Matthew Young no longer concerns himself with the sound of bullets piercing the night air. These days, baseball’s summer soundtrack is most prominent in his life.
Growing up in Moreno Valley, Calif., and then attending Compton Community College in Los Angeles, the State College right fielder has experienced life in a way few minor leaguers have.
In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say baseball saved his life.
“No, not at all,” Young said. “Baseball definitely saved my life because I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t doing this. I’d be at home just being young and wild I guess. I’d probably be dead or in jail to be honest.”
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Young, 22, admits Moreno Valley, just more than 60 miles from L.A., isn’t exactly where the mind drifts when thinking of California violence, but with a solemn face he revealed a different truth.
“Whenever you went out as a teenager, the only ways parties ended were either a fight or a shootout,” Young said. “So I’ve seen people get shot. I’ve seen people lose their lives. I’ve had (stray) bullets whiz passed me — I’ve seen a lot.”
From that harsh reality arose a young man determined to transcend.
On Friday, Young played with a heavy heart on the anniversary of his mother’s passing from breast cancer. On Saturday, he honored her — Renee Joy Young — during Paint the Park Pink Night at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, a place that juxtaposes sharply with where he grew up.
Take the steady buzz from cheering fans or the popping mitt after it envelopes an incoming fastball and mix it with the on-field chatter from teammates and you get music to Young’s ears.
“It’s much better than hearing gunshots,” he said with a chuckle. “Hearing that bat crack every day is surreal. I knew I had a chance to play pro ball but you never know what’s going to happen. So hearing that sound is much better than anything else.”
An early life that included death, violence and a brief bout of homelessness nearly derailed everything. So too did a friend’s invitation, which Young declined, that ultimately ended in murder.
With eyes that witnessed unimaginable violence and watched as loved ones passed away, Young struggled early to steady his gaze on the future.
“He was a troubled young man,” said J.R. Harry, Young’s mentor and former coach. “His father wasn’t around and his mother was sick so he was pretty much raising himself.”
“Matt can be a very stubborn young man, but as he grew he got back into the church God and his mom, they drive his life.”
Harry, whom Young refers to as his godfather, introduced him to baseball as a way to keep the streets at bay.
Young played in a Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities academy in his hometown and even played in the RBI World Series in 2008, which was held at Roger Dean Stadium, the St. Louis Cardinals spring training facility in Jupiter, Fla.
The completed circle wasn’t lost on him when he arrived as a professional years later. “That’s crazy,” he recalled saying to himself. “I work here now. Like, I can go inside."
Through baseball Harry and Young bonded and became family. When Harry couldn’t afford services after his son, Julius III, died five years ago, Young offered to help with money received from his mother’s insurance benefits. Harry’s voice trembled with emotion as he recounted the gesture over the phone from his home in California where he still coaches the California Arsenal travel baseball team.
Young also credits Doug Takaragawa, coordinator of programs, planning and analysis at the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton, with helping him learn to become a man.
A competitive bond with former Florida State basketball standout Michael Snaer, Young’s best friend and high school classmate, also kept him focused
Despite the strength of the bonds he built however, staying on the proper path proved difficult for Young because his home life lacked stability after his mother passed in 2005 when he was just 14.
His father, Howard, who left when Young was two years old, returned after the death.
Money was tight and the family, which included two older sisters, was evicted from house to house and sometimes had to leave everything behind.
During his senior year of high school the family broke back into their home, which still held their belongings, and squatted for nearly a month. Lights had to be used sparingly and their movements careful, because detection meant trouble.
Certainly not ideal conditions for childhood development, but Young learned about survival and warmed to his father after seeing how hard he worked to provide.
“You can’t just crumble when life goes wrong,” he said. “You can’t just fold. What else are you going to do?”
Other options were available, but Young chose a different path.
While at Compton, a friend robbed a store because he needed the money. Wisely, Young declined the invitation. The night ended in murder and now that friend faces life in prison.
Struggling at the plate pales in comparison. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder hit less than .200 for much of this season, but persevered in the batting cage.
He’s hitting .360 in his last ten games — including a ten-game hitting streak, which ended Friday — and upped his average to .242 entering Saturday.
“That’s why I get a different perspective from this,” Young said. “I try not to get too upset. I’m here. I don’t have to be here. It’s God’s grace that I’m even here. I’m just grateful for everything that I’ve been given.”
Young was drafted by the Tampa Devil Rays in the 14th round in 2011 out of Cal State Dominguez Hills where he went after two years at Compton, but chose to stay in school because the money offered wasn’t worth forgoing his education. He was selected a year later in the 20th round by the Cardinals.
His plan is the same as every minor leaguer, but Young also wants to help kids the way others helped him.
“If I don’t make it, I’ll be grateful for the opportunity that I have. I had a way out. And that will open up a lot more doors to where I don’t have to do what other people that I know had to do.”