Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Few Minutes With Chris Young

(photo courtesy of the Kansas City Royals)

Want to know what kind of person Chris Young is?

Less than 11 hours after Young and his Kansas City Royals had won the World Series, TigerBlog texted Young, saying congratulations and that he knew Young was busy but if he had a few seconds could he call TB back. He was looking to write something about Young and his experience.

And how long did it take him to get back to TB? Three hours? Two hours? Never? A promise to check in later?

Nope. How about 18 minutes. It took 18 minutes between when TigerBlog texted Young and when Young called him back.

TigerBlog and Chris Young go way back, to before the start of his freshman basketball season at Princeton in the 1998. Before the season, actually, all the way to when TigerBlog used to watch pickup games in Jadwin Gym and point out to Bill Carmody and his coaches that the big kid from Texas looked pretty good. TB didn't even know he also played baseball.

During the next two years, TigerBlog saw every game Young played except for one, the second of his freshman year, at UNC Wilmington. He got to know Young as a young man of the highest quality, one who was always polite, personable and humble as much as he was competitive and driven.

Nothing has changed now that Young is 36 and just finished with his 11th Major League season. This one ended a little differently, with a World Series title. And now as TigerBlog texted Young, he had a hunch it wouldn't be long before he heard back from him. 

Still it wasn't like he had nothing else going on. He probably hadn't slept much. His phone had probably been buzzing all morning.

The Royals were on the bus to the airport, heading back to Kansas City, where the next phase of the celebration was to begin. The background noise on TB's conversation with Young indicated that the celebrating had not yet abated.

And why would it? Kansas City defeated the Mets four games to one to win the World Series, the first championship for a franchise that last won one in 1985 and one that spent much of the time in between being basically a small-market irrelevance.

There was a 14-inning game and a 12-inning game, meaning that the five games totaled 53 innings. The Royals had the lead at the end of only 15 of them.

Much has been made about Kansas City's resilience in the postseason. Young had a front-row seat for it.

"It's incredible," he said of his teammates. "We're like a family. We never stop thinking we're going to find a way to win. It's an amazing group of guys."

Game 5 was the most dramatic example of this. Matt Harvey shut KC out for eight innings as New York took a 2-0 lead into the ninth. At home.

Here's what was at stake - Should the Mets have won then they would have had Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard for Games 6 and 7, with no reason to think those two would have been any less successful than Harvey.

By now, you know what happened. Harvey talked manager Terry Collins into letting him go back out to the Citi Field mound instead of closer Jeurys Familia. Harvey, seemingly invincible for eight innings, brought with him an incredible roar from the Mets fans, who wanted to see him polish off his shutout.

Instead, he walked one and gave up a double to Eric Hosmer, making it 2-1 and bringing Familia in. The Royals tied it when Hosmer raced home on an infield grounder from Salvador Perez, as Mets first baseman Lucas Duda threw wide of home plate when a good throw probably would have gotten Hosmer to end it.

Young watched it all unfold from the bullpen. He didn't figure to pitch in the game, but then he had no idea how long it would go and thought he'd "be a better option than a position player if it came to that."

What was the KC bullpen saying heading into the ninth?

"We thought," Young said, "that if they sent Harvey back out there that we'd find a way. We knew we'd tie it."

Once it was tied, there was the matter of untying it. The Royals had a huge edge in bullpen arms, and the KC relievers would combine to go six innings of two-hit, no-run ball in Game 5. The numbers could have been 60 innings of shutout ball if that's what was needed.

But no. KC got a run in the 12th on an RBI single from a player who, what else, hadn't batted yet in the postseason. Then the Royals tacked on four more. All that was left was for Wade Davis to get the last three outs.

"Once we got the lead, it was over," Young said. "We had Wade Davis. Everyone in the bullpen just started stretching. Nobody wanted to pull a hamstring running in to celebrate."

The last half-inning might not have had any drama, but there were certainly moments of huge drama in the series. And it's possible that the entire championship grew directly out of Young's first-game performance.

Game 1, if you recall, went 14 innings. Again, Kansas City had tied it in the ninth. Again, they won it long after midnight.

This time, though, it was Young who was center stage. He pitched the 12th, 13th and 14th, allowing zero hits, let alone runs. When Kansas City got a run in the bottom of the 14th, he was the winning pitcher.

As he watched, TigerBlog thought Young looked calm. Was he?

"Calm?" he said. "I'd say I was focused. Super focused. Just really locked in. I knew that if I gave up a run, we might lose. I needed to stay as focused as possible, concentrate on each pitch. I could not get caught up in the moment at all."

What about when it was over?

"No," he said. "I couldn't start to celebrate. I knew I had to pitch Game 4. I had to stay focused on that. I had to get ready for my start."

Game 4 was another turning point. Kansas City won the first two games and then lost Game 3. A loss in Game 4 and the series would be even, with Harvey, deGrom and Syndergaard all ready to go.

Young went four innings in Game 2, four strong innings in which he gave up only two runs and kept the Royals in it. Of course KC came back to win.

Finally, when the Series was over, Young could reflect on the moment. His baseball career appeared to be over after a series of injuries seemed to rob him of his ability to pitch, but he came back strong a year ago in Seattle. This year, he signed with Kansas City, a team that was on the verge a year ago, when the team lost in the World Series in seven games.

"I signed in 2000," he said, not that any Princeton basketball fan doesn't already realize that. "This goes back longer than that. This is something you dream about from the time you start playing. I think now that it's over, I'll be able to appreciate the magnitude of it much better."

Young, as TigerBlog has often said, is probably the most universally well-liked Princeton athlete in all the time TB has been around here. Part of that has to do with the fact that he couldn't play his final two basketball seasons after he signed his pro baseball contract, leaving TigerBlog and Princeton fans to wonder what he might have accomplished those last two seasons.

Most of it, though, is about the kind of person he is. TigerBlog hears this all the time from anyone who comes into contact with him that they are almost startled by how genuine a person he is.

And a loyal one.

"When we were in Toronto, I got an email from a Princeton alum in Kansas City wishing us well," he says. "I turned to Liz [his wife, a former Princeton women's soccer player] and said that with support like that, how can you fail? I've heard from so many Princeton friends. It's just such a great support network."

And now it has a World Series champion to call its own. Princeton had already had a Stanley Cup winner (George Parros), an NBA champ (Bill Bradley) and a Super Bowl champ (Bob Holly). Now it can add the World Series.

Chris Young is a World Series winner. And the winning pitcher in a World Series game.

Those are accomplishments that will never come off his resume.

Chris Young is a champion. On the field, and off.

It took 18 minutes to hear back from him. Less than 12 hours after he won the World Series.

What else needs to be said about him?


Anonymous said...

Great feature-length post. Thank you for thinking to reach out to Chris Young. Thanks as well to Young for, well, being awesome.

Anonymous said...

Great piece, great athlete, great man. Chris Young is a proud exemplar of the Princeton athlete. I am a diehard Mets fan, but it's impossible not to be happy for Chris Young and all that he has accomplished.