LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — After an horrific moment, nearly two years ago, Eric Young Jr. clasped hands with former Braves starter Tim Hudson as he was carted off Citi Field.
He had endeared himself to a franchise and their fanbase.
That he’s now wearing an Atlanta uniform and fighting for a roster spot on a minor league deal is a twist he wouldn’t have expected. But the response he received after that late July night in 2013 played is part in his signing.
"The way that the Braves community, Braves fans, the state of Georgia responded … so much respect," Young said Monday.
"I gained a lot of respect for them, so it made the decision to come down here and want to be a part of this community that much easier because I know the type of fanbase that I’ll be playing in front of."
Young came racing back to first base as he turned and saw Hudson writhing in pain face down, the result of a gruesome scene in which the Mets center fielder stepped on Hudson’s ankle, shattering it.
Young stood nearby as Braves medical staff and manager Fredi Gonzalez came out and Dan Uggla clapped Young on the back, a distraught look on his face.
"Right away, we were in New York and (people claimed) ‘He did it on purpose’ and … the young man was tremendous; classy guy," Gonzalez said."
Fans took notice too, as did Hudson’s wife, Kim, who tweeted out her appreciation for the way Young handled the situation.
@EYJr Thank you for playing the game the right way. You're obviously one of the good guys. We appreciate you.
"That’s just the person I am," Young said. "One person caring about another person. Obviously you go out there to compete to the best of your ability; no ill intent there. Just an unfortunate situation and that was a natural reaction for me. I didn’t think anything would come of it. That was just one person caring about another."
While Hudson’s no longer with the Braves — he’s entering his second season in San Francisco — plenty of holdovers remain, and how Young conducted himself still resonates.
"You can tell when those situations happen — which was an unfortunate situation for Timmy — and the way Eric handled it, you feel this is a quality, quality person," Gonzalez said.
But it’s ultimately the 29-year-old’s speed on a team that will take a small-ball approach after losing its top two home run producers in Justin Upton (29) and Evan Gattis (22) that is key.
Young has stolen at least 30 bases in each of the last three seasons, including a National League-best 46 split between the Rockies and Mets in 2013.
While he’s coming off a year in which he had a .299 on-base percentage, his first sub-.300 season since his rookie year of ’09, the Braves return just one player, Melvin Upton Jr., whose 20 steals in ’14 make him the only returning player with more than six.
Young knows he has what the Braves are lacking, an attribute he sees having high value in a division that includes stout starting rotations with the Marlins, Mets, Nationals.
"I know what my skill set is and in the past, this team had been known for having home run hitters," Young said. "Some of those guys are no longer here as well as the NL East, the pitching staffs have increased tremendously.
"Pretty much all the teams in the division have arms. There’s going to be a lot of close ball games, a lot of one-run ball games. Sometimes you just need to manufacture and get across that one run to ultimately win the game. The pitching in this division, I know that speed is going to play an important role."
The Braves have lacked a prototypical leadoff man, posting a .314 OBP last season (24th in MLB), and while Jason Heyward filled the role nicely with a .343 OBP, he was moved down in the lineup to give him more run-producing opportunities.
Upton saw the most time outside of Heyward at first, but had a .282 OBP and Philip Gosselin (.300 OBP in five games) is the only returner who hit leadoff for the Braves last season.
A switch hitter, Young has been far better against lefties in his career, hitting .261/.317/.337 vs. .248/.321/.330 with a right-hander on the mound. But there’s the potential that Young could be the table-setter the Braves are looking for.
"We had a lot of conversations with (assistant GM John Coppolella) during the course of the winter and it was one of the ones where you go ‘I like that. I like that acquisition. I really, really like that,’" Gonzalez said. "This your leadoff hitter, potentially."
Primarily an outfielder, Young is largely expected to contend for a platoon spot in left field along with Jonny Gomes, Zoilo Almonte and Todd Cunningham, he has also been rumored to see time at second base.
The Braves have no clear answer there either, with a group of Alberto Callaspo, Phil Gosselin and Jose Peraza, who has yet to reach the majors, though its a position Young has played in just 54 games and six times in the last two seasons.
"If you’re in this game long enough you want to make sure you’re prepared for any situation," Young said. "I’m going to make sure I get my ground balls pretty much anywhere on the diamond, make sure I get my fly balls at all three outfield spots, just because if my number is ever called, with premeditation or a last-minute decision, I want to make sure that I’m ready."
He fails to see this situation as mere coincidence. Call it karma or a cosmic plan, he sees that night in New York and its aftermath playing a role in the opportunity he has in front of him.
"I’m a big believer in that everything happens for a reason," Young said. "In hindsight, maybe that was just a particular situation that led to this moment of me being down here. … Looking back at it now, the stars possibly aligned for me to be here."