From the time Delmon Young was in high school, as a standout player at Camarillo (Calif.) High, until last season when he finished the year in Triple-A and was Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year, scouts and managers alike have raved about his makeup.
Sure, Young had a cockiness about him, but he always backed everything up with his play on the field and his demeanor off it. His confrontation with an umpire this week, coupled with the incidents in Double-A last season, raise questions about his ability to keep his emotions in check, however.
"Delmon is an amazing talent as a baseball player," one Devil Rays official said. "But he just doesn't know how to deal with people very well. He's young, yes, but he's very arrogant and tends to really come across the wrong way in conversations sometimes."
So the last thing Young needs to get ready for the big leagues probably is not a physical skill, but rather maturity. After his Minor League Player of the Year performance last year, for example, Young focused not on the success of his season but on the Devil Rays' decision not to give him a September callup, calling the organization cheap.
"I don't think anybody in this locker room is feeling sorry for him," Devil Rays outfielder Aubrey Huff said at the time. "A lot of guys worked hard to get here. He rubbed a lot of people in here the wrong way. It was the wrong thing to say. He showed a little immaturity and that's why he's not here. It takes a lot of nerve to say the organization is cheap when you got $5.8 million (to sign)."
The Rays prospect with a more legitimate beef about still being in Triple-A is shortstop B.J. Upton. He was called up for 45 games in 2004, but he hasn't been back as the Devil Rays continue to hope he can polish his defensive skills enough to stay at shortstop. His offense is clearly big league-ready.
So Upton has sucked it up, spent all of 2005 at Triple-A and returned to Durham to start this season. And while Young has raised questions about his maturity at Durham, Upton has proven himself as a leader. After Young's ejection Wednesday night, Upton gave him an earful. Upton was on first base when the incident took place. Pawtucket lefthander Jon Lester picked him off soon after Young left the dugout, and Upton headed straight for the clubhouse.
"Upton was visibly upset and after he got picked off, and it was a beeline into the clubhouse after Young," an official from Pawtucket said. "He went in there and really read him the riot act."
Maybe that will do Young some good–whenever he plays again this season. International League president Randy Mobley has suspended Young indefinitely while he reviews the incident. For his play on the field, Young always been compared to Albert Belle. Now the comparison is becoming more valid–for all the wrong reasons.
Before this year's run-in, there were two incidents early last season, when Young was at Double-A Montgomery. After being called out on strikes for a third time in a 13-0 loss to Carolina, Young chest-bumped home-plate umpire Jeff Latter during a long argument. The feud carried over into the runway leading to the clubhouse after the game, and Young eventually received a three-game suspension. Just a week before the Carolina argument, Young was nearly ejected after being hit by a pitch by Barons righthander Dwayne Pollok. Young turned his back to the mound and flung his bat high in the air, and it landed about 20 feet from Pollok.
One explanation for those incidents shifted blame to Young's roommate in Montgomery last year, Elijah Dukes, another toolsy outfielder rising through the Devil Rays farm system. Unlike Young, however, Dukes' makeup has always been regarded as a negative. So some speculated that Dukes had rubbed off on Young.
But that isn't the case. Many people with the Durham club and the Devil Rays organization will tell you that the more personable and friendly of the two players is Dukes.
As they did with Dukes, perhaps the Rays will send Young to attend anger management classes, and maybe this incident eventually will be regarded as a positive part of his overall development. Or maybe this will further isolate Young.
But it's clear that Young needs to drop his belief that he belongs in the big leagues right now. No matter what his skills are on the field, it's more about his ability to handle himself in a professional manner, and his respect for others and for the game, that will determine when he's ready for prime time.