On a winter morning this offseason, in an affluent neighborhood of Dallas, Clayton Kershaw stood on a high school baseball field and sought an explanation for the baseball riddle standing before him.
Kershaw was curious and intrigued, and well, who wouldn’t be? For the last two years, as Kershaw cemented his status as the best pitcher in the world, a modern-day Koufax in Los Angeles, he had tracked the career of Chris Young, a 6-foot-10 right-hander who had once starred at Highland Park High School, his alma mater.
Kershaw had watched Young confound major-league hitters using the simplest of formulas — an 86-mph fastball and an 80-mph slider — and he had witnessed him win a World Series championship with the Royals last October, and as a student of the craft, he watched it all with a certain degree of wonder.
“There’s something about him,” Kershaw says, “that makes him tough to hit.”
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Kershaw is not the first person in baseball to have this feeling about Chris Young, and he will not be the last. But if he was going to unearth any secret, it was going to come this winter, during morning throwing sessions at Highland Park High School. Young, 36, was spending his first offseason back home in Dallas after eight years in San Diego. Kershaw, 27, invited him to join a group of big-league pitchers that included Drew Smyly and Jamey Wright.
The group met four or five days per week, and Young followed a daily routine: He would wake up early, help three young kids off to school, and head to the gym for a brief workout. When that was done, he would arrive to the field at Highland Park, where he once led the school to the state championship.
Kershaw remembers the state title, in part, because he didn’t win one. But as the days passed, and the throwing sessions piled up, Kershaw says he began to understand something else. Young may have a fastball that resides in the 80s, but his throws explode into your glove.
“You see the life,” Kershaw says. “That’s where he makes his living.”
The idea of ‘life’ is a technical term, and it is an elusive conception, even in baseball circles. There is no perfect scientific reason for why Young’s fastball appears to sneak up on hitters. Some believe it’s the height, that his length causes his release point to be closer to home plate. Others hypothesize about the way he hides the baseball during his wind-up. Young says simply that he loves to study the spin on other pitcher’s four-seam fastballs, Kershaw included.
“There are some similarities in terms of style,” Young says. “Maybe not stuff — but style.”
Nobody would confuse Kershaw, a hard-throwing southpaw, for the lanky Young. But in the span of one offseason, Kershaw learned an important lesson about his neighbor in Dallas: To fully appreciate what he does, it’s best to have an up-close view.
“He just has an incredible ability,” Kershaw says.
More than anyone, the Royals learned this lesson in 2015. After signing the veteran pitcher to a one-year, $675,000 contract last March, Young repaid their belief with a 3.06 ERA in 123 1/3 innings. He served as a trustworthy swingman during the season, stabilizing the rotation. He held down the No. 4 starter spot in October, saving the Royals once more with three scoreless relief innings in Game 1 of the World Series.
When the season was over, general manager Dayton Moore said Young was arguably the MVP of the Royals’ pitching staff.
“In all my years,” Royals manager Ned Yost says, “he is in the top echelon in terms of competitors.”
In most ways, the relationship was an ideal fit. And when Young reached free agency following the season, he jumped to sign a two-year, $11.5 million deal to return to Kansas City.
The city, Young says, feels like a second home now, and after the events of 2015, he feels tethered to it forever. When spring training began last year, he sat at home with no major-league job offers. In the next nine months, he won a world championship, reinvigorated his career and found an organization that appreciated his gifts.
And he did it all while suffering the greatest loss of his life.
Last summer, with the Royals in the heart of the pennant race, Young and his wife Elizabeth relocated their young family’s home base back to Dallas. The timing was simple, Young says. The parents wanted their kids to be ready to start school in the fall. Young, however, was already making other plans.
For most of the last decade, he had spent the offseason in San Diego. He was excited to move home and spend more time with his father, Charles, who was batting cancer. They would catch up over lunches, bond with the grandkids, and otherwise make up for lost time. Then came a call in late September.
Nearly a month after the family moved home, Charles Young died on a Saturday night. Young pitched the next day, throwing five no-hit innings. As the Royals played into October, Young carried his father’s memory with him. When he returned home this offseason, the grieving process continued.
“Dad has always been there,” Young says. “Being home without him was certainly different. There were so many things and places that triggered memories of him. Whether it was parks where I used to play.”
One morning this offseason, Young drove past a local batting cage where his father would take him to work on his swing. During the morning workouts at his old school, his mind wandered to the Highland Park football team.
“My dad loved going to high school football games,” Young says.
When Young arrived to spring training, he realized it would be another first. Even during spring training, he says, his father and him would share daily conversations. Most years, Young says, his father would come down to see him pitch.
In some ways, Young says, he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of grieving in public. He is, by nature, a private person. His heart hurt in ways one can’t imagine.
But in the weeks after his father died, Young said he began to hear from fans and others who had recently lost loved one. He read stories. He heard the messages. He shared in the pain. The exercise offered some solace, he says.
“Life doesn’t stop, and you have to keep going,” Young said. “I felt a responsibility to my teammates. And not letting that impact the way we were trying to achieve our goals.
“If it was inspirational to one other person out there, and helped them overcome something that was difficult in their lives, I’m happy it could be a source of inspiration for them.”
One year later, Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland is still baffled. How could 29 other teams look at Chris Young and deem him not worthy of a major-league contract?
“I’m sure a lot of teams are regretting it,” Eiland says. “But I don’t really care about them.”
The story is well told by now, of course. In 2014, Young posted a 3.65 ERA in 30 games for the Seattle Mariners, earning AL Comeback Player of the Year honors. Yet by early March, he didn’t own a single major-league contract offer. A few teams had offered minor-league deals, but Young wasn’t ready to concede. He believed he was worthy of a big-league contract.
A few days later, the Royals came forward with an offer for a major-league deal, and Young gladly accepted. But the slight stayed with Young for the rest of 2015.
“Honestly, it was on my mind every time I was on the mound last season,” Young says. “There were 29 other teams that passed on me. I used it as motivation. I wanted to show them what they missed out on. I used that every time I took the ball, from the beginning of the season to the World Series.”
The memory lingered into the offseason, as he prepared to enter free agency again. The Royals were the organization that believed in him. If it was possible, he wished to return.
“That was everything,” he says.
As the 2016 season approaches, Young will likely begin the season in the starting rotation. It’s possible he could spend part of the season in the bullpen, replicating his role from last year. Young says he has no preference.
When he takes the mound this season, he will unleash his familiar arsenal, throwing 86-mph fastballs and spinning disappearing sliders. He will carry the slights of the past, and he will carry the memory of his father, and as long as he is able to pitch, he says, he will be content.
“I’ve been a starter my whole career,” Young says. “But I signed to win another world championship.”