On Snake Oil, Gem Mint Rookie Cards, and Dmitri Young


Jesse Gloyd is approaching regular contributor status at P&P. He’s written about fishing in the LA River, and about Satchel Paige on the site. Check out his podcast Buckshot Boogaloo.

Talk of coming back is always inspiring, but it rarely produces much more than the fleeting spark of its initiation. Baseball players seem to endure more than most. Jose Canseco is perpetually coming back. Jose Canseco exists in a constant state of comebackdom—his is a purgatorial existence. He inhabits a metaphorical space where mildly desperate men barnstorm in the shadow of Waffle Houses and Satchel Paige. Dmitri Young seems to be on the precipice of this space. Anecdotal evidence points to the fact that he might, indeed, still be able to play baseball, but it will be a hard sell. The comeback is the snake oil of the modern age. Dmitri Young’s agent has stated that Dmitri Young has put in the work, that he is in shape. His age, thirty-eight, is the great common denominator, but we are told he physically acts and looks like a baseball player again. His ability to look like a baseball player is the shine of the bottle, the twisting graphic of the snake in the desert.

Many years ago my dad and I drove out to Rio Mesa High School to watch Dmitri Young play baseball. He was the best amateur I was ever told I needed to watch. He was the only amateur living in the area I made a point to check out. I remember the gravel of the parking lot and I remember watching him through a chain link backstop. I have this blurry image of Dmitri Young swinging. I don’t remember much, but his career was a career I followed, his was a career with which I connected. He was always engaging. When he initially came up and had success, I felt my investment had paid off. His success was a validation. I found some mild sense of worth in his existence as an entertainer, as an athlete, as a person who could direct a baseball with precision.

Two months ago Dmitri Young walked into the winter meetings with the air of a salesman. His product was his person. He had lost weight. He had become a thing of the past again. He claimed that he would again be beneficial to whoever took a chance on him, but like all beneficial things with expiration dates, people wondered whether his had expired. They still doubt. They doubt for good reason. Dmitri Young is trying to play baseball again. Baseball players have expiration dates. Dmitri Young is thirty-eight. He is very much past his prime. He had a trade and he applied his trade as well as could have been expected. He hit and he entertained. He was an artist. He perfected his craft. Even with everything he went through, everything that got in the way—the mess with the drinking and all the reciprocal fall out; he managed to exist as an artist, as a craftsman with a valuable skill.

You can still buy snake oil. It still exists and people use and it might still have some enlightened properties. Snake oil, like Dmitri Young and the comeback, has been marred by years of a perceived lack of usefulness. In the 1980s neurophysiology researcher Richard Kunin found that Chinese water-snake oil contained eicosapentaenoic acid. Eicosapentaenoic acid is a vital omega-3 fatty acid. The Chinese knew what they were doing. The past performance of snake oil was the thing that made it an agent of future success, even if it never was truly utilized properly. The problem with snake oil, the problem that that shaped our collective perception of its existence as something useless, is the fact that it was often impossible for grifters and frontier doctors to procure Chinese water-snakes. Because of this deficiency, grifters and frontier doctors began using rattlesnake oil as an alternative.

Dmitri Young is buying and selling memories of promise.Rattlesnakes and rattlesnake wranglers, the men who tamed the serpents, became the main attraction at the medicine show. Rattlesnakes moved units. The rattlesnake and the rattlesnake wrangler’s ability to tame became the exciting products in themselves. The excitement surrounding the rattlesnake wrangler’s dance with death mesmerized. The excitement helped make rattlesnake oil a valuable commodity. Over time though, the true nature of the oil was revealed. Though abundant, extracting the oil from an actual rattlesnake was a messy bit of business. Grifters and frontier doctors began abandoning the actual oil altogether—pushing bottles of ineffective liquid, often oil and water spiked with red pepper and wintergreen. The masses grew skeptical. Articles were written and investigations were launched. Eventually, the bottles were confiscated and the manufacturers rendered obsolete. Snake oil became snake oil even if in its true state snake oil wasn’t necessarily snake oil.

When he is not making comebacks, when he is not marketing himself as a shadow of a thing he used to be, Dmitri Young can be found selling his near perfect baseball card collection on the world wide web and at card shows across the country. His baseball card collection is comprised of a myriad of Gem Mint 10 graded rookie cards. I went to the auction site where his cards will be on sale in the coming months and poked around a bit. Dmitri Young’s baseball card collection is a good collection. It’s a staggering, enviable collection. The collection looks as if it was an investment, an indulgence. The collection is a tip of the cap to a time and a place. It is a tip of the cap to the beginning of things.

Snake oil too, in all of its forms, is a tip of the cap to the beginning of things. We accept snake oil in all of its different forms because it reminds us of the promise of youth, the promise of rebirth. The problem at the heart of the Dmitri Young’s obsession with perfect rookie card is that it points, whether conscious or not, to the inherent fear that seems to live in the soul of the athlete. The athlete is an artist whose art is rooted in physique and time. Dmitri Young is buying and selling memories of promise. His card collection is a reflection of an unattainable desire. The collection is a cardboard homage to birth, to rebirth. The cards and their quantifiable perfection exude innocence. The cards reflect the nature of youth in all of its simple, beautiful glory. There is an element of memory rooted in their existence. The youthfulness is analogous to the stereotype of the young band that hears their song for the first time on the radio in the car. They are all the same: Brian Wilson with the top down, unable to grow a beard, Ron Cey sans mustache framed next to Mike Schmidt sans mustache.

Dmitri Young worked out for the Pittsburgh Pirates last week. He looked good. He was able to play and create something from nothing. Clint Hurdle said good things. Dmitri was optimistic. His road has been hard, but his journey isn’t new. It seems quite obvious he believes his peace is found on the field. He was never perfect, he was never the best, but he was real. His craft never had to be propped up with red pepper and wintergreen. It was a thing of beauty, championed by many because it was real and beneficial, perfect and good, like the corner of a Gem Mint 1969 Topps Reggie Jackson and the healing oil of a Chinese water snake.

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