Everything Dmitri Young thought he knew about baseball changed over the course of two weeks in Phoenix earlier this month. Now, armed with an innovative insight into the game he loves, the former Nationals first baseman is setting his sights on a new career path.
The 41-year-old Young, who revived a moribund career with the Nats in 2007 to become an All-Star, recently graduated from Major League Baseball’s scouting development program, an intensive two-week course affectionately known as “Scout School.”
“This was, to me, like college. ... It’s like getting a superpower you never had before,” said Young from Kansas City, where he’s watching younger brother Delmon play in the American League Championship Series with the Orioles. “Now I see through the eyes of a scout, and it’s a totally different way to look at a game. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
Coming from Young, the fourth overall pick in the 1991 draft by the Reds out of Rio Mesa High School in Oxnard, Calif., that’s saying a lot. He started his pro career at Johnson City in the rookie-level Appalachian League as a 17-year-old and made it to the majors, playing 13 seasons.
When he flamed out in 2006 with the Tigers - after a year in which he faced a domestic violence charge, battled alcohol and drug addiction, and was hospitalized in an intensive care unit with out-of-control but undiagnosed diabetes - Young sought to resuscitate his career.
Then-Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, who knew Young from when both were with the Reds, offered a chance - but he would only give Young a minor league deal and told him he’d have to work his way back into playing shape and into the game’s good graces on the back fields of the team’s minor league camp in Viera, Fla.
Young did just that, earning a promotion to the major league team. He wound up hitting .320 with 17 homers and 74 RBIs for the Nats and making the All-Star team in an improbable comeback in 2007, but battled injuries and inconsistency in 2008, when he appeared in only 50 games.
That marked the end of a big league career that saw Young hit . 292 with 171 homers and 683 RBIs. Young went home to California, continued to get his diabetes under control (he dropped 70 lbs. and started talking comeback in 2011) and operating a baseball school in Camarillo, Calif. He even coached an independent team in the Frontier League. But the passion to be involved in the major leagues still burned.
This summer, he was invited by former major leaguer and ex-National Jeffrey Hammonds of the Major League Baseball Players Association and Ben Baroody of the commissioner’s office to participate in the Breakthrough Series, a regional showcase co-hosted by Major League Baseball and USA Baseball. The program promotes college and professional baseball opportunities for urban youth, particularly those in underserved communities.
Young took part in two of the four two-day clinics across the country - in Compton, Calif., near his home and Cincinnati, where he played for four seasons - and the experience reignited a spark. That led to an invitation to Scout School, where his class of 79 included about a dozen former major leaguers hoping to sharpen their eyes for a possible new career.
“I don’t know how scouts do it,” Young said. “Now I’ve been blessed in my life with good scouts who have been successful at helping people find their way to the big leagues. But now I have even a greater appreciation for what they do, what they see and how they see it. To know what they know, to know what they sacrifice, it was a real eye-opener.”
The two-week course mixes classroom instruction with hands-on learning. It was tougher than Young thought - and not always what he expected.
“It taught me to never doubt myself,” he said. “We sat there - we had 79 people in our class and every one of them had the same look on their face - a big ol’ question mark. There were times where we didn’t think it made sense. But in Week 2, that’s when it started to click for me.”
Young thought he knew all about the game’s finer points, both the mechanical and strategic aspects. But in Scout School, he learned to look inside baseball in a more pragmatic way, breaking down the pieces that make of the whole of a player.
Swings, he learned, are more than just approach and contact. There’s the way weight is shifted between a batter’s feet, the position of the wrists, the innate ability to adapt in mid-pitch and recognize the ball out of a pitcher’s hand. Being a successful hitter only partially prepared Young for learning to break down a swing.
He learned how to correctly gauge a pitcher’s footwork, mechanics and control. A stopwatch became his constant companion, as he timed hurlers’ deliveries to the plate and catchers’ throws to second base. He learned how to watch the way defenders play their positions, set their feet, catch and throw, and take routes to the ball.
All things that have been part of the game since he played in rec ball. All things he had to learn a new way of visualizing.
“It’s not like the way anybody else sees a ballgame,” Young explains. “And it’s not the way I was used to looking at a player. You’re still watching the game, and it’s the same game, but it’s totally different.”
Young also learned the way to correctly take what he saw and fashion a report that effectively communicates strengths and weaknesses, along with a player’s potential. Scouts are the lifeblood of any organization, often spending countless hours toiling in anonymity and traveling off the beaten path in search of talent. A scout who can find and correctly communicate a young player’s abilities up the organizational ladder is worth his weight in gold. But a scout who embellishes talent that’s not really there is merely an impediment to an evaluation process with as many layers as an onion.
And you thought the notion of writing a report and sending it up the chain sounded easy.
“You have to paint a picture, an accurate picture, and you have to be right,” Young said. “You have to be dead on. I mean, the people who read that report - the scouting director, the general manager, the manager, the coaches - they’re counting on you to be right. There’s no margin for error.”
When he was done, Young had a Scout School diploma, a newfound desire to get back in the game and confidence that he could succeed at something other than playing.
“The athlete in me ... plus what I learned at Scout School, I feel invincible,” he said.
Major League Baseball’s Scouting Bureau tries to find matches for Scout School graduates, and while the eye-opening experience reinvigorated Young, he’s also clear on what he wants his next step to be.
He wants to take his experiences as a player, the personal and professional demons he’s faced and overcome, and what he learned in Arizona to work for an organization in minor league player development. Young said he’s uniquely qualified to understand the pressures young pro players feel to succeed and to use his own life to show players the dos and don’ts they need to pay attention to. He wants to make an impact - on the people he touches and the organization that he works for.
“I know I have to work my way up, pay my dues, but ... I think I’m ready now to help an organization get better,” he said. “It’s out there that I want in - and in a big way. I want to change the culture in an organization. I want to make an organization better than it was when I started there. And I’m ready to start.”