To many, Michael Young will never be remembered as the most beloved Texas Ranger, but he should be remembered as one of the greatest.
To pretend otherwise in the moment would be disingenuous: Michael Young will go down as very, very far from being my favorite Texas Ranger.
There was a brief moment in time when that wasn't true, though. In 2000, the Rangers were a team coming off consecutive division titles, and dealt one of their many almost-worthless stating pitchers -- in this case Esteban Loaiza -- for an almost-worthless Toronto middle infield prospect. At the time, Young had most recently managed an .818 OPS as a 22 year old in high A. He managed to keep that same level of success with a promotion each year, which means he was surviving, but never becoming a significant prospect. You will notice, for example, his name never showed up on a Baseball American top 100 list.
2001, then, marked the year one of the greatest to ever play for the franchise came on the scene, and we all knew it. It just wasn't who we expected. In late May of Alex Rodriguez's first year in Texas, Michael Young was called up to fill in at second base, and became a fixture of the team for the next decade.
In this time, I loved him. There was no aura of expectation. There was no pomp and circumstance. There was no swirling talent. There was just a scrappy middle infielder who seemed to take being a good baseball player very seriously, and was already doing more than expected. He didn't smash the ball hard, he didn't run around fast, he didn't strike out, he simply put his bat on the ball and put it in play. By year three he was hitting .300. By year four, he was an All-Star volunteering to take over at shortstop, since he was still there and A-Rod wasn't. Hank Blalock made us all sad, but in the midst of complete failure as a franchise, Michael Young could win a batting title and give a glimmer of talent to a sad organization.
Then, Michael Young was my favorite baseball player.
This was a time where terms like "lunch pail" and "blue collar" and "grit and hustle" still meant something. To many of those reading this right now, they probably meant something to you, too. At some point, you thought about it, and realized they didn't mean anything useful. A guy tries hard and plays beyond his given talent. That's cool, that's fun to watch, but does it make him more valuable than his production actually states?
To the Texas media, and a large portion of the fan base, it sure did. Around this same time, many of us started noticing the value of avoiding outs; Michael Young sure was good at getting base hits, but his OBP wasn't exactly incredible. Simply putting your bat on the ball and putting it in play was only a part of where value came from. He also seemed to let a whole lot of balls get past him in to the outfield that those other guys seemed to get to, and these new fangled defensive metrics seemed to agree. Oh, and if Texas is a great place to hit, that probably means his offense isn't really as good as it looks at face value, right?
The media didn't care. He was gritty. He hustled. He was the Face of the Franchise. He was the Rangers' Derek Jeter. The more I began to understand that Michael Young was nothing more than a solid-to-good player -- understandably more than he was supposed to be, and that's great -- the more I started not to be able to stand that treatment.
Then, I was pretty underwhelmed by Michael Young.
Of course, none of these things are Young's fault, but it doesn't give him much of a cushion when he actually does something. Like when his defense starts to become maddening to watch. Or when he publicly complains and demands a trade when asked to move so a young stud can help make the team better. Or when he publicly complains and demands a trade when asked to spend less time in the field, since he shouldn't actually own a glove. Or when he says he won't lose any sleep over a costly error in an ALCS loss.
In the mean time, the people around the game started making it even harder to tolerate. The managers gave him an undeserved Gold Glove. A local writer gave him a first place MVP vote in a year that he was merely a good DH. The media retroactively painted his move to third base as some sort of selfless leadership. The team gave him a drastically out-of-proportion contract. When his skills rapidly declined, his manager defiantly insisted on playing him every day, even though his team likely would have made the playoffs had they merely replaced Young with the typical Major League scrub. He could do no wrong, despite the fact that he very much did wrong.
Then, I hated Michael Young as much as probably anyone who has eve played for a favorite team.
Outside of Troy Hambrick. Troy Hambrick gets a special kind of hate.
Yet, despite all those things, there was also a respect for Michael Young, because, while he was not what the media claimed him to be, he was still a good bat from positions where offense is valuable, for a franchise without a particularly rich history, right up until 2012.
We all know Young's dominance on the Texas Rangers' offensive leader boards (go here if you don't). Yes, many have stopped through Texas and had greater seasons. For instance, Young does not have one single season in the top 50 WAR years for the franchise on either Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs. Unlike Juan Gonzalez or Alex Rodriguez or Josh Hamilton or Rafael Palmeiro, though, Michael Young has been here for a long haul. He has very rarely been actually bad; always at least adequately productive until the end, and always healthy enough to make his name a fixture in the franchise's history.
And he was always a Ranger. He didn't have stints elsewhere, he wasn't a hired mercenary, he wasn't a brief stopover. He was a Texas Ranger. For other franchises, this is meaningless, but in the case of our little franchise this is rare and special. Ivan Rodriguez stands alone at the top of the Ranger pantheon, but Young's name -- love or hate -- should belong there in the conversation of who slots behind him. You can decide individually if you value those peak seasons or how much you value iconic name value, but a case can be made (and so could one against, to be fair) that this weekend marked the departure of the second greatest Ranger in the team's history.
That is someone who, in an ideal world, would never have been anything but a Ranger. He should have been able to finish his career here gracefully, and retired. Instead, the Rangers were pushed to a position where they needed to part ways with an icon to improve the franchise. Young could have been a solid -- though expensive -- right-handed bench bat, but Ron Washington would never allow him to be just that, and the franchise values Washington too much to tell him what to do or fire him over it. The 2013 team is improved, by the dismissal of a player I've come to dislike.
So it is probably weird that the main thing I feel is sadness. I never hated Young the way, say, I hated Bret Boone. Young was not a villain in the dramatic world of sports, he was more like that relative you don't get along with and who everyone else thinks walks on water. You don't want to spend time with him, but he's still family. Young is Ranger family, and produced more for the franchise than all but a select few ever have. This was a relationship of love and hate. Hate for how he was treated, and some of what he wasn't, but love for many of the positive things he was. It's sad he has to leave under these circumstances, it's sad his last year will be such a black mark on his record, and it's sad he never got a ring in Texas.
I know you will never read this, Michael Young, but, all the same, I'm sorry I was never your biggest fan, but thank you for bringing more to my favorite team than I ever expected you could. The good times were good, and in the end, that's what matters.
God speed, and good luck in Philadelphia.