October has been waiting on Mike Young.
A year passed, then two, then a decade. Still, it waited.
Meantime, the Texas Rangers, the only big league organization Young had ever known, plowed through game plans, management plans, organizational plans, economic plans and whatever else passed for a plan that might make them relevant again.
Alex Rodriguez(notes) was a plan to himself. So was Alfonso Soriano(notes). Mark Teixeira(notes) was the plan, for a time when Rafael Palmeiro and Juan Gonzalez were also the plan, and then the players the Rangers acquired by trading Teixeira were the plan, soon as everybody learned their names.
And every fall Mike Young would go home in October, reasonably convinced that the next plan would work, or anyway certain it wouldn’t fail because of him. All these plans moved him from second base to shortstop, and then from shortstop to third base, and now creeping into his mid-30s you might have excused him had he believed the next plan would have him in the third-base coach’s box, another few steps to his right.
Young was a regular at All-Star Games, and in MVP conversations, and he’d get his 200-or-so hits, and play every day except when September ended. Then he’d go find something else to do and October would wait again, both sure Mike Young would be back in April to start over, because he was – is – resilient and determined like that and because with every plan the Rangers made, Mike Young was the part no one worried about.
He was a pro, the way Derek Jeter(notes) was a pro. He used every inch of game day, the way Chipper Jones(notes) did. And yet, it seemed, they hardly missed an October, while Young was left to root for plans, and to move around the infield in support of them, and to watch on television as his friends and peers played in long sleeves. He watched their breaths turn to tiny clouds of resolve deep into fall, when the whole nation leaned in and cared what would happen next, while Young played his 500th game, his 1,000th and came up on his 1,500th without ever standing with them.
The seasons passed, the Rangers lost, Young packed his stuff, and watched every playoff game he could, every pitch. He couldn’t help himself. He still loved it.
Young consoled himself with his preparation for next season and his belief in the process. There was honor to be had in Texas, and always a way to justify the next plan, which was becoming more promising under general manager Jon Daniels.
“Every year it got a little tougher,” he said. “Every player wants that opportunity. Obviously, I’m in this to win. But, there’s never going to be any perfect career.”
“With rare exceptions,” he added.
Ten years after his first big-league game and about that long since he first assumed the Rangers would be postseason regulars, Young will play in a postseason game, after 1,508 regular-season games. Among active players, only Winn had played in more games (1,717) without a playoff appearance. Winn – and his St. Louis Cardinals – will sit them out again. (Winn has timing issues: His last two teams – the Yankees and Giants – are bound for the playoffs, as is his first team, the Rays.) But, in the spirit of all those who wait and those who won’t discourage easily, two others – Huff (1,479) of the San Francisco Giants and Sweeney (1,454) of the Philadelphia Phillies – join Young as significant October first-timers.
It’s a lot of games, a lot of lost seasons, a lot of other people’s celebrations.
Huff and Young debuted within two months of each other in 2000, Huff in Tampa Bay and Young, of course, in Texas. After six years with the Devil Rays, Huff twice was traded into mid-summer pennant races – to the Houston Astros in 2006 and the Detroit Tigers in 2009 – and in those seasons finished a total of 1½ games (and one play-in game) from the postseason. Desperate for offense and so willing to take a chance on a player most teams believed was in decline, the Giants called Huff, paid him $3 million, played him at first base, in left and in right, and found they’d discovered their best offensive player and a gamer, too.
“No question it’s been the most amazing year of my life,” Huff said. “I think it’s even more satisfying being on this team all year. I don’t think it would have been the same in those other situations. I guess the baseball gods wanted me to be here, but it’s taken a beating on me for nine years, that’s for sure.”
Unlike Young, Huff did not schedule his October evenings around televised playoff games. He’d watch his pal, Pat Burrell(notes), when the Phillies won. And he’d tune in to see Carl Crawford(notes) and his former Rays play to the end of October. Otherwise, he said, “It got to the point I couldn’t watch the Yankees and Red Sox again. I’d go to dinner with the wife instead.”
Young has stuck, moving permanently to the Dallas area, where his two sons were born. He has become the enduring face of the Rangers, long after A-Rod and Tex and Soriano had come and gone, and in spite of the relatively recent arrivals of the likes of Josh Hamilton(notes), Vladimir Guerrero(notes), Elvis Andrus(notes) and Cliff Lee(notes).
The Rangers remain Young’s team, in body and soul, just as they were when they were losing, and rebuilding, and coming close but not close enough, and rebuilding again. So, they’re his when they win, when they finally win, and he’s finally in.
“Honestly,” Young said, “I haven’t really thought about it. I’ve answered this question a lot over the last month. I don’t think I deserve to win any more than any of my teammates. We were in this together from the first day of spring training. This is our team. This is the 2010 Rangers. We were in this together from the get-go and we’re going to stay that way. I don’t think I deserve this opportunity more than anybody else. That’s what helped us stay focused on the fact we haven’t accomplished anything yet. It’s not about one person. It’s about us.”
Along the way, from spring training to champagne party, Young did learn the secret to playing past September. He leaned close. After those nine fruitless seasons, those 1,500 games that went nowhere, he’d figured it out.
“Yeah,” he said, “we have better players this year.”