Young set to ease outsized concerns

Young ready to ease outsized concerns

BALTIMORE -- Fans who wander down to Eutaw Street during an Orioles home game can easily distinguish the southern-rooted scent of Boog's Barbeque and its prodigious creator, Boog Powell, who, in a previous life, whipped balls all over Memorial Stadium with his brute strength and bulky frame.

When asked about mammoth rookie Walter Young, Powell looked over at Young's locker in the Orioles clubhouse and said, "I don't know too much about him, but he's a big man. That's for sure."

Powell is more than ready to step aside and make room for one more beefy slugger on the Orioles' mantle. At 6-foot-4, 270 pounds, Powell was considered monstrous in his prime. The 25-year-old Young, who made his debut Tuesday as the heaviest listed player in Major League history, is 6-foot-5 and 322 pounds, probably raising the eyebrow of Ravens coach Brian Billick, who could use some help on his defensive line.

But Young is purely a baseball player. He showed that seven years ago when he spurned a football scholarship from Louisiana State University to sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates as their 31st-round pick.

"That was the toughest decision in my life," Young said. "But baseball has always been my first love. I wanted to play."

And he's trying to display his talents to a leery organization and fanbase, some of whom strictly perceive Young as a baseball circus act, a gargantuan man who can knock the ball into Boog's Barbeque stand but little else.

There are as many questions surrounding Young as he spends the final three weeks of this season in an Orioles' uniform. There are those who wonder whether he can be a productive Major League player at his size, and whether he is strictly a designated hitter or potential first baseman.

With Rafael Palmeiro more than likely gone after this season, the Orioles have a void at first base that could be filled -- no pun intended -- by Young. But he has to prove this month and in Spring Training next season he can play at this level.

"The biggest thing he needs to do is hit, not necessarily just for power, although we expect that," executive vice president Jim Beattie said. "We want Walter to hit to all fields and become a hitter. The power, I wouldn't expect it come right away, but I know it's there."

Young set a club record for Double-A Bowie by hitting 33 home runs in 2004, raising expectations for a colossal season for Triple-A Ottawa. He had a solid campaign, hitting .288 with a team-leading 81 RBIs, but only hit 13 home runs. Young has proven in the Minors that he can excel as an everyday player, but there remains skepticism because of the rarity of his size.

Orioles designated hitter Alejandro Freire watched Young all season in Ottawa and can attest to his athleticism. On one cool afternoon early in the season, the two stocky men decided to have a race to determine who was fastest -- or, in this case, slowest.

The consensus was that Young won the race, although Freire vehemently disagrees.

"Everybody says he beat me to make me mad -- I beat him, but it was close," Freire said. "He's pretty athletic. He's just a big guy but he's awesome. He's a great hitter and he's still learning, but definitely, he's a big league player."

The Orioles claimed Young off waivers in October 2003 from the Pirates. He immediately drew comparisons to former Oriole Calvin Pickering, who, at 6-foot-5 and 275-plus pounds, was considered a potential cornerstone but flamed out after just 61 at-bats between 1998 and '99.

Unfair or not, many Orioles fans look at Young -- another large, left-handed hitter -- and see Pickering seven years later. But the perception of Pickering in those days was that his ego matched his frame, and there were also concerns about his work ethic.

Teammates and coaches characterize the Mississippi-born Young as a vigorous worker who simply, in the words of Lou Rawls, is "a big ol' country boy."

"I have had weight issues since I was born," Young said. "And I know I have to do something about it. I want to lose as much weight as I can so I can be productive in the Major Leagues. I want going to work harder than ever this offseason."

Powell, who won the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 1970 at nearly 280 pounds (and some estimate near 300) said Young doesn't necessarily need to lose weight as long as he hones his craft to quiet the critics.

"Whatever it is you do, you've got to do it well because if you don't do it well, the first thing they are going to say is you're too fat," Powell said. "That's just the way it is. I had some great years weighing the same thing I did after the bad years. If you do what you're supposed to do, nobody cares what you weigh. There's nothing wrong with being Mr. America, but pretty don't count. It's what you do on the field."

Beattie said that the Orioles will stress a rigorous offseason conditioning program for Young. Then again, they did the same thing last year. "It's going to be an ongoing battle," said Beattie of the club's attempt to slim down its young first baseman.

Young said he plans to play winter ball in Venezuela and also work harder to trim down to be more flexible at first base. But interim manager Sam Perlozzo and first base coach Dave Cash, who played with such husky sluggers as Dave Parker and Greg Luzinski, said Young is going to earn his keep in the Majors by hitting, and nothing else.

"He's not going to be a base-stealer," Perlozzo said. "Walter's going to need to hit. His worth is going to be where he can swing the bat. I don't think that's a big secret."

As the Ottawa bench coach, Cash watched Young every day until he became the Orioles first base coach in August.

"The question is whether Walter can handle Major League pitching. It's anybody's guess, but he has skills," Cash said. "I think he's going to be able to hit. He has good hands, he's strong and he's determined. He's going to get an opportunity to be successful at this level. It all depends on how fast he matures, how quickly he learns and how quickly he makes adjustments."

So Young's future appears to be in his enormous hands. He seeks to erase any stereotype that he's purely a power hitter with nothing else to offer. He hungers for the opportunity to wow fans with his athleticism and abilities and he intends to approach this task with respect and humility.

"The one thing you remember is that you have a job to do," he said. "If I get a pitch to drive and hit a homer, that's good. But if I get a base hit, that's also good. I know people look at me and say 'What's this guy doing playing baseball?' But I go out there and let my actions and let my play prove the rest. It's about proving to myself and this organization that I can play."

Gary Washburn is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.