CAMARILLO, Calif. – One of the nation's foremost baseball-card collectors, a self-described nerd who spent the last 13 years accumulating about 500 unblemished rookie cards of Hall of Famers, iconic achievers and interesting characters, settles into a booth at a deli and scans the menu.
"I'll have the hot tongue," he tells the waitress, sharply but politely. "On rye."
It's obvious this is no meek, reclusive hobbyist. In fact, one of the cards in his collection is his own. The man possessing the only known perfect-condition rookie cards of Roberto Clemente, Stan Musial, Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson and many other luminaries was known during his 13-year playing career as "Da Meat Hook." He's Dmitri Young, slimmed down, smiling and back in Camarillo, the farm-flecked suburb of Los Angeles where he grew up.
For the next 90 minutes, between bites of beef tongue and slugs of diet cola, Young describes his pride and joy. He recalls his first card and his last, how he was ripped off early on and became a savvy buyer by the end. He describes the cards closest to his heart, the cards that kept him sane when his unhealthy lifestyle nearly killed him, and the cards of relatively obscure players who made an imprint on his career.
He details how he learned the quirks of the company that grades cards and establishes their value. He gives thanks for an activity that began as a diversion and became an obsession. And he explains that he plans to sell the collection next month to help launch a baseball school and nonprofit foundation that will serve Camarillo and other towns in Ventura County, Calif.
All these years, hardly anyone knew that a two-time All-Star, a lifetime .292 hitter and the 2007 National League Comeback Player of the Year was painstakingly building a card collection that became the envy of the industry. No other assemblage of rookie cards comes close, according to experts.
Young rattles off names. He has one of only two 1954 Hank Aaron cards rated as a Gem Mint 10 by the Professional Sports Authenticators (PSA), an independent third-party memorabilia grading company. Ten is the highest rating, and indicates a lot more than that the card was never slipped into bicycle spokes. The photo has to be perfectly centered, and even a print dot, tiny smudge or rubber-band marking is an automatic disqualifier.
[Slideshow: A look at some of Dmitri Young's rarest rookie cards]
"In the world of collecting, every collector has their own theme," says Joe Orlando, president of PSA. "If you are talking about baseball rookie cards in the highest quality, no other collection comes close to Dmitri's. The thing that's neat about his collection is that he's assembled not only Hall of Famers, but any noteworthy player in the post-World War II period."
Young's zealousness has gotten the best of him at times. He admits to overpaying for the only Ernie Banks Gem Mint 10. In fact, he overpaid for plenty of cards when he started collecting in 2000. Young fell into the hobby while playing for the Cincinnati Reds. He and pitcher Danny Graves were each promised $2,000 to appear at a card show, and Young became intrigued by the wares. He saw a Pete Rose rookie card and asked the proprietor if he could have it in lieu of payment.
[ MLB Full Count: Watch live look-ins and highlights for free all season long]
"I knew nothing about graded cards, so when he gave me a PSA 8 Pete Rose, I said, 'Why is it in a case?' " Young says. "The guy explained what PSA was. It got me curious, and throughout the year I'd go online and see what was going on. That offseason my wife told me I needed a hobby. I was sitting around doing absolutely nothing, letting old wounds heal. So I started buying PSA 8s. Rookies, of course. Then I started buying the 9s, then people started offering me 10s online. The next thing you know, the collection started."
Young originally discovered card collecting as a child in Virginia Beach, Va. His father, Larry, was an F-14 fighter pilot in the Navy and very strict. Dmitri – and later his younger brother Delmon, now an outfielder with the Detroit Tigers – was put through rigorous baseball workouts every day beginning at age 7. When he was able to retreat to his bedroom, he'd escape into a world of baseball cards and the statistics of his heroes.
"I got that thick Baseball Encyclopedia every year and my dad subscribed to Baseball Digest," Young said. "I memorized guys' stances from the front of the cards and their stats from the back."
Three times his parents threw away his childhood collection as punishment. "Twice for not cleaning my room and once for bad grades," he says. "They took the cards straight to the city dump."
The family moved to Camarillo by the time Young was 14, and at Rio Mesa High School he became one of the best prep hitters ever, setting several national records. The St. Louis Cardinals drafted him with the fourth overall pick in 1991 and he was traded before the 1998 season to the Reds, where he hit .300 or better each of the next four years. His salary steadily escalated from about $2 million in 2000 to $8 million in 2005, so the expense of buying rare cards wasn't an issue.
"There were dealers out there that saw an athlete who made a lot of money and who liked cards," Young says. "So they just saw a sucker."
The Reds traded Young to the Detroit Tigers before the 2002 season, and to commemorate the deal he bought an Al Kaline 1954 rookie card rated by PSA as a 10. He showed the card to one of his new teammates Robert Fick.
Young swallows a hunk of the tongue sandwich. "I'm going to do his voice the best I can," he says, imitating the laid-back Fick. " 'Hey, bro, how much you pay for that?' "
"Dude, you're getting ripped off. Dude, I want you to meet my boy, Dave Bailey."
Bailey, a longtime Detroit-based memorabilia collector and dealer, was introduced to Young at a postgame get-together. They huddled in a corner and talked about baseball cards until the wee hours. Bailey began negotiating deals for Young, and soon they became partners in assembling the world's greatest rookie collection.
They landed the Clemente card for $150,000, a little more than half the initial asking price. Reggie Jackson's PSA 10 was a coup. So was Roy Campanella's. Young spent tens of thousands on full sets of cards just to find a single hot rookie.
"For instance, I bought cases of the 1982 Topps set – Lee Smith's rookie year," Young says. "I'd go through them and pick out the Lee Smith cards. While I'm in there, I'd also set aside the Cal Ripkens and the Kent Hrbecks. I easily recouped what I spent because I had maybe 10 Cal Ripken cards, and at that time they were going for $1,000 each. Plus, I got the Lee Smiths."
[Big League Stew: Rare baseball card fetches $1.2 million at auction]
Card values took a nosedive in the mid-2000s when the steroids scandal hit. Mark McGwire's PSA 10, a $10,000 card, dropped to $1,000. "A Bonds card, you can buy one and get one free," Young says. "But there are some cards, like Hank Aaron, that are never going down. In fact, that one is going up … because he's Hank Aaron."
Young's own career took a nosedive in 2006 when injuries, problems with drugs and alcohol, and a domestic violence charge against a girlfriend put his life in turmoil. The low point came early that September when the Tigers released him after he'd slept on a clubhouse couch during an hour-long rain delay. Detroit went on to reach the World Series and Young was holed up in his den, finding solace only in his card collection.
"Through all of that, the cards were my best friend," he says. "Things would go wrong and I'd get to look at these perfect cards and everything would seem OK."
Two months later, though, he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes after he lapsed into a coma in his Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., home.
"I got so sick I thought I had a tombstone with my name on it," he says.
His father, by that time a commercial pilot with Delta, flew in from L.A. and was by his son's side. Young slowly recovered and his relationship with his dad – fractured for years – mended as well. The Washington Nationals were the only team to give him a chance in 2007 and Young responded by making the All-Star team, batting a career-high .330 and winning the NL comeback award.
All the while he collected cards. In 2009 he nabbed his favorite besides Aaron, and this one was personal. Willie Horton, former Tigers star outfielder and longtime special assistant to the team's owner, had taken Young under his wing. So when Horton's PSA 9 card popped up on eBay for $400, buying it was a no-brainer. Young sent it to PSA three times, asking that they bump it up to a 10. The third time they did.
"Willie is a grandfather figure to me, very inspirational," Young says. "It's more than a baseball thing. He genuinely cares for me. We still stay in contact today. I love everything about Willie, what he stands for. He's what you would call a blue-collar hero, the workingman's hero."
Young, meanwhile, was among the privileged. He was paid about $52 million as a player and spent, by his estimation, about $5 million on baseball cards. A handful of other players have card collections – Tom Candiotti, Brad Lidge, Pat Neshek, Luis Gonzalez, Brad Penny – but none are close to Young's in depth and value.
Just like that, though, he is willing to sell it. Young says it's part of a wholesale lifestyle change: He's selling his house in Florida and moving to Camarillo full time. He's engaged to former track star Alycia Burnham, who he says "has been my best friend since high school." And the aim of his foundation will be to teach baseball, softball and life skills to youngsters. One of the top switch-hitters of his era, Young also plans to launch a specialized school for switch-hitting. "It's Da Meat Hook's Switch-hitting University, and I'm the Dean of Hitters," he says, polishing off the first half of his sandwich.
"I'm reclaiming my territory where I grew up and doing something good for the community. What I make from the cards will get it off the ground."
The last cards he acquired that PSA rated as 10s were of Bernie Carbo and Hal McRae. That was just a few weeks ago. Young says he's done collecting, that he's going "cold turkey," though his longtime partner Dave Bailey isn't buying it.
"Even today, he buys different things, he still collects to a certain level," Bailey says. "With the PSA 10 collection, there's just nothing left out there to get."
Young admits he'll still scour eBay and stay connected enough to know if the only Mickey Mantle rookie PSA 10 goes on the market. Or if a PSA 10 of Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Roger Maris or Nolan Ryan surfaces. None are known to exist.
Young boxes up the other half of his lunch. He's headed home to get moving on the foundation. Finally, though, he admits he'll continue seeking another elusive card.
"I just bought a bunch of '81 Topps sets," he says, almost whispering. "There's never been a Fernando Valenzuela 10. It's the ugliest card you ever want to see. Mike Scioscia is in the middle and Jack Perconte, a little middle infielder dude, is on the other side. It's usually off center, with smudge marks, print marks. It's a real turd.
"To actually find one in decent condition, I'm up to the challenge."
Young shrugs as he stands up to leave.
"What can I say, I'm the nerd."
Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
• Braves' Chipper Jones shares his favorite career memories | Gets kids cake for 40th birthday
• Video: The Boston Red Sox have major issues that are beyond manager Bobby Valentine
• Dan Wetzel: Metta World Peace again shows teammates can't depend on him
• Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, Ryan Tannehill prove Texas a hotbed of QBs
• Y! News blog: Tim Tebow a no-show at party honoring Time's 'Most Influential'