LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – If you’re a wise guy with an urge to yell something from the stands about Matt Young’s height, make it good or don’t bother. You should know, the bar has been set high for short jokes directed at the Braves outfielder.
“You hear it at every ballpark,” said Young, who’s listed as 5 feet 8 on the roster, but concedes he’d need to wear spikes and stand on concrete to flirt with 68 inches.
“Officially it’s 5-7-1/2,” he said, smiling. “Officially. That’s in spikes. I think my driver’s license says 5-7. I’ve been pushing for 5-9 [on the roster] for three years, but they’re not giving it to me. I’m like, come on, it’s a baseball card, it’s not a big deal.”
Anyway, the short jokes….
“I think the best one I heard was when we were in Charleston my first year. Right around Little League World Series time, and they just happened to be having midget wrestling after the game.”
He’s not making this up. It was 2005, Young was 22, playing for the Class A Rome Braves in a South Atlanta League game against the Charleston RiverDogs.
“Have you ever been to that ballpark in South Carolina?” he said. “They have concourses on the sides, and I’m in left. They’re having midget wrestling on the left-field concourse after the game. I’m like, Rocket, you’ve got to put me in right field. You’ve got to.”
Rocket Wheeler was Rome’s manager. He did not move Young from left field to right.
“So, my first at-bat the fans are, like, ‘Hey, Williamsport is up the road!’ ‘The Little League World Series is that way, you’re in the wrong ballpark!’” Young says, smiling. “And by, like, the sixth inning, when they’d had some beers in them, it was, ‘Hey Young, No. 6, you don’t work till after the game. Where’s your mask and tights?’”
He laughs as he tells the story. Young has the sort of self-deprecating sense of humor that’s always a plus in a baseball clubhouse, where sensitivities and political correctness are best left checked at the door.
“I’ve heard it all,” Young said. “Any new ones are always welcome. It’s all fun and games. If you can’t laugh at yourself, what can you laugh at?”
Besides, it’s Young who might have the last laugh. For all those who never thought the undrafted, undersized Texan would make it out of the low minors, well, he’s knocking at the door of the big leagues.
Young, 28, hit .300 with 33 doubles, 39 stolen bases and a .380 on-base percentage at Gwinnett last year in his first full season in Triple-A. In 2009, the left-handed-hitting outfielder/second baseman hit .289 with a .421 OBP and 42 steals in 130 games in Double-A.
“He can hit,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “He’s got a great approach. He’s one of those guys that – you preach and preach and preach, don’t try to do too much at the plate — and he probably gets it as well as any young player I’ve been around in a long time.
“He doesn’t try to do too much. If it’s outside, he’ll hit a line drive to left. If it’s inside, he’ll hit a line drive to right. Whatever a pitcher gives him, is what he tries to do. He has a really good concept of the type of hitter he is, and I think that’s what plays so well in his game.”
Young was added to the Braves’ 40-man roster this winter because they believed he’d probably be taken in the Rule 5 draft if left unprotected. He can play all three outfield positions and second base, and has at least an outside chance at a backup job this spring.
He is competing with Joe Mather, Jordan Schafer and Jose Constanza for one or two backup outfield jobs. Mather could make the team as a corner infielder and corner outfielder, and the Braves might still keep one of the other three as a backup center fielder.
Young’s ability to play second base could be a potential bonus in his favor, depending upon how the rest of the roster is put together.
Even if he doesn’t break camp with the Braves, it’s a pretty good bet he’ll be called up from Gwinnett at some point during the season.
“He’s not the tallest guy in the world, not the strongest, but the guy gets it done,” said Braves infielder Brooks Conrad, who can certainly identify with Young. “He can flat-out hit.”
Conrad, generously listed at 5-10, was 28 years old – same as Young today – when he made his major league debut with Oakland in 2008 after seven seasons in the minors.
Young has played six full seasons in the minors without a sniff of the major leagues, but he’s never even thought about hanging up his cleats and calling it a career. To the contrary, he’s as optimistic and energetic as anyone you’re likely to meet in a clubhouse.
“I’m not frustrated,” he said. “It kind of bothers me a little bit when guys are not happy to be where they are [in Triple-A]. I mean, I can understand it. If you’ve got time [in the majors], you don’t want to be there. But it took me so long to get there, I was enjoying it. I was enjoying every moment.
“Obviously that’s not the ultimate goal; the ultimate goal is here. But it’s one of those things where it’s like, you’ve got to play the hand your dealt. I was dealt this humongous frame [mockingly sticks out his chest], and being the non-drafted free agent – it’s one of those things where if you can’t just take everything in stride, you’re going to drive yourself crazy in this game.”
Being added to the 40-man roster for the first time this winter was a good feeling, but he’s not looking at his situation much differently than a year ago, when he was one of the final cuts in big-league camp.
The only difference it made in his preparation was his agreeing to cut short his winter-ball season in Mexico after he strained a groin in early December. Young said he’d have probably missed only one day if a similar injury occurred during the regular season, but he didn’t want to risk a lingering injury before his first spring on the 40-man roster.
“I feel like I’m trying to make an impression,” he said. “I think that’s pretty much where [being on the 40-man] ends. I’m still using this to get ready and do what I normally do. I’m not trying to change anything.”
He paused. “It’s definitely a different feeling, though.”
Young has made quite a name for himself in the Mexican Winter League, where he’s been one of the top hitters the past couple of winters. During the 2009 winter, he hit .315 with eight homers, 32 RBIs and 21 stolen bases (second in the league).
His success there underscored his ability to hit off-speed pitches, as that league is lined with such pitchers.
“Yeah, and you know, it’s actually helped me left-on-left a lot,” he said. “After the starter comes out [in Mexican league games], every middle-relief guy, it’s a situational at-bat. And they bring in a lefty to pitch against you nine times out of ten.
“They’re not going to throw you that 2-0 fastball. I even saw a 3-0 slider down there this year. It was just ridiculous. It was a 3-0 slider with two outs, from some lefty. And I bailed [out of the batter’s box]. That was the last thing on my mind….
‘It’s definitely helped with my approach and my plan. I feel like I’ve grown up a lot the last couple of years with my approach, instead of just looking for something dead-red, something in the white [heart of the plate], I’m looking more pitch-specific, spot-specific.”
Whether they admit it or not, most players understand that being on the 40-man roster can boost one’s chances of making the major league team. Young’s performance last season in Triple-A – he had played only seven games in Triple-A before 2010 – was another signal to Braves officials that he might be a player who can help them.
“He’s always been, all the way through the minor leagues, a guy that doesn’t get a lot of play, doesn’t get a lot of attention as a top prospect or a prospect,” Wren said. “But you go in and watch the team play, whatever team he’s on, and he’s the best player, or one of the best players. He’s the guy that makes the team go. But you don’t talk about him.
“Then he gets to the next level and he’s doing the same thing, and all of a sudden you’re thinking, when’s it going to stop? When’s he going to reach the level where he can’t excel? And he hasn’t found that level yet….
“He’s very fundamentally sound. He can play all three outfield positions, he can play second base, and you know you’re going to get a good at-bat. There’s a lot of things he does well.”
He’s earned the admiration of big-league Braves, who see the shortest guy in uniform spraying line drives around the field and busting his butt to make a play or be a pest on the basepaths.
“Without a doubt,” Conrad said. “As small as he, coming out of college all the scouts are looking at a certain body type, skill set, things like that. Not really looking at all the intangibles that go along with being a good baseball player.
“He’s got all those – he’s a smart player, he plays the game hard, he plays the game right, for the right reasons. He’s a team baseball player who’s going to do everything he can every day to help the team win. Just a guy you want on your team.
“He can flat-out hit, he can run, steal bags, play good defense in the outfield, he’s fast …
“If you’re not that big prospect guy and don’t have those tools, sometimes those guys don’t really get looked out. But if you go out there and play the game like he does, you’re going to help the team win. That’s what it’s all about, bottom line.”
Young doesn’t have to look far to see another undersized player who’s made it big in the bigs. Of course, 5-foot-10 second baseman Dan Uggla has arms the size of the 175-pound Young’s thighs, and hits 30 home runs a year.
“He’s huge,” Young said. “I said to him, what’s it like to be able to hit it out anytime you want? What’s that like. That’s cool, isn’t it?”
A few days ago, Young was fielding grounders with Uggla and Conrad.
“We had the midget mafia over at second base — me, him and Brooks,” Young said. Then he laughed. “I think they just want to hang out with me as much as possible so they can look down on someone.”
Saturday morning addendum: BRAVES LINEUP
1. Schafer DH
2. McLouth CF
3. Heyward RF
4. McCann C
5. Hinske LF
6. Freeman 1B
7. Conrad 2B
8. Hicks 3B
9. Hernandez SS
♣ OK, gotta get to work on some smaller news blogs. Let’s close this with an underrated nugget from The Kinks, and here’s the song if you want to listen (and why wouldn’t you?).
MR. BIG MAN by The Kinks (Ray Davies)
I remember when you started out,
You were the best friend I ever knew.
I tried to meet you when you had your success,
But you had better things to do.
Now I bet that you’re losin’ count
Of the people that you used.
But now we’re gonna see the vicious side of you,
You’ve got the say and the power.
Your minions grovel and cower.
But I see you, and I see me.
But you’re the big man now.
You got it, Mister Big.
Your followers kiss your hand,
And your slaves all at your feet.
Your minions serve your beck and call,
But they don’t compensate at all,
‘Cause inside, Mister Big’s very small.
When you were poor and knockin’ at the door,
You were really lots of fun.
But now you’re hot and you’re sittin’ on the top;
You’ve got no time for anyone.
You schemed and connived.
You pushed and you lied,
Till you at last became a star.
But now we’re gonna see the way you really are,
Now your vict’ry is complete
And your battles are all won.
Your enemies and foes are all stacked up in rows,
Eliminated one by one.
You got it, Mister Big.