February 2014

All-time leader.

My plan in writing up the Michael Young retirement announcement was to keep it short.  That’s never an easy task for me, of course, but in this case, the right thing to do seemed to be a quick entry.  Say what I want and get out.  No frills.

Then an unexpected thing happened on Twitter, and then underground at Rangers Ballpark Friday, and so much for that plan of mine.

There were a bunch of cool ballplayer tweets praising Young as a teammate (Josh Hamilton, Mark DeRosaFrank CatalanottoA.J. Ellis).  As an opponent (Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kipnis, Ozzie Guillen, David Aardsma).  As an example (Dustin PedroiaIan Desmond).

As a mentor (Elvis Andrus).

But then there was one that made me think an extra second or two, from Diamondbacks righthander Brandon McCarthy, whose tweets are generally more in the Larry David category (that’s meant to be a huge compliment) than of the reflective variety:

A career’s worth of teammates are saddened to hear that Mike Young is retiring.

McCarthy’s career started with high expectations as a White Sox prospect.  Today he’s an established, fairly reliable, well-paid veteran starting pitcher.  In between was his four-year stint in Texas, which can only be qualified as a disappointment.

A pitcher.  A pitcher who didn’t get it done in Texas.  A pitcher who spent half his Rangers career on the disabled list, including basically the whole 2010 season, as he watched his teammates win the franchise’s first playoff series and first AL pennant and battle in its first World Series.

Paying tribute to the veteran position player who never spent a day on the DL.

Hard to imagine McCarthy and Young having less common ground as ballplayers.  I thought of that Tommy Hunter story that stayed with me from years ago, but still:  What prompted that tweet from McCarthy?

Why was Michael Young so revered by those who played with him and against him, so important to this franchise, so identifiable for Rangers fans with the era of this team that grew up and became a legitimate, consistent contender?

Was it the kind of light tower power or defensive artistry or video game athleticism that fans and teammates and media will talk about when other veteran players hang the cleats up?

It was not.  It was none of those things.

Maybe it’s as simple as a recognition that he made players better.  Teams better.  Baseball better, in Texas.

With Pudge, I’ll never forget the feet and arm behind the plate.

Cliff: That Draper/assassin thing.

Beltre: The wizard’s work at third base.

With Young?  They talked Friday about him holding the franchise mark in games played, hits, multi-hit games, total bases, doubles, triples, and home batting average.

I’ll remember him for none of those things.

There are specific moments that Neftali Feliz and Mike Napoli and Nelson Cruz will be remembered for as Rangers.  Michael Young?

Check Richard Durrett’s list of Young’s top 10 moments in Texas.  It starts not with a big hit or a great play, but a team moment.  There are career milestones and awards, and further down the list a couple big plays in very big games.

But it started with a team moment, and it’s probably the one most of us think of first, too.

He was a lightning rod for some fans late in his Rangers career, and that’s part of the story, to be sure.

There are those who loved him unconditionally, those who overlooked the weaknesses in his game that started to become more evident just as the team got great and who ignored the publicized tension between player and management.

There are those who focused on those weaknesses — and the sense that the manager and the media gave him a pass — when the franchise had reached a level at which every moment and every decision mattered like never before, and that’s a faction that tended to overlook (or deny with the sabermetric force of a thousand squared up lasers to the opposite field) his role in helping brand the clubhouse with a resilience and a shoulder chip that helped a mediocre team learn to be very good, a very good team grow to be great.

The reality is that Young was not as perfect and not as flawed as some fans believe unshakably — with all the stubbornness of Michael Young the baseball player — and that’s OK.

Young’s was a career marked by durability and consistency, and part of that consistency was that stubborn streak, one that paid huge, teamwide dividends and also caused an occasional problem, a point of focus regardless of which part of Michael Young’s career you choose to think about most.

I know which one mattered most to me.

Roger and Troy had their detractors toward the end of their careers, too.

Sports.

Unlike Roger and Troy, though, Young — despite being the Rangers’ all-time leader in playoff at-bats — didn’t have a stack of huge game moments, post-season or otherwise, to build a retrospective highlight package around.  But, again, where Young’s career lagged in huge moments and singular displays of baseball awesomeness, it lapped the field in other not-so-apparent areas.

Texas got to the World Series in 2010 despite a subpar Young season at the plate (.284/.330/.444) and in the field (as a second-year third baseman).

And again in 2011 with Young turning in one of his best (.338/.380/.474, while DH’ing and filling in on the infield corners and second base).

His imprint was all over both clubs.  Its stability and its toughness and its resilience.  Ask every veteran and every rookie and every coach and every clubbie who was a part of either team.

Ask McCarthy or Chris Davis, who were watching from the sidelines with the rest of us in 2010, and with other clubs in 2011.

Ask DeRosa or Mark Teixeira (“This was a guy who had to work his way up, had to earn everything . . . , and played the game the right way”), who were gone well before 2010, whether they think Michael Young had anything to do with helping turn the Rangers from what they were for almost 40 years into a World Series team.

Ask Ron Washington.

Jon Daniels alluded to it at Young’s retirement gathering on Friday, talking more than once about how he was a central part of the best teams in Rangers franchise history, both on the field and in the clubhouse.

“He was the first to embrace Elvis,” Daniels noted, referring to the time that the organization moved Young off of his position, against his wishes, not the last time that that would happen.

“He embraced Adrian.  He embraced Mike Napoli.  Those guys became some of his closest friends on the team.  In large part, the way that the clubhouse remained strong and, in many ways, got stronger was due to the way he handled those situations.  Despite their arrivals having a personal impact on him [in terms of his own role on the club], he made those guys feel welcome and brought them into the fabric of the team.  They had success together, but in no small part because of that.”

Two weeks before Young turned 34, had hadn’t appeared in so much as one playoff game.

After that, he was a post-season player in 2010 and 2011 and 2012 and 2013.

That’s not to say the Rangers wouldn’t have made it to the Wild Card Game in 2012, or that the Dodgers would have missed the 2013 playoffs without him.

But I’ll always believe he was as responsible as anyone on the field for the Rangers playing in October 2010 and and in October 2011 (“We don’t have rings — and that still eats at me — but that was a championship team”), and not just because of what he contributed before our eyes those two years.  He’s the Rangers’ all-time leader in all those statistical categories I listed above, but, more importantly, as far as I’m concerned, he’s this franchise’s all-time leader.

Period.

I’ll believe forever that what he meant to this team off the field, for so many years, helped a lot of players get the most out of what they had (as Wash said, he “lifted teammates to levels they maybe didn’t know they had”), and helped this team win.

I mean win.

He’s going to help this team in 2014, too, and I don’t mean because of what Michael Choice and Lisalverto Bonilla might contribute.

And I don’t mean because of what he might actually contribute himself in 2014.  I’d be surprised to see Young join the franchise in a non-playing role this year.

I’d be surprised to see Young not join the franchise in a non-playing role before too long, though.

It’s just too soon to expect him to do anything but hang with his family right now.  As much as I’d love the idea of him being around Jurickson Profar and Rougned Odor, Prince Fielder and Joey Gallo, Luis Sardinas and Chris Bostick, Martin Perez and Akeem Bostick, sharing some of that old-school wisdom and competitive drive and hallmark mental toughness, right now he needs to be with Cristina and Mateo and Emilio and Mateo, and not just for just a few days here and there.

He’s earned that, and so have they.

But eventually?

He said several times on Friday that he’d love to get back into the game in some capacity, at some point, and looks forward to talking with the Rangers about that.  “I think it’s important to pass things down,” he said, pointing to his experiences being on the other side of that exchange.  “There are fine points of the game that I’d love to pass on.  There are some things you have and some things that you have to be taught, but there is a chance to learn something every year.”

Daniels, after noting that Young was a player who “constantly proved people wrong,” added: “He only said about a dozen things today that our young players could learn from.”

I counted more.

Coaches, too.  And fathers.

Wash, turning his gaze at the podium away from the full room of reporters and toward Young, looking him in the eye: “The game of baseball’s gonna miss you.  I certainly hope you don’t stay away from the game of baseball.  Because there’s some kid out there — don’t know it yet — that one day is gonna have the influence of Michael Young.  It would be a shame if you didn’t stay in the game in some capacity after you figure out exactly what you want to do.”

Wash was probably talking about a kid like Travis Demeritte, or Yeyson Yrizarri, when he said that.  But it goes beyond that.

I’ve shared this picture with you before.  My wife took it in Arizona, when Max was three years old.

 

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Some folks unsubscribed from the mailing list when I sent that out, and I get it.  (I shared it as much for the Blalock and Wright stopdowns as anything.)  But it made an indelible impression on me, and I know it did on my kid.

Less so, by a thousand times, than what happened on March 21, 2012, at halftime of the Mavericks-Lakers game.  I’m not going to tell that story here (yeah, I know that will probably cause a few more unsubscribes), but the few of you I’ve shared it with know why it’s something I’ll never forget and which, for me, helps define what separates Michael Young, and what Wash was talking about, and what JD was talking about, and what Brandon McCarthy was talking about.

Wash said, “I don’t think this game will be able to survive without Michael Young in it.”  A little strong, maybe, but yeah, if Young decides he wants to stay in baseball, that needs to happen.

And, as Daniels, similarly aged and like Young a transplant (Young from California, Daniels from New York) who is raising a family in the Metroplex and now calls this his home, unambiguously said, aside from noting that he admires Young most as a husband and father who was always able to balance that with his career: “If Michael Young wants to be involved in the game, it should be here in Texas.”

Yep.

It’s one thing for the team press release to say: “We want [Michael and his family] to know there will always be a place for the Youngs in the Texas Rangers family.”  Sincere, to be sure.  But hearing Daniels say what he said (and seeing him get choked up when talking about Young being able to walk away from the game on his own terms and about his priorities in life) — that carried so much good weight.

If you watched the Friday presser, you saw evidence that Young and Daniels put in the work to get past what was not the cleanest relationship toward the end of Young’s time here as a player, and to patch things up.  Tip of the cap to two good dudes.

Young said Friday that, as far as legacy goes, all he ever demanded of himself was effort.  To give it everything he had every day.

It’s probably fair to assume that Young and Daniels reconciling — to put the “bumps in the road” (Young’s words) behind them — took effort, on both sides.

“You fail, you get up, you learn,” Wash said, about something else.  “You fail, you get up, you learn.”

I wrote 14 months ago, when Daniels traded Young away: “It was possible to be fans of both Michael Young and the front office, even as the tension and drama between the two mounted, because both, in their own way, and according to their own very different job descriptions and accountabilities, have always been relentlessly determined to win.”

It’s easier now.

After the lineups are introduced on Monday afternoon, March 31, and Daniels is up in his seat, Michael Young should be walking onto the field, with a baseball in his hand, and he should be the one to throw the season’s first pitch, before his former teammates Yu Darvish and Cliff Lee throw theirs.

As he makes that walk to the mound, Chuck Morgan should play “Sure Shot” over the P.A. system.  (And for the record, I nearly titled this report “Because you can’t, you won’t, and you don’t stop.”)

A year ago, David Brown (Yahoo! Sports) interviewed McCarthy, who, answering a snarky question about a team’s grittiness quotient, said he wished there were a way to quantify mental ability and explained as follows:

“There are people that are just better mentally than anybody else.  Talent is pretty evenly spread through the game — even from the elite players to the players who are Triple-A starters.  There’s not a big gap at all and I know it’s cliche, but there’s really not.  And there are just people that are really good mentally.

“I know Michael Young is kind of a dividing point for all of the metrics, but he’s one of the best mental players I’ve ever been around.  Not just from the teammate or “super teammate” aspect, but he’s absolutely locked in mentally and so, so good at focusing on taking it day to day, at-bat to at-bat and pitch to pitch.  And that’s one of those things — it always gets passed over because most people can’t see inside.  You only the see the performance [and the result] and what you can quantify.  And I wish there was a way to quantify mental ability.  Some guys are just better at that, when everybody else would kind of fall apart.”

Michael Young is one of those local athletes we all feel like we grew to know.  Part of that is he was here 13 years, an eternity in pro sports.  Part is because he wasn’t any bigger or faster or more powerful than he was, which I suppose made him seem more like one of us.  Part is because he was at his locker every night, win or lose, and so we heard from him after almost every game.

But I feel like I learned a little more about him after reading this week what McCarthy had to say, and Catalanotto and Cuddyer and Pedroia, and hearing JD and Wash talk on Friday, and then Michael himself.

Leadership is learned in different ways, and taught in different ways, too.  Sometimes it comes from a guy in uniform, whether he plays next to you or behind you — or was just displaced by you.  Sometimes it comes from a guy who wore the uniform once upon a time, passing along the things he learned along the way himself.

Michael Young led here, and we all benefited from that.  Elvis Andrus did, Tommy Hunter did, Josh Hamilton did, Ron Washington did, you did and I did.  So many people and organizations in this community did.

That doesn’t end now, and I mean that not only because of the imprint he left on so many people still working to get this team back to the World Series, but also because, one day, he’s going to be back with this franchise, making an impact on any number of young players who don’t know it yet, but are going to benefit from the influence of Michael Young, and that’s a really good thing for every single one of us.

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