Delmon Young in Exile in Mexico

He was the No. 1 pick overall. People said he would be the LeBron James of baseball. Instead, Young became known for his violent temper and for being the anti-role model. How did a top prospect with such promise fall so far, so hard? And can he come back?
photo of Brandon SneedBrandon Sneed@@brandonsneedWriter-at-Large, B/R MagSeptember 24, 2018

He looks enormous, taking batting practice. At 6'4", there's a belly on him but plenty of muscle to go with it, a thickness that shows through his green T-shirt, gray shorts and desert-camouflage leggings. He's bigger than everyone else on the field. When he hits, it sounds like firecrackers going off. The field here in Puebla, Mexico, is standard size for a professional ballpark—325 feet down the lines, 387 in the gaps, 408 in center—but when this man hits, it looks smaller than that.

This is what you see when you encounter Delmon Young, the designated hitter and occasional right fielder for Pericos de Puebla in the Mexican Baseball League. You also see a 33-year-old who isn't where he's supposed to be. Fifteen years ago, he was the No. 1 draft pick, and people said he would be to baseball what LeBron James was becoming to basketball. The two athletes' trajectories couldn't have been more different. Where James became king of the NBA and a role model, Young was out of baseball by 2015, having earned a reputation for his violent temper. For throwing a bat at a minor league umpire in 2006. For fighting with tourists in New York City in 2012. For fighting with a valet in Miami in 2016. For the hate speech he used while fighting. For throwing away his talent. For being the anti-role model.

But looks are deceiving sometimes, history complicated. After batting practice, Young heads through a door in the back of the dugout, carrying his glove. A gift from an old friend and former teammate—a ballplayer drafted the same year as Young who went on to become what Young might have been. His name is still stitched on the gray leather with red letters. Adam Jones.

Climbing some steps and navigating a narrow hallway, Young passes under a couple of small statues: Virgin Marys, praying from nooks in the bricks, white paint peeling from the walls around them. Young passes a doorway without a door, behind which lies a small room with rusty weights and rickety equipment. After wrestling open a dirty sliding glass door, he walks into another room tucked under a metal staircase and falls onto a beat-up-looking brown leather couch. As we talk about life and baseball in Mexico, Young speaks thoughtfully, with a deep, clear voice. "Hey, it's baseball," he says. "Baseball's pretty fun."

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The more you talk with Young and get to know him—and especially the more you talk with other people who know him—it doesn't take long for the truth about him to become clear. "He fucked up," says Dr. Marcus Elliott, a friend and the owner of P3, a training center based in Santa Barbara. "There's no doubt. He should be held accountable. … But it's all a symptom of a guy who has some hard stuff, some heavy stuff, that he needs to process, and he's got no way to process it."

What happened to Delmon Young? How did the LeBron James of baseball fall so far, so hard?

Young grew up about an hour north of Los Angeles, in Camarillo. His father, Larry, was a former pilot in the U.S. Navy who flew fighter jets in the Vietnam War. His mother, Bonnie, was a special needs teacher for a local elementary school. Larry, who later became a commercial pilot, was also a taskmaster when it came to his son's baseball training. He forced young Delmon to do all manner of baseball drills, to take hundreds of swings every day in a batting cage installed in their backyard. Rain or shine. When Delmon wanted to quit, Larry pushed harder. Treated his son the way drill sergeants had treated him. And if Delmon started feeling good about himself, Larry broke him back down. Same as he'd always done for his older brother, Dmitri, who went on to be the No. 4 overall draft pick in 1991. They called it "Camp Larry."

Some days, Bonnie stepped in and ended things, ordering Larry to back off. There was no reason to do all that to their sons, she said. Larry would look at Delmon and tell him: "Your mom saved you."

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

This two-pronged—good cop, bad cop—approach was orchestrated. Calculated. Larry would tell Bonnie that he was "just getting in his face," and he wanted her to "you know, break it up." He wanted to prepare Delmon for the world and how the people living in it might treat him. And he wanted Bonnie to remind their boys that they were loved. "I wanted them to know that they had someone to protect them," Larry recalls.

The effect on Delmon was predictable. His mother, whom he loved dearly, was the one person in the world he trusted completely. Larry says he always loved Delmon, too, of course, but he felt as though Delmon wasn't comfortable talking with him about more emotional subject matter. Whenever she and Delmon would talk, Larry felt it was best for him to leave the room. "He talked to her about all emotional type things," Larry says. "He would only talk to me about baseball stuff. But he talked to her about girls and everything. Vulnerable things."

As Delmon grew older, his insatiable desire to perform up to expectations only got stronger.

When he was 13 years old, he began working with Craig Wallenbrock—the same renowned hitting guru now known for making Boston's J.D. Martinez one of baseball's most feared sluggers. Wallenbrock remembers Delmon being a talented and powerful young hitter—but also "tightly wound," he says. "He was an anxious guy."

Delmon worked with Wallenbrock until he was 18 years old and got drafted by the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2003. Then he began following the guidance of coaches on his professional teams.

Delmon's reputation for having a violent temper began to take hold in 2006. Young was already frustrated by other things. He'd wanted to make the majors by age 20, which didn't happen. Someone in the Devil Rays front office had told him to be more patient at the plate, so that's what he was working on that day. And then Delmon, being patient, was rung up on what was, objectively, a terrible call. He turned and yelled at the umpire on his way back to the dugout, and in his anger, he flipped the bat out of his hands. The bat went farther than he thought it would—it struck the umpire in the chest protector.

JOSEPH OLIVER/Associated Press

Delmon was, of course, immediately ejected. Afterward, sitting in the clubhouse, he was horrified, in disbelief at what had occurred. "I didn't mean to do that," he kept saying. He called his father, practically in tears. "I didn't mean to do that."

When he was suspended 50 games for the incident, he did not contest the ruling. Deeply private by nature, Delmon didn't want to talk to the media much about it. People close to him wished he would. Dr. Elliott calls this "part of his menace." Considering the public's perspective, Elliott says, "It makes these mistakes stick a lot harder than they would on someone else. You don't have a sense that there's a person there, you know? Because he doesn't open up to anyone."

Public opinion turned on Delmon, and as it did, his reputation started to look unfamiliar to those close to him. Kris Kasarjian, a financial planner in Los Angeles who has been a friend of Delmon's since they were nine years old, was skeptical about what he saw on television and read in papers and online articles. "The way he's portrayed is definitely not the Del that we know," he says. When Kasarjian was in college at UCLA, Delmon had randomly decided to pay off a few thousand dollars' worth of his parking tickets. And starting in 2006, he let Shawn Riggans—a friend of Delmon's since his earliest minor league days—and his wife live in a house he owned for two years, rent-free. The whole place to themselves, including internet, cable and a BMW in the garage.

After the 2006 debacle, Delmon seemed eager to prove that he wasn't who people thought he was. His agent connected him with a sports psychologist, Harvey Dorfman, who Delmon said helped straighten him out, showing Delmon that he was behaving, in Delmon's words, "like a little kid who wants something bad and doesn't get it."

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Delmon was called up to the majors for good in 2007 and played so well that he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. (Dustin Pedroia won it.) Delmon continued working with Elliott and his team at P3 during the offseason, driving an hour each way, every day. "He's showing up consistently. Not missing sessions. Which is kind of unusual for a pro athlete," Elliott says. "He was committed. And he got really athletic."

But Elliott also observed firsthand the amount of pressure Delmon put on himself. "He's wanted it really, really badly," Elliott says. He watched Delmon struggle with the pressure of what he was supposed to become. "He was tense," Elliott says. "Not in a way that you felt threatened. Or in a way you felt like he was tense because of you. It was just that he never seemed comfortable in his own skin. … He wasn't really one to joke about himself. It was kind of off limits. Maybe it was hearing too many critics. Maybe it was his inner critic."

At the same time, Delmon remained wary of revealing too much of himself. Elliott—as he does with most all of his clients—recommended that Delmon get an EEG reading of his brain. One of the more forward-thinking, unusual tools at P3, an EEG shows people how their brain is functioning by recording and quantifying their brain's electrical activity. This can help athletes such as Delmon better understand how their brain functions, much like watching video of himself taking batting practice shows him how to improve his swing. But Delmon wanted nothing to do with that. Elliott says, "He said he didn't want anybody looking in there."

When the Rays traded him to the Minnesota Twins that offseason, he was thrilled. It seemed as if this might be the fresh start he needed and that his days of having a short fuse might be over. His father, Larry, said at the time, "a light switch came on" and started calling him "the new Delmon."

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He had a solid season in 2008, too, batting .290 with 10 home runs, 28 doubles and 69 RBI. But then, Elliott says, somebody with the Twins told Delmon that he needed to bulk up—he needed to hit more home runs.

Looking back now, Elliott says, "I think that was kind of the start of it unraveling. … He went out and had a great year, and he felt like it wasn't enough."

So Delmon got bigger. Frustratingly so. "He was a pain in the ass to deal with that year," Elliott says. "Because he wanted to just get big. … He lost some athleticism. He got really tight through his shoulders."

Around the same time, Delmon began to withdraw from everyone who had made him who he was, from various friends to—especially—Larry, his father. "Delmon needed to go grow as a person," Elliott says. "And needed to create separation from his father, like most 15-year-olds do, but he's trying to do it at 22 or so. He really rejected his father. But that meant he lost his baseball coach while he was trying to become a whole person."

And then, in late December 2008, Delmon's mother, Bonnie, started feeling ill. Doctors initially treated her for a bladder infection for a couple of weeks in January, but that didn't help. On January 23, 2009, Bonnie underwent an endoscopic ultrasonography that revealed a tumor in her pancreas. After doctors at UCLA examined her during the first week of February, they scheduled surgery for Bonnie on February 11.

Delmon had to leave for spring training a week later. He didn't see her again until May. And by then, Bonnie was all but gone, little more than skin and bones.

"She had lost so much weight," Larry recalls. "Her face was just bony. … She was swollen from the waist down. She was retaining so much fluid."

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Delmon lay on the bed beside Bonnie. Covered his face with his hands. Cried.

"He would go up to his room," Larry says, "and he would come back, you know, almost a half a day later. And he would look in and see her. He would speak to her. And he'd try to stay in there. And then she would open her eyes for a moment, then she would just close 'em. Like she'd gone back to sleep. Then when she did that, he would leave. He wouldn't come back."

Bonnie died in their Camarillo home just a few days after that, on May 18, 2009. The night after her funeral, Delmon flew back to be with his team. "He didn't have a chance to grieve," Larry says.

After that, Delmon noticeably changed. He gained more weight. He drank. ("Self-medicated," says Elliott.) He wasn't as locked in, mentally. His friends and trainers grew worried. "He was pretty close to the margin of what he could deal with," Elliott says. "It was just building up—and those things tend to come out."

Injuries followed. His broken heart seemed to begin taking its toll on his body. Old ankle injuries that he had sustained in high school flared back up again repeatedly. During training sessions at P3, Delmon had to have Elliott and his crew carefully, tightly tape his ankles. "There was really no ankle range of motion," Delmon says.

And then there was his now-infamous self-destructive, violent behavior. In New York City in April 2012, with the third anniversary of his mother's death approaching, Young got into a drunken fight with some tourists at 2:30 a.m. and was arrested.

The way reports by outlets such as the New York Times and ESPN put it, Delmon was standing outside of the Hilton New York, not far from Times Square, when he saw four Chicago tourists speaking with a panhandler, who was wearing a yarmulke and Star of David necklace. Delmon started yelling anti-Semitic epithets at them. Police said it's not clear who Delmon was yelling at, but tensions rose between Delmon and the tourists. Reportedly, Delmon tussled with the tourists on the sidewalk and even tackled one of the men to the ground. They all ended up inside the hotel, police were called and Delmon was taken away.

Richard Drew/Associated Press

People close to Delmon insist that what was reported can't be the full story of what really happened. Riggans, who was a catcher for the Durham Bulls that night in 2006 when Delmon threw his bat, recalls reading a news report about Delmon's bad night in New York in disbelief. "It makes it sound that he's standing outside of the hotel there, sees a group of people and starts yelling at—like come on," he says. "Bullshit. I've known this guy for, gosh—now like 18, almost 20 years. I've never—not one time have I ever seen him just start calling somebody out. I've never seen him do that. Never. Not once. I can guarantee you, if he's standing out there in front of the team hotel, that that was not happen—. You don't just see a group of people in New York City and start yelling at them out of the blue. Let's be honest."

Riggans remembers Delmon telling him his side of what happened: "A group of guys came out," Riggans says. "They were saying stuff to him. They were egging him on and egging him on and egging him on. Obviously there was drinking involved, you know—it was later on at night, early in the morning. They had said a few things to him, and then I'm sure just got to a point where they said one too many things. He ends up getting into it with one of the guys, and that was it."

He was charged with a hate crime. He would later plead guilty to aggravated harassment for shouting the anti-Semitic slur and tackling the man. He was ordered to complete 10 days of community service and enroll in a restorative justice program that included participating in interactive workshops, videos, guided discussions on issues of prejudice, diversity and tolerance. He also was suspended from playing.

Still, Delmon managed to finish the 2012 season on a good note. The Tigers swept the Yankees in the ALCS and made it to the World Series. Delmon hit .353 with two home runs and six RBI over the four games and was named ALCS MVP. The Associated Press celebrated him as "finally playing up to his vast potential."

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After the season, however, Delmon needed surgery on his ankle. He was still in a lot of pain.

As the years passed by, Delmon became increasingly distant from friends and family. He didn't know how to bridge the gap between the public Delmon Young and the private Delmon Young. How could he do some of the things he'd done and still be a good enough man for Riggans and his wife to make him the godfather to their children? He contained multitudes, and he didn't particularly like some of the things he was. "That's been difficult for him, coming to that realization," says Kasarjian.

In 2013, Delmon moved to Miami—he was back with the Rays—and bought a condo at the Viceroy in Brickell, a neighborhood downtown. He kept the move mostly to himself. Some of his friends didn't know he'd left until he was gone. Others couldn't get in touch with him.

Delmon put together some good moments on the diamond, but he struggled to break through the way he felt he should have. "It seemed like he was always battling to get it back, even when he was playing well," Riggans says. "It was like they always were so quick to just give somebody else another opportunity, and he would just be there in case this didn't work out, then they'd plug him in. When he would start playing good, well then they'd bring somebody else. That gets frustrating. That really does. You get pissed off … and it can take away from your focus. In Major League Baseball, if you're not focused on playing the game … that might've played a role into how everything ended up playing out."

Delmon played his final major league season in Baltimore in 2015. He went down to the Dominican Republic during the winter, but the interest in him seemed to be waning. Major league teams didn't pay him much attention. Then, in February 2016—almost seven years to the exact day that Delmon had found out about Bonnie's cancer—he seemed to seal his fate when he got drunk and, on his way back to his condo at the Viceroy, allegedly choked and threatened to kill a valet who worked there.

"He doesn't show vulnerability to anybody," Elliott says. "And I think that inside, he was crushed, and he was crying."

Louis Lanzano/Associated Press

After the valet incident—a judge, according to TMZ, dropped the charges after the valet didn't show for court—Delmon cut off contact with most of his remaining friends. "He shut himself out from everybody," Kasarjian says.

Larry Young wonders how much he is to blame. He wonders if he pushed his boy too hard when he was young—he wonders if he should have shown him more love. "I don't know whether he feels that he can open up like that to me, you know?" Larry says. "If he feels vulnerable for something, he's not gonna say, 'Dad, I'm nervous about this—I don't think I can do this'—cuz growing up, I wouldn't accept that."

Years ago, Larry told Los Angeles Magazine that he believed "one day, Delmon will understand what I put him through, and he'll thank me." And Larry will tell you that Delmon has thanked him. But if you ask Delmon how grateful he feels now, he doesn't answer the question directly. "Every baseball dad that has a kid in the big leagues did the same stuff," he says.

Between his arrest in February 2016 and the summer of 2017, Delmon spent a lot of his time holed up in his downtown Miami condo. He lived as many young elite athletes worth millions of dollars do. And he spent most of his days sitting by the pool at the Viceroy. "He felt comfortable here," Riggans says.

Maybe it was distance, or solitude, or something else, Delmon changed during this time.

In July 2017, his phone rang. An old friend asked if he wanted to spend the winter playing for the Melbourne Aces in Australia. "I said sure," Delmon says. "I didn't even care what city."

He got into a routine again as he prepared. Weights in the morning. Drive to Broward County Community College 45 minutes away, and work out with Riggans, an assistant coach there. Then Delmon would go back to Brickell. Relax by the pool. Get dinner at the restaurant downstairs, Cantina La Veinte. Chill there until bed.

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As Delmon prepared for Australia, his friends say, he seemed to feel pangs of regret for the way he'd cut people out of his life. Before he left, Delmon called Kasarjian. "I'm sorry for the way I've treated you guys," he said. "I know you guys have always had my back and want what's best for me."

As they talked more, Kasarjian asked Delmon what had been going on with him.

"I'm a disappointment," Delmon said. "And I've let my dad down."

"Del," Kasarjian said, "your dad loves you. He just wants you to be happy and make sure you're OK. The mistakes are in the past. You've got to make sure that, in order to move forward, you've got to reach back out to your dad and bring your friends and family back into your life."

In Melbourne, it seems like Delmon rediscovered the good in people again—and the joy he could find with them. "Since we only played on weekends, you can go kind of explore," he says. "You live among the people. … And you meet a lot of cool people."

After Australia, before Puebla, Delmon played for another team in Mexico—Acereros de Monclova—but he didn't hit well. The team quickly released him, and he went back to California. Back to P3. Back to Craig Wallenbrock.

"I was actually a better hitter in high school than I was in pro ball," Delmon told him. "I want to get that swing back."

Wallenbrock noticed something was different about Delmon. "It was much easier to work with him," Wallenbrock says. "He's much more relaxed. Much more easygoing. He smiles a lot more."

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"He has experienced both success and failure," Wallenbrock adds. "He's learning from all the mistakes that he's made along the way. He has better control of himself—better knowledge of himself."

Marcus Elliott saw a shift in Delmon's personality too. He cracked jokes about himself. He was able to joke about his lack of mobility, the tightness of his shoulders and hips and his lack of agility. "He was starting to know himself," he says, "and be OK with who he was. … It's almost like he's gone through counseling."

It's too late for Delmon to have the career everyone thought he'd have, but sometimes—even if only for a moment—he can still be the ballplayer he should have been.

On a recent night, the stands were only half-full when Young stepped to the plate in the bottom of the seventh, but the stadium sounded packed. And loud: A band played behind the first-base dugout. Fans clanged and spun various vaguely musical instruments. The announcer egged everybody on. "Mas fuerte! Mas fuerte!" And a parrot mascot danced on the field wearing a shimmering purple cocktail dress. When Young ripped a fastball into left field with his easy, powerful swing, and a runner scored, the fans reacted like he'd won them the World Series. The parrot danced over to Young at first base and rubbed his shoulders.

Sitting on the old brown couch in Puebla's clubhouse, Delmon says he doesn't know if he's trying to make a comeback. "If someone calls, I'll go," he says. "Sure. But right now, just down here to play, work on some things, and have fun."

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Young finished the regular season batting .335 for Puebla, hitting 11 home runs and producing 56 RBI, third-most in the league and only four fewer than the league leader.

It's remarkable, the distortion that occurs in the world around him. The way the field looked smaller when he was taking batting practice. The way the couch looks smaller than it really is now. The way the phone in his hand looks like a toy for a baby. His hands are incredible. Enormous, powerful brown hands.

Whenever Puebla’s postseason ends, Delmon's next stop will be a winter ball league in Venezuela. Those who know the country—and most anyone following global politics lately—know how volatile the situation is down there. Someone mentions this to Delmon. The chaos. The violence. The danger.

Delmon shrugs. "That's what people say about Mexico."

Whatever happens, wherever baseball takes him next, he'll probably go back to California in between, same as he did earlier this summer when he found his best swing again. Back to his father. Back to his childhood home in Camarillo, where he stays when he's there. Back to the home with the batting cage in the backyard. The home where Bonnie died. Where he still can’t look too closely at his father’s pictures of her.

Brandon Sneed is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag and the author of Head In The Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Elite Athletes. His writing has previously appeared in Outside, ESPN The Magazine and more, and has received mention in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter: @brandonsneed.


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