Double-A can mess with your mind. On the one hand, it's the level of pro ball where dreams are legitimized. It's the level where you see the most live arms, quick bats and 6%-body-fat physiques. Get to Double-A, and you have a chance to make it.
On the other hand, it's the level of pro ball where dreams go to die. It's where hitters who can't pick up spin get exposed and where pitchers who can't locate get hammered. Double-A is the Level of Truth. Most players will tell you they can handle the truth, just as long as it's served expeditiously. Am I good enough, or not?
You may not have heard of Rangers righthander Chris Young. He's just a rookie starter. A 6'10" rookie starter. A 6'10" rookie starter who might make a difference in the AL West. But back in the summer of 2003, he was just another Double-A pitcher who was asking himself The Question.
Young had reason to wonder. One morning, after he'd pitched six strong innings in an Eastern League game for the Harrisburg Senators in Trenton, N.J., Young took a ride over to Princeton to use the gym. The pitcher knew his way around; he'd played two seasons of baseball and basketball at Princeton. He met up with his old roommate, best friend and hoops teammate, Ahmed El-Nokali. They lifted some weights, then went upstairs to shoot around.
Pete Carril, Princeton's legendary hoops coach, happened to be there that day, and he noticed Young and El-Nokali out on the floor. Carril, who left Princeton two years before Young arrived, knew Young had signed with the Pirates as a third-round pick in 2000 for $1.65 million and had been forced by Ivy League rules to give up his college basketball career.
Carril, a special assistant with the Sacramento Kings, asked Young how the baseball was going, and where he thought he'd be a year or two down the road. All the while, Carril was watching Young's way with the basketball, the way he flipped in shots from beyond the arc, the way he put it on the floor so well for a big man. And of course, he remembered watching Young play the critical center position for the
Tigers, posting up around the foul line, feeding cutting players with backdoor passes for layups, executing hook shots with both right and left hands. Finally, Carril could not resist. "You want to work out a little bit, big man?" he asked. Two hours later, they were done.
"He wasn't even looking to see if my shots were going in," recalls Young, 25. "He was watching my footwork, checking my speed. He understood I hadn't played basketball in three years, but he said he remembered I could pass. And he said if you can pass, you have vision. And if you have vision, that means you'll also fill the right lanes, pick up the right man to stop a break, things like that. I enjoyed the workout."
So did Carril. He got on the phone with Geoff Petrie, the Kings president of basketball operations (and a Princeton man) and told him he might've found a nice project-as well as a potential replacement for Vlade Divac down the road. "They invited me to training camp," Young says. "But I informed them I was under contract, and my signing bonus was still being paid off by the Pirates." The Kings told Young to keep pitching, but if he was still interested in hoops at the end of 2004, they were ready not only to invite him to training camp, but also to offer him a two-year guaranteed NBA contract at the minimum annual salary of $385,277.
"When I went to spring training last year, I figured by the end of the baseball season I'd have a better idea if I was ever going to be a major league pitcher," Young says. "If it didn't look good for me, I'd give basketball a try."
Am I good enough, or not? Now Young was asking himself The Question twice.
There's a sweet touch of irony here. When Young decided to attend Princeton, and not Texas or Oklahoma State, on a basketball scholarship, his thinking was that with a Princeton degree, he'd always have something to fall back on. He signed with the Pirates after his sophomore year only be cause the bonus was, as Young calls it, "lifechanging money," and only under the condition that they also pay for the final two years of his education and allow him to finish his degree in politics so he could graduate in the spring of 2002. "That's probably the most impressive thing he's done so far," says Young's classmate and wife of four months, the former Liz Patrick. "He wrote his senior thesis, a 70-page dissertation on Jackie Robinson's impact on racial stereotypes in the media, in the back of the Hickory Crawdads bus. Not many guys would've done that."
Clearly, Young was never, ever thinking basketball would be his fallback. Yet here he was, three years into his baseball career, mulling a switch to the NBA. And mulling it harder after he was traded twice in 16 months, from the Pirates to the Expos to the Rangers, and then learned he'd be going back to Double-A in 2004. "I even went out and bought new basketball shoes," Young says. "And I always kept a ball around."
On the last day of spring training, Young got the break he needed. The Expos, in need of a backup catcher, exchanged Young for veteran Einar Diaz. Turns out Rangers GM John Hart had kept Young on his scouting radar. For one thing, Young was a Dallas-area product, a true-blue Rangers and Nolan Ryan fan, raised in Highland Park. For another, Hart had noticed that the scouting reports on Young had gone from tepid to cool.
It was obvious to Hart what was happening: the Pirates and Expos thought they had failed. You take a 6'10" pitcher out of Princeton because, in a nutshell, you think you can build up his arm strength with innings and increase his velocity from high-80s to mid-90s and have yourself a righthanded Randy Johnson. "The reports didn't read all that well," Hart says, "but we felt there was more in there, more pitchability. He always threw strikes. We just thought if he improved his delivery, got more leverage, threw the ball more downhill, he might not throw in the mid-90s, but he wouldn't throw 87 either. Plus, from a recognition standpoint, a hitter's not going to see too many 6'10" guys."
So it was back to Double-A with a renewed sense of purpose. "I was really glad to be with Texas," Young says. "But I was still a little skeptical. I was working on everything I was being taught, but basketball was still on my mind."
In fact, after Young got called up to Triple-A Oklahoma City in July, he met with Petrie when the team played a series in Sacramento. "I said to myself that I'd give it five starts in Triple-A to see how things go. I knew that if I was going to go to Kings training camp in September, I needed to start getting in basketball shape and getting my skill level back to where it needed to be for camp. It just so happened those five starts in Triple-A were lights-out." Young, who was 6–5 with a 4.48 ERA for Double-A Frisco (Texas), went 3–0 with a 1.48 ERA in 30 innings at the next level. The Rangers also noticed that his fastball, which rarely reached 90 mph when they made the trade, was now consistently 92-94.
So on Aug. 24, Young got the call to the big leagues, where the pitching-thin Rangers were battling for both the AL West and the wild card. At that point, Young says he stopped his NBA prep work and focused only on pitching. "And Geoff Petrie said to me, 'Live your dream. You've got to see what kind of major league pitcher you can be. If you come to us, let it be with no regrets.' "
Young made seven starts for the Rangers down the stretch, going 3–2 with a 4.71 ERA. He picked up his first major league win at Fenway Park on Sept. 4, snapping a five-game Rangers losing streak and a 10-game Sox winning streak in the process. He beat the eventual AL West champion Angels twice in September. He impressed Buck Showalter with his calm demeanor on the mound and his acute awareness of situational pitching.
"You don't have to remind him of what's going on in the game," Showalter says. "If a batter's up there looking to hit a ball the other way or hit a fly ball, he knows it. He knows he's got to speed up his delivery to the plate when there's a base-stealing threat on first base. The questions with Chris will never be about his mental game." And he impressed pitching coach Orel Hershiser with his willingness to work. "I challenged him right away to get stronger because with his frame, he's got to be stronger than any pitcher on our staff," Hershiser says. "His core muscles and his legs have to be incredibly strong for him to get down the hill consistently. That strength will be the key to him mechanically, and his mechanics are so important because with his long levers, he needs to be close to perfect. His misses will naturally be worse than a smallerframed guy. When I explained it all to him, he understood, and he went right to work."
But as much as it was fun and exciting to help the Rangers down the stretch, there was this little thing called an NBA offer still tucked away in the back of Young's mind. On the final day of the regular season in Seattle, at the end of the Rangers' final game, when he knew his personal situation would have no bearing on the team, Young asked Showalter for a meeting. And he told him about the Kings offer. Showalter called Hart and said, "John, the off-season has begun. We need to meet tomorrow in Arlington."
The next day, Hart looked across his desk at Young and asked, "What do you want to do?"
"I want to play baseball," Young replied.
So Hart offered Young a three-year deal worth $1.5 million. "Not a huge amount," says the GM. "But enough to give him some security. It was enough to make major league baseball something he knew he could do rather than something he thought he could do. He was appreciative."
Says Young, "The Kings deal was never a negotiation ploy, a leverage thing. It was just a realistic career opportunity that I needed to consider. I thought I'd be a fool to turn my back on it and turn it away without looking into it. Looking back now, if I didn't get those seven starts in the big leagues, if I didn't get the chance to see that I could pitch at this level, I'd probably have had no choice but to leave baseball and sign with the Kings."
To further prove his commitment to baseball, Young worked out five days a week during the offseason with Hershiser and strength coach Fernando Montes, performing all the tasks Hershiser laid out for him: pilates and weights to strengthen his core and legs; intense mechanical scrutiny focusing mostly on the consistency of Young's push-off-foot position; three new grips to see if he can add more movement to his fastball and bite to his slider and curve. He begins the season as the Rangers' No. 3 starter, looking to be a guy who can give his hard-hitting teammates a chance to win games. He knows he's good enough.
The Question is different now. How good am I? We're about to find out.