He Must Show He Can Hold On

Times Staff Writer

It is muggy, the late-afternoon breeze that will gush over the blue monster in left field hasn't yet arrived and, 50 games since he flung his bat at a minor league replacement umpire, Delmon Young has come to apologize again.

He has fulfilled his community service, 52 hours by one estimate, or two more than the International League sanctions required. He pitched to underprivileged and disabled children, even played a few innings in a borrowed wheelchair. He donated money to causes dear to the assaulted umpire, thus far unnamed.

He lost nearly two months of his third professional season, innings and plate appearances that would have had him nearer to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' outfield, or even in it, by now, along with $145,000 in salary.

The lesson would seem long and difficult for a 20-year-old who had blown to the verge of the major leagues not even three years out of Camarillo High, who had once promised to go over the wall on the wretched organization the moment free agency arrived, and especially difficult when witnesses in Pawtucket that April night will swear that bat stuck to his pine-tarred batting glove, finding the umpire unintentionally.

So, Delmon Young sits up straight on Monday at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, and clears his throat to say he's sorry, that it won't happen again, when a stray hand bearing a clip-on microphone flashes toward his T-shirt.

"Whoa!" he says, startled. "Don't touch me!"

Later, a dangling wire from another microphone grazes his left leg. He is in midsentence, which begins, "It was just bad judgment

He is edgy. He does not smile. If he is pleased to return, the sentiment will be carried in his words but not his mood or his tone.

From the moment Young became a professional baseball player, selected first overall by the Devil Rays in the 2003 draft as a 17-year-old, signing a five-year major-league contract worth as much as $6.2 million, telling Baseball America he expected to be in the big leagues "sometime during the 2005 season," it was about baseball.

He'd batted .317 in his first two minor-league seasons, and stood at .329 for the triple-A Durham Bulls when that bat helicoptered toward the umpire. Scouts love his skills, the power and speed that drip from his sturdy body, the instincts forged before he'd played 300 minor-league games.

"He really has an advanced approach at the plate," one major league executive said. "When he gets to the big leagues, he's going to hit, and he's going to hit right away."

Young hadn't played in a game since April 26, yet in his first at-bat Monday against the Charlotte Knights he lined a high fastball into center field for a single. In fact, as the night progressed, line drives appeared to sprout from his bat.

"You just have to go on and live your life," he said. "I want to come out here and play baseball, come out here and have fun. And to try to move on with it. You can judge me how you want to judge me, but I'm going to come out here and be of my own mind."

The rest appears complicated.

In his family, older brother Dmitri is accused of choking a woman, missing a court hearing related to it, and reportedly has checked into the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage. He is on the Detroit Tigers' disabled list. "He remains away from the club taking care of personal business," a Tigers spokesman said. "That's all we're saying."

On his minor league team, three significant prospects -- outfielder Elijah Dukes, shortstop B.J. Upton and him -- are in the midst of or recovering from one issue or another. Dukes, a frequent source of aggravation for the club, was suspended indefinitely over the weekend for an incident at a team hotel still being sorted out by team officials. Upton was arrested last week on suspicion of drunk driving. Also, Bulls Manager John Tamargo was suspended earlier in the season for bumping an umpire, according to reports, "more than once."

On a Monday afternoon spent picking up where he left off 50 games ago, it was difficult to say whether Young was feeling repentant or simply superior by comparison.

Over his shoulder, down the left-field line, atop that 32-foot blue wall, stood the Durham bull.

A sign read: "Hit Bull Win Steak."

Below it, across the meadow in which the bull stands: "Hit Grass Win Salad."

Left out: "Hit Umpire Win Vacation."

A longtime friend of the Young family said Delmon is frustrated to still be in the minor leagues, despite the fact he is well ahead of typical advancement even for an exceptional prospect.

"Delmon," the friend said, "knows he's better than that."

The incident in Pawtucket, according to the friend, could have resulted from two recent decisions by the Devil Rays: They did not call him up in September, and they did send him back to the minor leagues near the end of spring training.

Then the bat hit the umpire, costing him development time and organizational trust, delaying his arrival still. Devil Rays management supported the suspension, the most severe handed out in the 123-year history of the league, and imply the consequences persist.

"What we're looking for," Devil Rays Manager Joe Maddon said, "is that he shows the appropriate remorse, that he gets back on track and that he doesn't show that kind of behavior anymore."

Said General Manager Andrew Friedman: "We're confident Delmon will continue to grasp the magnitude of it."

Back on a field Young will be the player who once would not accept a called third strike. He does not seem to be completely done with it either.

He compared having a game called by replacement umpires to seeing "a doctor that wasn't licensed." Having settled their labor dispute, the regular minor league umpires have returned, for which Young is happy.

Young also said there is a part of his experience that few understand.

"You guys have no clue what Barry Bonds is going through," he said. "What LeBron James ... you got Shaq dealing with stuff, just winning a championship. You got coaches dealing with stuff. Unless you guys put on a uniform and get to a very competitive level, people will never understand what athletes and entertainers go through just to [perform] on an everyday basis."

Barry, LeBron, Shaq ... Delmon.

"It changed me," he insisted. "I'm out here to make sure I make the right judgment, because we're all role models for everybody. We have to do the best we can to keep a positive image. I messed up, so I have to try to regain all that, come out here and keep my nose clean, play baseball and play hard."

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