Father's Day: The strength and courage of Eric Young Jr.

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

ANAHEIM, Calif. – His phone rang for no reason he could think of. It was his son, a grown man, still his boy.

“Daddy.”

He knew the tone. Not frantic. But something.

“What’s up baby?” he asked.

“Trey came.”

He didn’t understand.

“But it’s only…”

“Twenty-five weeks, I know. He’s here.”

He felt it in his stomach. In his heart.

“All right son,” he said. “I’ll be there. First flight out.”

Eric Young packed a bag. He counted the weeks again in his head. This was bad. He boarded a flight in Houston. There’d be almost three hours to Phoenix, another who knows how long in a cab. Twenty minutes? Less?

In the air, he prayed for a miracle. For Trey, the baby who’d arrived 15 weeks too soon. For his boy, the first-time father. He looked through the window. He felt the airplane was barely moving. Hang in there, Trey, he thought. Hang in there, because I’d really like to meet you.

In May of 1985, Eric Young and his high school sweetheart, Paula Robinson, were born a son. Eric and Paula did not marry, but remained a couple until their son, Eric Young Jr., was 3 or 4 years old. Junior was raised in New Jersey while his father chased his baseball career. As Junior grew, he would join his father in major league cities – Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago, wherever the seasons took them – for summers that convinced him he, too, would become a baseball player. A 43rd-round draft pick out of Rutgers, Eric Young played 15 seasons in the big leagues. He was small and fast, three times stealing at least 51 bases in a season, with just enough savvy and power to make him a tough out, too. Junior kicked around clubhouses, rode team planes, ate pizza and begged coaches to hit him just a few more fungoes.

Eric Young Jr. holds three fingers to the sky to honor his late son, Eric Orlando Young III. (Getty Images)

Mostly, Eric Young and his boy were father and son, best they could be. They played catch on some of the most perfect lawns in the world. And they laughed. A lot of it around the game. Not all of it.

“Just he and I. Best buds,” Junior said. “Still are today.”

“Never changed,” Senior said.

Junior found his own game, similar to the old man’s game, and got himself drafted too, 30th round, late like his dad. Six years later, he was a big leaguer too. The Youngs might not look like much compared to the bigger fellows nowadays, but they find a way. They show up and play hard and believe. And, man, they always could run.

Junior met a girl, Victoria. They fell in love. They married. Got a place in Mesa, Arizona. They made a child together, and when they learned that child would be a boy, it was Victoria who said they should honor the father, the father’s father, and name him Eric Orlando Young III. They agreed they’d call him Trey.

They’d raise him like Junior was raised, with a firm hand, with rules, but without anger. They’d raise him to love and to believe. To be honest and strong.

“The biggest thing Dad ever said was, ‘Don’t lie to me and I promise I won’t get mad. We’ll talk it out,’” Junior said. “To this day he’s kept his word. As long as, whatever it was, he doesn’t hear it from anybody else, he never really got mad, never raised his voice to me his whole life, and that’s our relationship to this day.”

Eric Sr. sat Wednesday night at Angel Stadium, on an aisle a few dozen rows beyond the third-base dugout. Beside him, on his left shoulder, his second son, a 10-year-old named Dallas. The family had moved from Houston to Burbank because Dallas was going to be an actor, and Eric Sr. believes first in dreams. Below, his elder son was batting seventh, playing right field for the Los Angeles Angels against the New York Yankees. He was getting a couple hits, driving in a run, making plays. Senior stood and pointed to the sky and he laughed with Dallas. Look at your brother go.

“Oh, we would talk about a little of everything,” Senior said. “When he was a little boy, I was making sure he was having fun like a kid, enjoying his childhood. He loved coming to the ballpark early. And on off days, the whole day was dedicated to him, whatever he wanted to do.”

The summers ended and Junior would return to New Jersey.

His father still had work to do.

“When’s the next time I’m going to see you Daddy?” Junior would ask.

“When do you want to see me?” he’d say. “I’ll make it happen.”

Down there, on the field, Eric Young Jr. threw a man out at the plate. He was hitting .333, holding down a roster spot because Mike Trout hurt himself, back in the big leagues and making something of the opportunity.

“We’d look at each other and know what the other person was thinking about,” Senior said. “He started that at a young age. You know, it’s not easy having the same name when your daddy is having some success. From the same area, back in Jersey, too. Getting those comparisons in whatever – football, basketball, baseball. I told him, ‘Don’t you worry about trying to be like daddy. I want you to be better than daddy. I’ll always want that for you.’”

His flight from Houston landed in the morning. It was Jan. 27. Junior had been up all night, holding Trey, soothing Victoria, praying, silently rooting for them all. He studied his son, so small. This is what fatherhood is, he thought. Holding your boy. Sharing his fight. You’d breathe for him if you could. You’d get strong for him and open your eyes and tear out all those tubes and get on with being Trey, a whole life out there waiting. If you could.

Senior stood up on that concourse, some 40,000 people making a racket almost five months later. That was his boy out there, holding three fingers to the sky, honoring the late Eric Orlando Young III. That child had been running those legs, kicking his mama, so eager to come into the world, and now he was gone, gone before Senior could reach him, touch him, tell him about what a fine father he had, how much they’d miss him.

He’d boarded that flight hoping to see his son become a father, and he did. Junior is Trey’s father forever. He also sat in a room in a hospital with his son, and when they left it would be without Trey, on what was supposed to be the best day of his son’s life.

“There were no words,” Senior said. “Nothing would change that he’d just lost his son. I had to give him that moment, just being there. I was quiet. When he was ready to talk, then we would have the conversation. He wasn’t ready.

“I’ll tell you what, that day of the funeral he let out a big cry. I’ll never forget that. He got it all out. He decided right then and there, ‘I gotta be strong.’ I’m just so tremendously proud of him, the way he’s carried himself.”

Two days after they buried Trey, Senior’s mother, Junior’s Nana, took a fall. She was moved into hospice. Her health failed. Junior went to her bedside to say goodbye, another terrible goodbye, and she told him, “Baby, go take care of your family. And play that ball.”

A 43rd-round draft pick out of Rutgers, Eric Young played 15 seasons in the big leagues. (AP Images)

Junior promised he would.

“You have angels looking over you, son,” Senior told his boy. “You’re protected. Go play the game. You’re protected.”

Now the angels had names.

“It’s a little bit of adversity,” Senior granted him. “But what would Trey and Nana want us to do?”

Junior nodded. They’d want them to be together on a Father’s Day, in a major league ballpark, Junior down there playing that ball, Daddy up there joining the applause. Maybe the hits will come and maybe they won’t. That won’t disrupt the day. Junior is playing freer than he ever has, Senior said, like he’s playing on the edge of joy and heartache. Of life. Of the way it’s supposed to go against the way it sometimes does, knowing, if nothing else, up in section 209, row K, on the aisle, sits your dad, laughing with you, crying with you, standing beside you.

Best buds.

“Even though Trey is not going to be with us, I’m still a father,” Junior said. “When Mother’s Day came I celebrated with my wife. She’s a mother. Same on Sunday. Still respect and honor that I am a father, even though he’s not with us. We’ll enjoy our time together. Think about what could’ve been. And also look toward the future, you know?

“Everybody’s going through some kind of hurt. Not necessarily the exact same as mine. But, some kind of situation they had to deal with. Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of hope that keeps people pushing. If I can help a little bit to help somebody else reach their potential or get through their pain, I’m all for it. I don’t believe the world’s going to get better by people being selfish. Or people holding in pain. I think when people hold in pain they end up being a human time bomb. And could end up exploding on anybody at the wrong time. And there could be a chain reaction. I’m hoping if I do my part it could be a chain reaction for the better.”

So he talks about Trey, his son. He celebrates Trey, as his father. He holds those three fingers to heaven, where he’s sure Trey is growing strong and wise. Of course, fast. The Youngs always could run. They always did believe.

“I held my son,” he said. “I won’t ever forget that.”

Senior caught his breath. So proud of his son.

“It takes – I don’t know the word, strength, but more than that …,” he said.

He thought more. The crowd roared. His heart swelled. He cleared his throat and the word appeared.

“Courage.”

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