At 14, he was blowing fastballs by men twice his age.
Two years later, he was mowing down the mighty Cubans at the World Youth Baseball Championship.
And today, more than two decades later, when you mention the name Joe Young to long-time Canadian baseball scouts, they’re bound to stop and rave about the six-foot-four, golden-armed right-hander.
“He was a big, tough, strong kid. I saw him not just making it to the big leagues, but being a bull dog,” said Tom Valcke, who was the Canadian supervisor of Major League Baseball’s Scouting Bureau when Young was eligible for the big league draft. “When I wrote him up, I wrote him up as a Jack Morris-type. He looked like he could be a No. 1 big league starter.”
Gary Picone, who has a long history with Baseball Canada and served as the pitching coach on the gold medal-winning, 1991 National Youth Team, was equally impressed by Young.
“ To me, just in terms of young, raw talent, he was as good as I had ever seen,” said Picone. “I didn’t doubt he had a pro arm at 16 years old and I could only imagine when his frame filled out that he would just get better and better.”
For his part, Young, now 15 years removed from his last professional pitch, recognized that his arm was special at a young age.
“I knew I could throw hard when I played with the men in Fort McMurray [when he was 14],” recalled Young, who now resides in St. Paul, Alta.
Young began his career on the diamond as a fastball pitcher, following in the footsteps of his father, Reg. He didn’t start playing baseball until he was 12, but it wasn’t long before his talents were recognized. Already competing against players two and three years older than him in Fort McMurray, Young was invited to pitch in a senior men’s league when he was 14.
“The men in the league were anywhere from 21 to 40,” recalled Young. “Fortunately back then, there was a scout named Orv Franchuk, who’s still involved in professional baseball. He was the one who saw me up there.”
Young transitioned to Edmonton’s Confederation Park baseball program, where he excelled under coach Les Kathan and helped his new squad to a national championship in 1990, and in the process, he earned himself a spot on Team Alberta.
“The manager of Team Alberta was Ron Betts who really helped me out in those three or four years before my draft year,” said Young. “He gave me the opportunity to play on that team and I wasn’t really well known up in Fort McMurray and once I played a few tournaments in Edmonton, I guess my name got out there a little bit.”
Young was also standout hockey player. A big, scrappy right-winger and centre as a teenager, the gritty Albertan wasn’t sure whether he wanted to be the next Nolan Ryan or the next Cam Neely.
“I played hockey and baseball, so I never really focussed on one area,” explained Young, who spent the 1991-92 season with the Western Hockey League’s Tacoma Rockets (Major Junior A). “Once hockey season was over, I’d just pick up a baseball and start throwing.”
In 1991, Young was invited to the Canadian National Youth Team selection camp in Kindersley, Sask. At 16, he was one of the youngest players at the camp.
“His mechanics were kind of all over the place and he didn’t know a lot about what he was doing, but his raw ability was just special,” recalled Picone.
Former big league all-star Jason Dickson, who was also vying for a roster spot at that 1991 selection camp, also recalls being wowed by Young.
“I remember looking at Joe at the time – and I was two years older than him – and thinking, ‘This guy is so much better than I am,’” said Dickson. “He was a big, physical guy who could throw hard. He was 16 and he was raw, and he was just going after batters.”
Both Dickson and Young made the Canadian team that competed in the 1991 World Youth Baseball Championships in Brandon, Man., that brought together the best 16-to-18-year-old players on the planet. Heading into the tournament, the Canadians weren’t considered contenders.
Young was told by manager John Haar that he was going to start against Cuba, one of the tournament favourites, in Canada’s third game. At that time, Young says the only pitch he could command was his fastball, so he reared back and threw heater after heater to the aggressive Cubans.
“I think at first my game plan was not to get embarrassed because I was so nervous,” he said. “With me, the first inning was always the hardest, and usually once I got through that, then I’d be OK. But against Cuba, I had to get through two or three innings to realize that I could pitch against one of the best teams in the world.”
His game strategy worked and he limited the powerhouse Cubans to two runs in 7-1/3 innings and left the game to a rousing ovation.
“You always see it on TV when a pitcher comes out and they get a standing ovation, and that was what happened to me,” said Young. “It’s something that I still think about to this day.”
Canada eventually lost 3-2 in 10 innings, but that game convinced the young Canucks that they could compete with the best teams in the world.
Young’s effectiveness against Cuba earned him the start against an American squad that boasted future big leaguers Aaron Boone, Jacob Cruz and A.J. Hinch in the tourney’s seventh game. Unfortunately, the hard-throwing 16-year-old didn’t fare as well against the Americans, allowing four runs in an inning and a third, before being relieved by Dickson, who would shut down the Americans for 5-1/3 innings, while the Canadians rallied to win 10-6.
The surprising Canadians finished the round-robin portion with a 7-2 record and advanced to the final against Chinese Taipei. By this time, the underdog Canucks had captured the hearts of the host town, and 5,000 fans squeezed into Brandon’s 3,800-seat Westbran Stadium to watch the Canadians defeat Chinese Taipei 5-2.
“We were basically one big family. It was a team where not one guy was on the outside. Everyone was together,” said Young. “We got down and dirty and we played absolutely unbelievable baseball and we were never going to give up. Everything just came together. It was a dream week.”
That victory is Canada’s only gold at the World Youth Baseball Championship and for their efforts, the team was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992. That same year, Young returned to pitch for Confederation Park in front of a growing number of scouts. He was selected to the National Youth Team again in 1992, but he broke his right wrist just prior to the world championships in Mexico.
Fortunately his injury didn’t scare scouts away. Young spoke to representatives from almost every big league club prior to the 1993 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. But he grew up a Blue Jays fan and he knew they were interested, so he was hoping Toronto would select him.
The draft took place on June 3, 1993 and a crowd of about 50 family and friends, as well as a TSN camera crew, gathered at Young’s house in anticipation of his selection. Young and his supporters were elated when the Jays chose him with their third pick (98th overall).
Young reported to the Jays’ Gulf Coast League team where he roomed with first-round pick and future Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter. Later that season, he was promoted to the Jays’ rookie-ball affiliate in Medicine Hat, Alta.
“It was absolutely unbelievable playing in Medicine Hat,” he said. “My family could come down and watch me quite a bit and just the history of the players who have played in Medicine Hat and being able to be there was a great experience. Every time I took the mound I felt like I had the support of the whole community.”
After a second season with Medicine Hat, Young posted a 2.04 ERA in 15 starts with the Class-A Short-Season St. Catharines Stompers in 1995. His pitching coach that season was long-time Jays coach Al Widmar.
“I think that season I made some great leaps and the major reason was him,” said Young. “He was a no-nonsense type of guy, but he also really understood how hard it was.”
Young was rewarded with a spot on the Jays’ 40-man roster and was invited to big league camp the following spring where he roomed with Roy Halladay. The Jays gave him a good long look, before assigning him to Class-A Hagerstown. Later that season, he was promoted to High-A Dunedin. In a combined 27 starts in 1996, he struck out 193 batters, the third most by any minor league pitcher.
After another spring training with the big club in 1997, he was assigned to Double-A Knoxville, where he pitched in 19 games and averaged more than a strikeout per inning. In 1998, he continued to make progress before his shoulder began to ache, causing him to lose velocity and command.
“I just had an absolutely terrible year [in 1998]. My shoulder was pretty much sore all year. I was on the 40-man roster and I had this hockey mentality that I was going to battle through the pain. No injury was going to hold me down,” said Young.
The hard-nosed right-hander later discovered that he was pitching with a torn labrum and torn rotator cuff.
“It’s too bad. I still think about it and I wish I would’ve said something, but then again, when you’re that close [to the big leagues], you don’t want an injury to take it away,” he said. “Unfortunately, I had the mentality that eventually it would go away, but all it did was hamper my performance and make me look absolutely horrible out there. . . . I cut my career a lot shorter than it should’ve been. I don’t think I was being truthful with the organization on how I was feeling and it came back to bite me.”
After the 1998 campaign, the Tampa Bay Rays claimed Young in the Rule 5 draft.
“I spent two years there [with Tampa] and basically I had surgery and rehab and it never came back to how it was,” he said. “I just think I did so much damage that it was hard to get it back to 100 per cent.”
After two years of rehab and little improvement, Young decided to retire and return to Alberta to live with his dad in St. Paul in 2000. Initially life after baseball was a difficult adjustment for Young, but his life took a dramatic turn for the better when he met his wife Leanne. The couple now has two children (daughter Milana (8) and son Kaysen (5)).
These days, Young coaches the local Junior B St. Paul Canadiens hockey team in the winter and offers private pitching lessons in the summer. In 2011, he was elected to the Wood Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in Fort McMurray.
“I stay at home with my kids during the summer,” said Young. “I’m extremely happy with my life. I have a wonderful wife and kids. Like I said during my speech when I got inducted into the Wood Buffalo Hall of Fame, you step off a plane when your baseball career is over and you’re kind of at a crossroads and you’re thinking ‘OK, What am I going to do now?’ And ultimately if I hadn’t met my wife, who knows where I would be right now? To me, it’s all about my family and that’s my No. 1 priority.”