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Young will be missed, just not on diamond

| Sunday, June 29, 2003

PITTSBURGH - One look around the Pirates clubhouse Sunday and it was obvious something was missing.

Or someone.

Kevin Young, who had been with the organization for the better part of 13 years, was released late Saturday night. By the end of the Bucs 9-0 win over Colorado Sunday afternoon, the first baseman's locker stall had been cleared out, his name on the jamb, a few empty hangars and a black-and-white photo of a smiling Jackie Robinson the only physical indications of its occupation.

His infectious personality will take a bit longer to drive out.

"He was one of my good friends and he always will be until I'm dead," Pittsburgh catcher Jason Kendall said. "People get released, people get sent down, that's the nature of the beast and that's how the business works. But I'll miss him."

As a person, Young was one of the more affable players ever to don a Pirates uniform. He always took time out to answer questions, including the tough ones last season when there was talk of a strike by major-league players and he was the team's union representative. In addition, he made himself available to young prospects and helped indoctrinate them to life in 'The Show.'

"He was a guy who always made time for me," Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson said. "It's especially hard on me and he's definitely going to be missed."

Young's heart and determination are unquestioned. He suffered through numerous physical maladies, including several knee operations, that hampered his abilities in recent years. He very rarely bent down to pick anything from the floor and was forced to sit in a chair to even put on his uniform pants. Still, his limitations didn't take away from his defense and he is regarded as one of the best fielding first basemen in baseball.

Despite being one step from physically handicapped, Young still had a smile painted on his face. Even when he was booed by the fans after making comments about the team's sagging attendance at three-year-old PNC Park. Even when getting ready for a game was torture. Even when he knew he would take the brunt of people's ire for making $6.4 million this season for a team in the throes of its 11th straight losing season. Even when his brother was in an undetermined location fighting the war in Iraq and he didn't know whether his sibling was alive or dead, Young still found time to smile.

His positive outlook on the future of this franchise was a sweet-smelling breeze on many days when foul moods and festering attitudes seeped out of locker stalls like the stench of a backed up sewer.

But a warm smile and an infectiously upbeat attitude in the clubhouse wore thin when Young could only produce a .202 batting average with two homers and seven runs batted in this season. It had become clear watching his numbers dwindle from career highs in 1997 when he hit 27 homers and drove in 108 RBI to last season and his 16 homers and 51 RBI. His batting average has consistently fallen from a career-best .300 in 1996 to .232 in 2001 and .246 in 2002.

Even so, it wasn't easy to part ways with a player who spent 12 of the last 13 years in the Pirates' organization and had literally given himself, body and soul, to the game.

"It's always difficult to break that kind of news to people that you like and you care for," Pirates manager and Young's former teammate Lloyd McClendon said. "If Kevin Young was a bad person, it wouldn't be that hard of a thing to do. The fact is, he is a good person, so you deal with that and you move on."

This was not a budget cut by a financially foundering franchise. It was a move based upon talent slippage, pure and simple.

"We are responsible for his salary the rest of the year," Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield said. "By releasing him, we do not recoup any of that because it's a guaranteed contract."

Though it seems unlikely for a first baseman who can't hit, has problems running and is unable to play every day, Young could still latch on with another team and finish out his career somewhere else. It would not be a surprise however if, somehow, Young found his way back to the Pirates after he retires. He would be a great role model for young players and a tremendous coach teaching defensive fundamentals.

It would also replace something intangible which will be absent from the Pirates clubhouse for a long time to come.

Keith's Korner is written by Leader Times Sports Editor Keith Barnes, who can be reached for comment at kbarnes@tribweb.com.

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