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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The week before he was set to leave for Spring Training last year, Delmon Young was forced to deal with unimaginable news. His mother, Bonnie, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
It was not something that Young shared with his teammates right away. The then 23-year-old outfielder kept the turmoil in his personal life to himself, trying to use baseball as an escape. But the toll of his mother's illness certainly had an impact on him every day that he was away from his family during the baseball season.
"If I had a bad day and I'd call home and she wasn't feeling well and I wasn't playing, it was just, 'Ugh. I have to come here and watch nine innings,'" Young said. "Then if she was feeling bad and I felt I wasn't playing good, it was like, 'Let's just try to win this game.' And even if I was feeling good, it was just 'Let's win this game so I could get home to call her.'"
Those phone calls would come to an end on May 18 when Bonnie Young lost her three-month battle with cancer and passed away at the age of 53. Young and his three siblings were by their mother's side at their home Camarillo, Calif., when she passed.
For Young, the past year was a tough one mentally and emotionally, but it made him grow up quite a bit. And as he arrived at Spring Training this year, he did so re-energized with a slimmer physique and having gained perspective from the events that have transpired in his life.
"This offseason, I had the chance to be home and grieve," Young said. "During the season, I didn't have a chance to be home and to deal with that. But my teammates were great, and I had a good support system here."
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The No. 1 overall pick by Tampa Bay in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft, Young has dealt with some ups and downs since arriving in Minnesota two years ago in a trade that sent right-hander Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett to the Rays. At the time, Young was the runner-up in the 2007 American League Rookie of the Year Award voting and as a result, high expectations were placed upon him. Since the trade, however, Young hasn't produced at the level many believe he is capable of reaching.
He got off to a rough start last season while his mom was ill, and he was sharing playing time with fellow outfielder Carlos Gomez. Young hit just .239 with one homer in his first 32 games, and batted .266 with three homers over 192 at-bats in the first half. Still, he finished the season hitting .284 with 12 home runs and 60 RBIs in 108 games, thanks in large part to a strong finish in September.
Following the November trade that sent Gomez to Milwaukee for shortstop J.J. Hardy, Young -- who turned 24 on Sept. 14 -- was assured of being the Twins everyday left fielder for the 2010 season. But he didn't spend the offseason being complacent, instead choosing to shed 30 pounds in an effort to regain certain aspects of his game.
And it's a good thing he did, because on Feb. 5 the Twins signed slugger Jim Thome, who could take at-bats from Young as a DH, with Jason Kubel moving to left field. Left field is Young's job to lose, but he's going to have to hang onto it, and he seems prepared to do just that.
"Where some guys see that trade and they go, 'OK I can relax,'" Justin Morneau said. "It's made him work even harder to give them the confidence to put him out there every day. He feels he's got something to prove. He's very motivated, and that's good."
At his heaviest, which he said was early in September of last year, Young weighed 239 pounds. He dropped a few of those pounds while playing every day over the final month of the season, but his significant weight loss didn't come until the winter. Young arrived at Spring Training weighing 207 pounds, prompting manager Ron Gardenhire to joke with the outfielder, asking if he'd gone into a "a shrinking machine."
"This is where I was when I was with Tampa," Young said. "I was smaller, especially in '05 and '06. In '07, I tried to bulk up a little bit and got to 215. But when I came to play on the turf in Minnesota, there was a little more of the nagging stuff. It bothered me to where I cut back lifting and my activities dropped. At the same time, I had the same calorie intake and that's where the weight gain started."
By shedding the weight, Young felt that he could get back one aspect of his game that has been lost in recent seasons -- speed.
Young stole a total of 56 bases while playing in Tampa Bay's Minor League system between the 2005 and '06 seasons. He had 10 steals during his rookie season in '07 and 14 in his first season in Minnesota, before the number dropped to just two last year.
"We talked about him not running the bases as well last year," Gardenhire said. "He was a little bigger. He knew it, too. It's something that he set his own mind out to do, to go lose some weight and get back to running the bases better."
"He's joked with me that he thinks he can now beat me in a race," speedy center fielder Denard Span said.
"Where some guys see that trade and they go, 'OK I can relax.' It's made him work even harder to give them the confidence to put him out there every day. He feels he's got something to prove. He's very motivated, and that's good."
-- Justin Morneau
The weight loss is something Young feels should also help him to regain some maneuverability in the outfield that had been missing in recent years. He even kidded with Gardenhire about being able to better defend against home runs that might just carry into the first row -- much like Jorge Posada's game-winning solo shot for the Yankees in Game 3 of the AL Division Series.
"I told him now I can be camped under there, instead of just getting to the wall and trying to catch it at the same time," Young said with a laugh. "With how I'm feeling now, I would have just been standing there and been able to put my glove over the wall."
After getting off to a slow start last year with his mother's health weighing on his mind, Young turned things around after the All-Star break. He batted .300 with nine homers and 35 RBIs in the second half, but really shined in September after being given the full-time left-field spot. He hit .340 with four home runs and 18 RBIs over his final 26 regular-season contests.
The difference, Young said, was finally getting a chance to find his rhythm in the second half. The outfielder had worked with Reds hitting coach Brook Jacoby, who is from Young's hometown of Camarillo, Calif., after the 2008 season. Jacoby has a similar teaching philosophy to Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra, according to Young, and they were able to keep him on a consistent hitting program.
"It wasn't until the second half that I got everyday at-bats, and so it finally paid off," Young said. "I just knew that even if I went 0-for-4 one day, the next day I'd have a chance to redeem myself."
Young not only has found a spot for himself in the field, he's also found his place amongst his teammates, as well. He admits that it took some time to find his fit in Minnesota after spending his entire career in the Rays organization. But he spent this past winter texting Morneau with questions about his swing and the two have been found working together in the cage in the mornings this spring.
"Look at Jason Kubel, his best season was last year and he's 27. I think my best year I was 25," Morneau said. "Delmon is still just 24. The second half of last year, he started to figure some stuff out. He was that player we know he can be. We obviously expect big things from him, but the good news is he's not the main focus of the lineup, and I think that will help him. There is no reason he can't hit fourth or fifth on this team, if that spot opens up for him. He's that guy, we all see that potential."
The personal distress is now behind Young, and his dedication this winter has the Twins hoping it could all translate into a breakout season for the 2007 AL Rookie of the Year Award runner-up.
"He went through an awful lot last year," Gardenhire said. "There was a lot on that young man's mind. But I think he's grown as a person and as a player. He's become a fantastic teammate and he's worked really hard this winter to get himself in great shape and put together a good year for himself and our ballclub. I'm really happy for him and proud of him."