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Young at heart

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Delmon Young spent most of his life standing in the center of a baseball universe, everyone watching and waiting for him to do something great.

Which can't be easy.

Then he spent a few months standing in the same place, everyone watching and waiting for him to screw up again.

Which has to be worse.

Young shook his head.

"Neither," he said, was more trying than the other. In such a universe, fame and infamy are a push.

"I faced the most possible media scrutiny you could face besides Barry Bonds," he said. "So this, fans heckling me, whatever, really doesn't bother me. I know if I take a hat trick, they're going to let me know."

His eyes are wary, but his handshake is firm and hospitable. Around him, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' temporary clubhouse is clearing out, Young's teammates leaving behind a few stray pizza boxes and the last of their early-spring aches.

Before they know it, the Devil Rays will be Young's team. Maybe not this season, but one soon after. He'll bat in the middle of their lineup, protecting rather than being protected, and become a standard in right field. That's what they all believe, that's who they believe in.

They believe in fame.

"He is a true baseball player with exceptional skills," general manager Andrew Friedman said. "And you don't see that combination all that often."

Yet, infamy lingers.

Young flung a bat that struck an umpire last April in Pawtucket. He served his 50-game suspension, expressed all the regret he had in him, lashed a line-drive single on the first live fastball he saw in two months, and now he'd just like to play the game again.

What good came of it? How about the children in the wheelchairs he fell for during his mandatory community service, the same ones he now visits just because he liked them so much? And how about the Delmon Young the Devil Rays see today?

"In a perverse way," manager Joe Maddon said, "that could have been the one thing that makes Delmon the man he wants to be. … At some point, we all need to be straightened up a little bit. And he was straightened up."

Young turned 21 midway through September, midway through his first month in the major leagues. As the second-youngest player in the game – five months older than Seattle Mariners starter Felix Hernandez – he batted .317 and drove in 10 runs in 30 games, narrowly preserving his rookie standing for 2007.

He is another month from his first full big-league season, which he'll spend playing right field and batting second, between Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford. But on the day before the Devil Rays' first spring game, Young is more interested in who's pitching for the New York Yankees tomorrow than what opening day and the first of 600 plate appearances might bring.

He had hit at every minor-league stop, then he had hit in the majors. And, yet, Young estimates "hitting was 10 times harder than it was in the minor leagues," and then taps the fingers of his left hand, one for every veteran catcher he feels carved him up last September.

A.J. Pierzynski. Kenji Johjima. Jason Kendall. Joe Mauer. And Jorge Posada. He restarts. Ramon Hernandez. Jason Varitek.

He's not talking pitchers. He's talking catchers.

"They're a lot smarter than in the minors," Young says. "So, I'm just talking about growing up in general. I've been around the game since I was 12. But, in my first series, Pierzynski is back there. And he's going to know how to call a game on an over-aggressive 20-year-old who was just called up."

It was a disaster. For Pierzynski. Young had eight hits in 13 at-bats and drove in four runs.

Again, when every other rookie is running video on pitchers, Young is right alongside them, and then he looks at the catchers.

"How many 30-year-olds have been in the big leagues five years and don't see that?" Maddon said. "The baseball I.Q. there, it's ridiculous. It's abnormal, in a really good way."

There's more. Though they'd seen him in spring training, Devil Rays players wondered what they were getting when Young arrived in late August. They knew Young was critical of the organization when it hadn't called him to the big leagues the September before, and assumed he was unhappy when he didn't make the club out of spring training, and, geez, wasn't the misery of losing 100 games enough without bringing in a kid with attitude?

Imagine their surprise.

"I'm pretty impressed, myself," catcher Josh Paul said. "Not even judging from the media crap he's been through, but from the standpoint of a prospect, he was way more polished than I expected. The guy doesn't miss a cutoff man, ever. And he has the best arm in our outfield."

Not only that, he backs up throws in the infield. Hardly anybody does that, which brings another list from Young: the father, the friend's father, the coaches, the managers, who insisted he do it.

"It wasn't just me," he says.

Besides, he says, "Every once in a while the ball goes into right field, and that's the one I didn't back up."

He laughs. The game will find you, he knows. So will fame. And infamy.

Either way.