Delmon Young was standing near the Camarillo High batting cage when three baseball players from Ventura High approached.
“Can I have your autograph?” one said.
He was serious.
Young, a 16-year-old junior, doesn’t sing in a rock band, doesn’t star in a television series and has never appeared on MTV.
But teenagers--even ones from opposing baseball teams--flock to him for autographs.
“I kind of feel weird about it,” he said.
Young is a major leaguer in waiting, and everyone knows it.
If he were eligible for this year’s amateur draft, he might be the first player taken. Next year, he’ll surely be No. 1.
He’s 6 feet 3, weighs 195 pounds, and swings a bat with such speed that it’s scary how fast the ball accelerates when he makes solid contact--which is most of the time.
“He has amazing tools,” Camarillo Coach Scott Cline said.
Young, a center fielder, is batting .652 with 12 home runs and 44 runs batted in. In a Pacific View League game against Hueneme, he hit a three-run home run, a grand slam, walked with the bases loaded and hit a run-scoring single to complete a nine-RBI day.
“I told [my pitcher], ‘When Delmon Young is in the major leagues, you can tell your grandchildren he hit a home run off you,’” Hueneme Coach Reg Welker said.
Young already has broken Camarillo’s single-season home run record of 11 set in 1985 by Cline and equaled by former Stanford All-American Joe Borchard, who is now a top prospect in the Chicago White Sox system.
In his last 24 at-bats, Young has 18 hits--eight of them home runs.
“The kid can be an everyday big-league player,” said Nez Balelo, who scouts for the Atlanta Braves, owns the West Coast Baseball School and has given hitting lessons to Young. “He knows when he does something right and something wrong and makes the adjustment.”
As if Young’s batting wasn’t impressive enough, he can astonish onlookers by the power of his right arm. He has been clocked throwing 96 mph. Against Hueneme, he threw out a runner at home plate trying to score from third on a fly ball. Welker confronted his third-base coach as to why he would send the runner.
“I just wanted to see him throw,” he replied.
Said Welker: “He throws peas from the outfield. You don’t find a lot of high school players with the complete package. The kid can hit with power to all fields. He hits mistakes and good pitches.”
Young, whose brother, Dmitri, plays for the Detroit Tigers, burst onto the high school scene in the summer of 1999 when he was invited to play in the Area Code tournament as a 13-year-old incoming freshman.
Some parents were outraged that someone so young could take a spot usually reserved for seniors-to-be in a tournament designed to preview potential professional prospects.
“It was kind of hard,” Young said. “If you did bad, they’d say, ‘Oh, he didn’t belong.’ If you did good, everyone was happy.”
He performed well enough to vindicate tournament organizers who went out on the limb in selecting him.
“It built up [my confidence] that I could handle high school pitching,” Young said.
He batted .460 as a freshman and .468 with eight home runs as a sophomore.
Much of the credit for his development must go to his father, Larry, who used to fly F-14 Tomcats in the Navy. Larry didn’t play baseball but read books, studied videos and passed along his tips to Delmon, who made the decision to devote total concentration to baseball when he was 12.
Larry, who picked cotton as a youngster in Vicksburg, Miss., used his determination and drive to become a fighter pilot. He has tried to instill the same work ethic in Delmon.
“I’m trying to get him to appreciate the mental part,” Larry said. “Have a purpose with what you do on the field. I don’t want him to rely just on athletic ability.”
In some ways, Delmon’s success is similar to that of Dmitri, who was the fourth player taken overall in the 1991 draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. A shortstop at Oxnard Rio Mesa High, Dmitri had 156 career hits, 29 home runs and 127 RBIs. He was so good at a young age that he had to carry around a birth certificate to prove his age.
Delmon’s steady, unflappable demeanor helps separate him from his peers. There are games in which Young has gone hitless. But rarely does he leave a game feeling down. He stays positive by always looking for something he did right to take his mind off any failures.
“You can’t do anything about it afterward,” he said. “You’ll have another game, another at-bat. It’s not like I’m going to retire after my next at-bat.”
Cline is feeling like the luckiest high school coach in America. He tutored Borchard, a first-round draft choice out of Stanford two years ago. Now he gets to pitch batting practice to Young, who makes the farthest fences look close.
“There are times you throw a pitch and watch him hit and all of a sudden he takes you over the wall,” Cline said. “You go, ‘Man!’ He has a great swing and a great mind for the game.”
Having an older brother in the major leagues has presented Young with opportunities to observe up-close how major leaguers prepare for games. He was a bat boy when Dmitri played for the Cincinnati Reds and received advice from several of his brother’s teammates.
“I used to think there was a lot of pressure,” he said. “You watch them on TV and they look tense, but they’re so relaxed you don’t know a game is going on.”
When Young is hanging out with major leaguers, the autograph seekers ignore him.
“They want the big boys,” he said.
It seems only a matter of time before Young becomes one of them.
Eric Sondheimer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org