Christian Young approached adulthood backward, in a way, because he selected his path long before reaching the proverbial fork in the road. His decision was made. He was going to play college baseball. For him, it meant getting his life in gear before school rather than the other way around.
Two years ago, he appeared destined to become another cautionary tale about a promising athlete who faded into obscurity. What a waste that would have been if he continued down a road for which he seemed headed, a road without discipline and focus, a road filled with potholes, a road to nowhere.
He spent the summer after his senior year bumming around Hamburg with no real sense of direction. He played travel baseball in Western New York and softball games with his father’s buddies in Canada. From a distance, he appeared to choose the path of least resistance, like many underachievers before him.
“I didn’t do too well in high school,” Young said Monday. “I couldn’t have gone to some big college. When most people heard about me not going to school after high school, they thought, ‘Here’s this baseball player with some kind of talent and he’s not doing anything.’ Everyone thought I wasn’t going to do anything with my life.”
Young, a freshman at Niagara County Community College, is back in school after a year off from academics. The cold truth is that the classroom to him was a necessary evil and never his favorite place. School isn’t for everyone, but NCCC offered courses in a particular trade that suited him.
“I had a plan for myself,” he said. “Most people didn’t listen or didn’t care, but it was going to happen. Now that the time has come, I’ve been working an unreal amount. Everything is pulling together and working out better than I expected.”
Yes, you could say things are working out just fine.
Less than two years removed from high school and without one full college season behind him, Young is expected to be picked in the Major League Baseball draft in June. The same easygoing, lanky kid who threw 85 mph as a senior in high school unearthed a fastball that’s been clocked in the 95 mph range.
Indeed, life can throw you a curve. He has gone from not knowing exactly where he was going to going somewhere he never imagined. Count me among the people who feared the worst. Other than his 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame and strong arm, there were only flashes of the pitcher you see today.
Young has become an example of what can happen when someone becomes fully intent on maxing out his ability. He refused to make excuses when it would have been easy. He made sacrifices and worked hard when it would have been simple to quit. It’s a testament to resiliency and resourcefulness that even he didn’t know existed.
“He just needed a chance in life,” NCCC coach Matt Clingersmith said. “Now he’s getting that opportunity. It’s like the ‘Blindside’ story. We knew he could be something special. He just needed to play. I knew he had it in him. We just needed to get him here and have him develop.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve known Young since he was 12. He played baseball with my oldest son through middle school and high school at Frontier. He was a courteous and respectful kid, certainly, but he clearly needed support and guidance while growing up in a disjointed family.
If most people who knew Young didn’t fully understand his potential, his own parents had almost no idea. His mother struggled to make ends meet and missed a majority of games. His father lived in Canada and watched him play when he had time, more so in recent years. Usually, Young was a quiet kid making it work on his own.
Young found rides to summer games. Other parents and coaches helped along the way. Everyone offered encouragement. Many offered counsel and direction. He was named first-team all-division as a senior at Frontier, but it was hard to envision him going anywhere far based on the evidence.
He threw a flat fastball that was sure to get belted in college. He struggled in school. He didn’t take the SATs because he forgot to bring identification needed for entry. It was no big deal because he didn’t expect to fare well, anyway. He plodded through high school and blew off the graduation ceremony.
After high school, in part because he felt like a financial burden to his mother, he moved from Hamburg to Angola into a home with the family of his younger half-brother. Charles Hassell and Judy Clark had no direct obligation to Young, but they welcomed him and helped him execute his master plan.
“Chuck raised me before he and my mother split up,” Young said. “They’re incredible people. The family, they took me in and treated me like one of their own. I can’t tell you how much they meant to me. They simplified everything.”
In the year after high school, while his classmates were going to college, Young worked part-time in the frozen food and dairy departments at Tops Markets in Derby. He kept himself in shape, put away half of his paycheck every week and saved up enough money to help pay for community college.
It was enough to get him back to school and involved with the baseball program under Clingersmith and pitching coach Brandon Bielecki, both of whom believed he had untapped potential. Young started working out with heavy rubber bands and weighted baseballs that were designed to build arm speed and strength.
In no time, he was throwing between 89-91 mph.
Clingersmith made a video that he sent to the Major League Baseball scouting bureau before NCCC traveled to Florida for spring ball. Young continued adding velocity to his fastball. He threw 94 mph down south, drew the attention of scouts and continued to maintain his velocity before reaching a high of 95 mph.
“It was crazy,” Young said. “I wasn’t expecting that at all. We came back from winter break, and it kept getting more and more mind-blowing. I couldn’t believe it. These guys are telling me in Florida that it was 94-95. I was like, ‘No way.’ My jaw was hanging. It was ridiculous. It’s still crazy to me.”
Sure enough, six professional scouts showed up for the home opener and saw much the same under cold and windy conditions. Word traveled quickly, of course, and about two dozen scouts have watched him light up radar guns while trying to figure out his potential. Now, you wonder if 100 mph is within reach.
Young always had a good curveball, but it’s become more effective when complementing his newfound heat. He’s always had good control, too, evidenced this year by 22 strikeouts and only three walks in 14 1/3 innings. He’s 3-0 with a 2.51 ERA for NCCC, which is 20-4 this season.
“There’s something special in this kid,” Clingersmith said. “We have a special place for him. He goes down as one of my favorites in my book. You really pray that he keeps doing what he’s doing. I don’t want to jinx it, but there’s a 99 percent chance that he’s getting drafted.”
If things continue as planned, Young will be faced with another life decision. Does he take the money and opportunity that comes with a professional contract or does he continue paying tuition while playing in college? He’s doing fine in school, by the way, and he could stay at NCCC for another year.
Ninety-nine times out of 100, my advice would be to stay in college. In his case, knowing the person involved and potential options, it’s one time a player seems better suited for the former. The best thing about the split in the road this time is that he’s holding the fork. Look what happened the last time he took a stab.
“I thought about it multiple times,” Young said. “I knew I had some talent with baseball, and I couldn’t let it go to waste. After high school, my plan was to come back to school and get everything going again. Any little bit of help that I had really helped. Everything has been coming together.”