SAN FRANCISCO – Flustered, fat and flat on his back, Dmitri Young thought he was going to die.
Forget baseball. Young was clinging to his life from a Florida hospital bed, moments from slipping into a diabetic coma, one month removed from dying inside while his former Detroit Tigers team played in the World Series, two months removed from being unceremoniously drummed out of Comerica Park after getting caught sleeping in the clubhouse during a rain delay, five months removed from checking into rehab for alcohol and drug abuse.
"I felt like I could have gone at any moment," he said. "I thought there was a tombstone with my name on it."
Is it possible that anyone – let alone an overweight 34-year-old recovering alcoholic – could climb from those depths and surface, swinging and grinning, in the All-Star Game, representing the Washington Nationals?
"When you reach something like this, you can't help but look back to where you were a year ago," he said. "It's hard to explain. I didn't want my kids to see their dad as a quitter."
Young is the father of three, and his two sons are a frequent sight in the Nationals' clubhouse. They have watched him bat .339, third-highest in the league, and saw him get a pinch-hit single with two out in the ninth inning of the All-Star Game on Tuesday night. Afterward, Owen, 10, and Damon, 8, bounced from locker to locker, asking the best players in the game to sign balls, bats and caps.
They probably can't comprehend how amazing it is that their father is one of those players. The Nationals were the only team willing to give Young even a minor league contract last spring, and did so for two less-than-ideal reasons: 1) They were desperate for anybody who could hit; 2) General manager Jim Bowden had a longstanding relationship with him.
Bowden was the GM in Cincinnati when Young batted .300 or better four years in a row, from 1998 through 2001. But that was before the alcoholism, the domestic violence charge for allegedly choking a girlfriend, the debacle in Detroit, and, of course, the Type 2 diabetes.
The Tigers had tolerated Young's problems for years. But when it became clear the team was a World Series contender, manager Jim Leyland and GM Dave Dombrowski decided he wasn't worth the risk. The last straw came when Young spent a one-hour, 23-minute rain delay Sept. 5 asleep in the clubhouse. The next day he went 0 for 3 with two strikeouts, his average dropping to .250, was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning and released after the game.
The Tigers suspected a drug or alcohol relapse, but publicly Dombrowski said the decision was "strictly performance-related." In hindsight, Young has an explanation.
"I felt sluggish and weird, and it was the beginning of diabetes," he said. "I just know I was looking like a bad guy when I left Detroit."
He was under a court order to remain in Michigan and take an alcohol breath test every morning for 30 days. So when the Tigers reached the World Series, Young was too close for his own comfort.
"At the time I thought my bat could be helpful," he said. "Looking back now, my bat would have been worthless. My mind wasn't there. My mind wasn't clear at all.
"I tried not to watch, but you couldn’t turn on the Cartoon Network and not see that the Tigers were in the World Series. It was very rough."
A month later, it got rougher. An ambulance took him to intensive care the day after Thanksgiving and diabetes was diagnosed. Bowden was the only person in baseball willing to give him a chance the next spring. And there was a short leash.
"He comes in knowing the organization has zero tolerance on any incident that takes place," Bowden said in February. "If it does happen, he'll be released.… Dmitri is a good kid. He's made some bad mistakes. He wants a second chance. We're going to give that to him."
It's always funny to hear a baseball executive refer to a player in his 30s as a "kid." Young, of course, once really was a kid, and he drew strength from his upbringing to get from a hospital bed to a batter's box.
Young might be a free spirit today, with a peace sign tattooed on his back, rainbow wristbands and wild hair, but he grew up in a regimented household. Larry Young, a former Navy F-14 fighter pilot who now flies for a commercial airline, was tough on Dmitri and his younger brother, Delmon, a rising star outfielder with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. His sons were extremely obedient while living under his roof in Oxnard, Calif.
"I took the concentration you need to land an airplane on a ship at night in bad weather and applied it to teaching baseball to my sons," Larry Young said. "You have to be disciplined."
In 1989, I wrote a story for Baseball America about Dmitri, who was considered the best high school hitter in the country at the time. We met in the school library, and the fierce-looking 16-year-old was extremely well-mannered, prefacing every answer with "Yes, sir," or "No, sir."
Young became resentful of his father's militaristic parenting, but now regards him as a close ally. Larry encouraged his son to give baseball another shot, telling him that his own children would always remember whether their dad retired on his own terms.
"I'm a parent now and can understand where he's coming from," Dmitri said. "I used to think he was a grumpy old man, always saying, 'Don't do this, don't do that.' It turns out he was doing everything possible for me. In the grand scheme of things, he was right."
The hardest call home he ever made came from the hospital bed in November, when, basically, he said goodbye. Then something amazing happened – he recovered. Now he gives himself insulin shots and keeps orange juice in the refrigerator.
"I wasn't normal until mid-January," he said. "It took two weeks to start walking from being in bed so long. My legs were atrophied."
Young had survived, but he figured his career was over. The events of the previous year had taken too much of a toll. Nobody would have him. He planned to buy an RV and tour the country watching Delmon and his sister Deann, a softball player at Oregon State.
"Then I was going to Washington, cut across to Idaho and Montana, and watch the buffalos roam," he said.
Another Washington interceded. Bowden called with the offer, and Young arrived at spring training in Viera, Fla., looking like a beer-league player. Another guy might have been sent home immediately, but Young has always carried more than his share of weight, so the Nationals dispatched him to the far fields to work out with minor leaguers.
Not until late March did Bowden bring him up to play in a split-squad game against the Dodgers. Young homered and singled against Jason Schmidt, and soon he was the regular first baseman. Against all odds, he is having the best season of his 11-year career.
Young was in a Pittsburgh taxi cab en route to the ballpark when Bowden's number came up on his cell phone, telling him he was an All-Star.
"When I called my kids, it hit me, and my eyes watered," Young said. "It's a great feeling because I truly earned this. Everything has come full circle. There are no ill feelings about last year. The whole experience made me check my priorities.
"I had a big scare. I got a second lease on life and am taking full advantage of it."