "Jim told me I had to stay clean, which was no problem for me: You can't mess around with diabetes," Young said. "I really worked hard."
The hardest work was dealing with diabetes. Now he injects himself -- usually in the stomach -- three or four times a day.
It was odd for a veteran player with a solid track record to be in minor league camp in February.
"I was ready to give up on baseball," Young said. "But I looked around at the prospects. They were so young, they were so fresh. They were so wide open about pro ball ... Chris Marrero ... Justin Maxwell ... Collin Balester. I was an open book to them. I told them how I learned from my mistakes. I told them everything. And they wanted to know everything. They wanted to know about me hitting three home runs on Opening Day [in 2005], and the way I flip my helmet after doubles. I realized then that I had more juice in the tank."
Young got himself in shape in spring training, was transferred from minor league camp to major league camp, and made the club out of spring training. The injury to first baseman Nick Johnson (broken leg, he won't be back until August at the earliest) left a position open for Young.
"[Nationals coach] Lenny Harris was with me in minor league camp. He has always been a friend and a fan of mine, he was a teammate of mine with the Reds, and he would tell me every day, 'You can do this; go prove to everyone that you can still do this,'" Young said. "I didn't quit. I didn't want my kids to think I was a quitter. I set a good example for the young guys. I was doing cardio 45 minutes before every workout and 45 minutes after."
He has also been a great influence for the young players in the Nationals' clubhouse.
"I count my blessings every day," Young said. "I had a lot of people praying for me. But the job is not done. The job won't be done until I do everything I can to restore my name."
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His new book "Is This a Great Game, Or What?" has been published by St. Martin's Press and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. In addition, click here to subscribe to The Magazine.