Rangers follow Young's lead

If you're looking for a moment in which the old and sluggish Rangers became the young and vibrant Rangers, rewind the tape past the sweeps of Boston and Seattle, before Opening Day, even, to one morning early this spring training, when Michael Young knocked on the door of manager Buck Showalter.

Alex Rodriguez had just been traded for Alfonso Soriano, leaving the Rangers with two second basemen and no shortstop. It didn't take long for Young, coming off his personal breakout season both offensively and defensively, to step forward and alleviate a situation that would only get stickier.

"Don't make Sori move," he said. "I'll do it."

And with that, with neither fuss nor fractiousness, the Rangers' 2004 lineup was officially born. Soriano would stay at second, plugging up a still-outstanding infield of Hank Blalock, Young, Soriano and Mark Teixeira. Soriano would not be moved to center field, either, leaving that job to Laynce Nix, who has blossomed. And so have the Rangers overall, transforming themselves from a last-place laughingstock to a club that entered Thursday night's games 31-24, just a game and a half back in the suddenly even tougher American League West.

"He wasn't shying away from the challenge, but embraced it -- it was a big step not just for him but for the whole club," Rangers pitcher R.A. Dickey says of Young's move. "We wouldn't have been as good as we are (if he had complained). He could have said it was a bunch of crap, that it hurt him. But doing the opposite rubs off on the other players. That's a big component of a contending club -- not to be a bunch of backbiters."

If the Rangers continue to contend, the main reason could be Young -- both for his past discretion and his present play. After a 2003 season in which he batted .306-14-72 and scored 106 runs, he has moved an entire notch higher, batting .328-8-35 in all 55 games and catalyzing Rangers rallies out of the leadoff spot. His .867 OPS ranks second among all major league shortstops, positioning him for a strong run at the All-Star team.

Pretty good for an unimposing, once-traded infielder who as late as 15 months ago didn't necessarily have a job with his own club. You might recall Texas' 2003 spring experiment of trying Blalock at second base; that was because its jury was still out on whether Young could hold down the spot. Suffice to say that Young was not on that jury. "I always knew that I could do this," he says.

Supremely confident and speaking in staccato bursts of enthusiasm, Young has invigorated the Rangers like catnip. No tool stands out, except his throwing arm. But Dickey claims, "He is the rallying point for our team -- the guy you want up or the ball hit to in a tough situation. He can be counted on." Or as Showalter put it, "there's not a lot of bells and whistles with him. It's more meat and potatoes. He's a ballplayer -- who happens to be talented."

Young plays the game, as one scout put it, "in a hurry" -- as if the clock is still ticking to prove the naysayers. He does everything with an inherent impatience. While most people like watching Young play baseball, his best friend, former minor league teammate and apartmentmate Vernon Wells, likes watching his jumpy pal eat cereal: "He holds his bowl of Lucky Charms up to his mouth and just goes at it, quickly and really concentrating," Wells says with a laugh. "The rest of us couldn't eat ours. We're just watching him eat his."

Young's unique family background includes a Mexican mother (like fellow southern Californian Ted Williams), two cousins who were professional boxers (Zachary Padilla was WBO Junior Welterweight champion from 1994-96) and a wife, Christina, who graduated from Columbia University. Cerebral himself, Young reads actual novels -- he's devouring The Da Vinci Code now -- and has spent some offseasons trying to finish up his history degree at UCLA. "At times I need to analyze every possible situtation I'm involved in," he says. "I like to think about things that are happening around me."

If he thought much about making the move to shortstop, he didn't take long to do it. "Sori had a lot of things going on at that point, in his life -- he had to adjust to a new team, a new city, and to be frank, moving from a team that was contending for a championship to a team that was in last place for three years," Young says. "I wanted to give us all a single goal. When Alex left, people were looking right at me. People were looking to see how I was going to step up."

Young, 27, spent most of his formative baseball years being told less about what he could do than what he couldn't. In high school he wasn't allowed to play infield and was put in center field instead. Only one college showed serious interest -- UC Santa Barbara -- and while he played shortstop his last two years there, serious doubts remained as to whether he would play infield in the majors, if he made it that far in the first place. The Blue Jays picked him in the fifth round of the 1997 draft, where he soon was overshadowed by more highly regarded prospects Cesar Izturis, Brent Abernathy and Felipe Lopez.

It was there that Young's bouncing between short and second began. In 1998 and 1999 Toronto hedged their bets by having Young and Izturis alternate playing each position every series at low-Class A Hagerstown and high-A Dunedin. "In retrospect, that was a great decision. It certainly helped me," Young says. "That's when I knew that I could do some big things on defense in the big leagues." He was moved to second base at Double-A in 2000, before getting a call on July 19 that he had been traded with pitcher Darwin Cubillan for pitcher Esteban Loaiza, at the time a nondescript veteran. (This began a busy month for future shortstop phenoms. Eleven days after Young was traded, the Cardinals made a stretch-run deal with the Pirates to acquire veteran reliever Jason Christiansen, giving up Jack Wilson, who is now hitting .332 for Pittsburgh. Two weeks after that, Boston's David Eckstein was put on waivers and claimed by Anaheim.)

Texas moved Young back to shortstop but that offseason signed Rodriguez, shifting Young back to second base -- and perhaps out of the Rangers' plans. The new and veteran-focused front office investigated other options for that position while manager Jerry Narron fought hard for the kid, and started him consistently through 2002. Young hit a rather pallid .262-9-62 that year, which ended with Narron getting fired.

"I don't know if it ended up costing me my job or not," Narron, now the Reds' bench coach, told the Dallas Morning News. "But I definitely was willing to lose my job over it. I believed in him that much. It didn't matter to me if we batted him ninth every day -- he was a guy who could help us win games. I had the advantage of seeing that the year before. The people who were new to the organization hadn't had the chance to see it."

Last year, everyone saw what Michael Young had become. As much as he improved at the plate, his fielding at second was even more outstanding. Several scouts said only Bret Boone kept Young from winning last year's Gold Glove. The organization, having fully warmed up to him, rewarded Young with a four-year, $10 million contract this spring.

As for Young's hitting, it's hard to tell just how much his statistics owe themselves to Arlington's ballpark, by far the most offense-happy stadium in the league. Last year, his .353 batting average at home placed second among American League qualifiers - behind only Nomar Garciaparra's .359 at Fenway - and from 2001-03, his OPS was 184 points higher at home (.826) than on the road (.642).

Nonetheless, Young has emerged as a consistent force with the bat, the surprising star of an even more surprising team. "If he gets out of whack, it's for one at-bat. That's it," Showalter says.

As for making the AL All-Star team next month, that might not be the shoo-in it first appears. Either Nomar Garciaparra or Derek Jeter will probably win the fans' vote despite being obscenely undeserving; Miguel Tejada is a more established former MVP; Carlos Guillen could vie with Ivan Rodriguez to represent the Tigers, depending on the fans' vote at catcher; and Jeter, even if he doesn't win the public balloting, might get suddenly hot and enjoy the flagrant biases of AL manager Joe Torre.

"When I made the move to shortstop, I knew that would be a challenge," Young says. "I wouldn't have volunteered if I wasn't fully ready to accept whatever came my way. But I don't play the game to make All-Star teams. I play to help the Rangers win. Another added benefit of winning is I'm really not concerned with anything else. So far, so good."

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His new book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is being published by St. Martin's Press in early July, and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.