Dmitri Young began toying with the idea of a comeback on a sun-splashed afternoon in Cooperstown, N.Y., last June, after dominating the proceedings against a bunch of fellow baseball geriatrics in the annual Hall of Fame Classic.
The fun began when Young defeated Reggie Sanders in the pregame Home Run Derby to win a Tiffany watch, and proceeded to go 3-for-4 with a home run off Bill Lee to capture the Bob Feller Award as the game's Most Valuable Player. Young's offensive display prompted Ozzie Smith and some other former stars to suggest he might have enough game left to take on pitchers more formidable than the 65-year-old "Spaceman."
Later that weekend, Young bumped into Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams at a card show, barely three weeks before Williams died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm at age 82. The two men were several minutes into a conversation when a startling revelation dawned on Young.
"He was talking away, and then I realized he thought I was Andre Dawson," Young said.
Young elicits a lot of double-takes these days now that he's 75 percent of the man he used to be. During the latter portion of his big league career, his weight fluctuated between 290 and 320 pounds. Now he checks in at 232. It's the most stunning celebrity baseball makeover since Matt Stairs shed 30 pounds to land a gig as an endorser for Nutrisystem.
The change has been wonderful for Young's self-esteem and bodes well for his long-term health. But one big question remains: Is a team out there willing to take a chance on signing a svelte, congenial, former line-drive machine who is anxious to make up for lost time?
In truth, this isn't the best winter to be a 38-year-old hitter on the job market after an extended hiatus. Scan the list of the free-agent unemployed, and it includes such notable names as Johnny Damon, Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Hideki Matsui, Magglio Ordonez and Manny Ramirez, to name a few. At this stage of Young's life and career, a comeback would be more improbable than Mickey Rourke donning a pair of tights and climbing onto the ropes to earn an Oscar nomination for his role in "The Wrestler."
But Young is doggedly pursuing his dream scenario. He traveled to the recent winter meetings in Dallas to make his case to front-office people and let them check out his new, love-handle-free physique. Young's agent, Joe Longo, said he's received about 10 "warm leads" from teams that have promised to stay in touch.
The majority of those teams are American League clubs trolling for a spare bat at first base or DH. If Young lands a job, it will be a minor league deal with an invitation to major league camp. He and his agent are pitching this as an affordable, low-risk, "what-the-heck" kind of opportunity for teams.
"A lot of the executives I talk to say, 'He was one of my favorite players, or, 'I loved him when he played.' Or, 'I saw him at the winter meetings and he looked great. Let me talk to my guys,"' Longo said. "I never hear a 'no.'
"Dmitri has gotten himself in a really good place. I think this is just some unfinished business, to see where it goes. Mentally, he needs it. Whatever happens, I wouldn't be surprised to see him get a job in baseball. I've received a lot of warm responses from people in the game. He was clearly an insider baseball favorite."
Potential suitors, take note: If you're willing to send a scout to Westlake Village in the Greater Los Angeles Area, Young will gladly step in the batting cage, field some grounders at first base or do whatever else is necessary to show that his skills haven't completely eroded. He aims to please.
"With the 2½ years off, I've had a break," Young said. "My body is fresh. I'm not saying I'm spring-chicken fresh, because I'm 38. But when I tell the guys I work out with that I'm 38, they say, 'Dang, you don't look it.'"
Da Meat Hook
For a decade with St. Louis, Cincinnati, Detroit and Washington, Young was a hit-collecting machine from both sides of the plate. He batted .310, .300, .303 and .302 with Cincinnati from 1998 through 2001, and recorded an OPS of .909 for a 43-119 Tigers team in 2003. He became a fan and media favorite for his broad smile, natural flair and that catchy nickname, "Da Meat Hook."
At 38, Young fits the description of the wizened old veteran who can tutor young players and be a positive influence in the clubhouse. But can he still get the bat head through the zone quickly enough to hit the ball with authority?
I believe in positivity and happiness. I'm a happy, fun-loving guy. I wear my emotions on my sleeve.
”-- Dmitri Young
"I wouldn't rule him out, especially if he's passionate about coming back," said Sean Casey, Young's former Cincinnati teammate. "This guy was born to hit. The big swing-and-miss guys might have trouble taking a few years off, but Dmitri has some of the best eye-hand coordination I've ever seen. I think if he really wanted to come back and do it, he could it."
Young's demise and eventual departure from the game were the result of multiple factors -- some external, others self-inflicted -- that coalesced in a mad whirl of chaos and negativity in 2006. In the span of one regrettable calendar year, Young got divorced, entered a treatment center for alcoholism and received a year's probation from a judge for his involvement in a domestic assault case with a former girlfriend. After the Tigers released him and went on to play in the World Series, Young lapsed into a clinical depression.
His health was an even bigger source of concern. Young suffers from Type 2 diabetes, and during Thanksgiving weekend in '06, his blood sugar levels spiked, he nearly went into a diabetic coma, and he had to be rushed to a Florida hospital for treatment.
After a comeback with Washington that landed him a spot in the 2008 All-Star Game, Young spent a year as a coach for the Oakland County Cruisers in the independent Frontier League. He experienced an awakening in January 2011 during a visit to Dr. Michael Braun in Aventura, Fla. Braun looked at his medical history and told him that he needed to tailor back on the diabetes medications and embrace a healthier lifestyle.
Young, who had already quit drinking, took the advice as a personal challenge. With the support of his girlfriend, Alycia Burnham, he adopted a healthier diet and stepped on the treadmill and the elliptical machine with a purpose. He has warmed to the idea of smaller portions, and will happily expound on the benefits of wheatgrass.
"I'm not eating like a Viking now," Young said. "I've learned to hold off, and when I do get my treat, I don't abuse it. I'll eat one slice of pecan pie and call it a day, instead of eating half the pie or the whole pie."
In an attempt to prove he was serious -- and see if he still had that old mojo -- Young traveled to Venezuela in October and spent several weeks playing for the Caribes de Anzoategui in the town of Puerta La Cruz. He hit .167 in 66 at-bats, but shook off a lot of rust in the process. He also discovered that the old 35-inch, 34-ounce war club he once swung from the right side is far too heavy for comfort. He's replaced it with a more reasonable 34-inch, 32½-ounce model.
With time and perspective, Young has come to grips with the unexpected twists in his life. His ex-wife lives in Indiana with two of their children, and Young has returned to his native California, where he has custody of his 12-year-old son, Damon. He is currently bunking at the home of his father, Larry, a former Navy pilot who always stressed the importance of discipline, accountability and hard work to his baseball-playing sons. Young's mother, Bonnie, died of pancreatic cancer in 2009 at the age of 53.
People who've encountered Dmitri and his younger brother Delmon, an outfielder with the Tigers, constantly marvel at their differences. Delmon, the first overall pick in the 2003 draft, generally comes across as dour and standoffish. Dmitri, in contrast, is approachable and upbeat. Casey, his friend and former teammate, refers to him as a "big teddy bear."
"I believe in positivity and happiness," Dmitri said. "I'm a happy, fun-loving guy. I wear my emotions on my sleeve. I'd say there are probably three days out of the year when I'm not happy. Other than that, it's a bright, sunshiny day.
"Delmon is more of a smartass. He's very sarcastic, with a dry sense of humor. We have our little battles. With my fun-loving personality and his sarcasm, I have to dig down in my repertoire and out-sarcasm him. Since I've lost the weight, he can't get on my size anymore. He'll say, 'Well, back when you were fat '"
Dmitri, a self-professed "baseball nerd," loves the game so much that he has amassed a lucrative, 450-card collection featuring vintage Toppses and Fleers of Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, Roberto Clemente and numerous other Hall of Famers. Someday soon, he'll learn if there's room for an extra line or two at the bottom of his own baseball card. That's the "unfinished business" portion of his quest.
Young is sufficiently self-aware to acknowledge that he made some mistakes and squandered some talent along the way. But he's found that if a man is willing to look in the mirror and evolve, there's always room for a happy ending.
"I don't look back with any regrets," Young said. "Everything played out the way it was supposed to -- good, bad or indifferent. For the next generation coming up, all I can do is tell my story. My story will say, 'I could have been this if I had done that.' But before I start looking back, I still have an opportunity to change it."
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.