Tom McCarthy was still the Princeton radio play-by-play man for basketball when he and TigerBlog met up with two members of the Pawtucket Red Sox for breakfast during a Yale/Brown road trip. It was probably 1999.
TigerBlog mostly just sat there and ate his french toast while McCarthy, who was also the Trenton Thunder general manager at the time, spoke with the two players, both of whom had been in Trenton the previous summer and who were appearing that weekend at a Fan Fest in Pawtucket. The first player, whose name TB cannot remember, was a big kid from Texas who did most of the talking. The other player, who didn't say 10 words the entire time, was David Eckstein.
TigerBlog has followed Eckstein's career pretty closely since then, as he is one of the few Major League baseball players whom TB has ever had pass him syrup in a diner. Eckstein, of course, has gone to play nearly 10 years in the majors by now, and he has a pair of World Series championship rings, won with the Angels and the Cardinals.
Eckstein won't be adding a third ring this season, as he is a member of the last-place San Diego Padres. While in San Diego, though, he is teammates with a pair of Princeton alums, pitcher Chris Young (who has been on the DL most of the season) and outfielder Will Venable.
And there was Eckstein on SportsCenter this morning, scoring the go-ahead run after he tripled and Venable singled to knock him in.
Venable has been on fire of late, going 10 for his last 21 with three home runs and nine RBIs in that stretch. He had three hits last night against Atlanta, and his diving catch in the seventh with two out and two on preserved the 4-2 Padres win. Technically a rookie, Venable played last year for the Padres in September, and he is now heating up after getting off to a slow start while playing sparingly. Venable now has established himself as San Diego's every day rightfielder, and he batted third last night.
And for all of his success as a Major League Baseball player, TigerBlog still contends that he and his teammate Chris Young were both better basketball players, at least on the college level.
Venable was a 1,000-point scorer and a tremendous defensive player as a basketball player at Princeton. He was not a great perimeter shooter, but he could get to the basket on anyone. Fearlessly.
Back on Jan. 5, 2005, Venable was the best player on the Cameron Indoor Stadium court in Princeton's 59-46 loss to a Duke team that had four first-round picks on it. Venable scored 21 points on 8 of 13 shooting with four rebounds, three assists and three steals. He had three times as many points as Shelden Williams, a lottery pick, and the only reason that J.J. Redick (another lottery pick) matched Venable's point total was that Redick was 14 for 14 from the foul line (TigerBlog remembers each call as being a bad one).
The season before ended when Venable went 5 for 6 and had a 16-point, eight-rebound effort in a loss to Texas in the opening round of the 2004 NCAA tournament. The rest of the team was 13 for 45 from the field in that game, but Texas, like Duke, had no one who could check Venable.
Of course, he was also a first-team All-Ivy League baseball player who hit .390 with nine home runs (one of them, hit at Penn, may still be going) as a senior. Still, he was a dominant, dominant basketball player for four years.
Venable wasn't the character that his fellow 1,000-point teammate Judson Wallace was, and he didn't have the big Texas personality of another teammate, Ed Persia. He was somewhat quiet, with a smile that often said more than he did. He was polite and engaging and easy to work with, and he was a ferocious competitor.
Perhaps in some ways, he has a personality similar to Eckstein's. TB doesn't pretend to know Eckstein beyond what he saw from a breakfast 10 years ago, but it's not too much of a stretch to see them at team meals, sitting next to each other, not saying much.
When you put together the list of the greatest Princeton athletes this decade, Will Venable has to be in the Top 10, and probably Top 5. It's good to see him establish himself as a Major League player, all while wondering how he might have done in the NBA.