CLEARWATER — Three months after Delmon Young experienced his career high point, earning ALCS MVP honors for the Tigers in helping sweep the Yankees, he returned to New York in January for a humbling low.
Young, 27, the Phillies' new rightfielder, dragged a garbage can around Central Park, picking up dog feces with others in a court-ordered community service program. It was part of a sentence he agreed to when pleading guilty in November to aggravated harassment for shouting an anti-Semetic slur and tackling a man to the ground outside a Manhattan hotel last spring.
"People look at you funny because they're trying to question what you did to have community service," said Young, the first overall pick in the 2003 draft by the Rays. "It was cold out, and people don't clean up after their dogs. People left cigarette butts, syringes on the ground. I don't ever want to do that again."
Young said his arrest in April served as a needed "wake-up call," giving him perspective. He knows it's part of the reason, along with a right ankle microfracture surgery that will sideline him past opening day, he had to wait until January to find a job — and had to take a $6 million pay cut to sign a one-year deal worth just $750,000 guaranteed.
But Young doesn't want to be defined by the much-publicized event, or any other such as the 2006 minor-league incident when he threw his bat and hit an umpire. He says he's not a bigot or a bad guy; he just put himself in a bad situation and made a mistake.
"Just because a 16-year-old kid drank for the first time and started to drive and made a bad decision, doesn't mean he's a drunk," Young said. "Stuff happens, but it's what you do after."
He insists he has not just changed his diet, saying he's down to 228 pounds. Before taking the chance, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro, whose mother is Jewish, consulted with a metro-Detroit rabbi that Young developed an unlikely bond with after the incident.
"He's very remorseful, very apologetic for what happened," said Rabbi Joshua Bennett of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Mich. "The first thing he said to me is he grew up in a mixed community, many of his best friends and agent and owners of teams are Jewish people. He said, 'I'd have to be an idiot if I was going to play the role of an anti-Semite,' and he's not.
"One thing he shared is, you can make your opinion about him as a baseball player, call him a 'hothead' or a guy who has screwed up a couple times. But one thing he's so concerned about is he doesn't want anyone to say he's a bad human being, because he's really not."
Bennett, 45, a lifelong Tigers fan and longtime season ticket holder, said he was "living a dream" when his passion and professional world collided.
He admitted he was skeptical when, after Young's arrest, the Tigers asked if he'd take a call from the controversial outfielder.
"I was concerned it was going to be a media-PR play, 'Delmon reaches out to a rabbi and everything goes away,' " Bennett said. "At some level, there was truth to that. But what ensued was a really respectful conversation and ultimate relationship that has continued into this year."
Though Bennett said there was initial outrage in the Jewish community, he told Young there's a clear value in Judaism for repentance and second chances. In their monthly chats, they discussed spiritual growth and leadership. Young, who appreciated the fact Bennett treated him "like a man," invited the rabbi's two sons, Zach, 10, and Jacob, 7 to visit him in the Tigers clubhouse.
Said Bennett: "I don't know who was having more fun with it, me or my kids."
Young is comfortable, not only in his own skin, but with what he believes is a Phillies team that's "built to win right now."
He said he feels fortunate to have been in the playoffs each of the past four years, with the Twins and Tigers, and rattles off all the Cy Young winners and MVPs he has played with, from Joe Mauer to Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera.
Before a recent workout, Young pointed around the locker stalls of the Phillies stars and Cy Young winners, from Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley to Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.
"We've all got stories," said Young, who played two big-league seasons for the Rays before being traded to the Twins after the 2007 season. "The one thing in common is everyone wants to get better, everyone wants to win."
The Phillies want to get more out of Young, a slugger who hasn't played rightfield since 2007. Young is excited for the opportunity, believing that with a healthy ankle he can make the transition, even if he's not ready until later in April.
He flips through his phone to show his nutrition program, which can improve his waistline and wallet ($600,000 in weight-related incentives). Young admits he has something to prove, just like the underdog Phillies.
"You want to come back in 10, 20, 30 years from now when they're celebrating their team of 2013," Young said. "Philadelphia has only had two (championship) teams that are going to be able to come back every anniversary. I'd like to be on the third one."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.