Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Living The Dream

This is an actual conversation that TigerBlog had yesterday:

Co-worker: "Were you the men's basketball contact when Chris Young played here?"
TigerBlog: "Yes."
Co-worker: "Is he the nicest person of all time?"

The correct answer is "if he's not, he's way, way up there."

Young stands a shade below seven-feet tall, which means he stands out in any room he's in. Like yesterday afternoon, when he was at the Shea Rowing Center, one of the four Princeton alums in Major League Baseball who came back to campus as part of the Princeton Varsity Club Jake McCandless ’51 speaker series.

Young was joined by Will Venable, who like Young was also a first-team All-Ivy League men's basketball player, Ross Ohlendorf and David Hale first at a luncheon and then in the evening in McCosh 50.

Both times they spoke about their experiences in the Major Leagues, how Princeton helped prepare them and basically anything else they were asked about.

An athletic department - and a University for that matter - can't ask for much more out of four alums than Princeton gets from Young, Venable, Ohlendorf and Hale. They are smart, well-spoken, gregarious men who speak from the heart, laugh easily and genuinely appreciate the good fortune that they have been given.

All four are graduates, despite the fact that three of them were drafted before they completed their eligibility and had to completely dedicate themselves to graduating with their classes.

In the me-first, big-money world of professional sports, these four are a beacon. They are so easy to root for, and not just because they are from Princeton.

TigerBlog has never met Ohlendorf or Hale. He saw every basketball game that Young played at Princeton except for one and almost every basketball game Venable played here during his career.

As TB said earlier in the week, he'll always be left to wonder what Young would have done had he played his final two seasons, instead of losing his eligibility for basketball when he signed his professional baseball contract.

It was actually a bit of fluke that Young left when he did, as he was eligible for the 2000 draft by less than a week, since his 21st birthday came less than a week before the draft, even though he had only completed his sophomore year. Otherwise, he wouldn't have been able to be selected until after his junior year, which would have meant another season at least of basketball.

Instead, his Princeton basketball career ended after two seasons, just shy of 1,000 points and the school record for blocked shots. Had he played all four years? He would have probably bettered 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds.

He also would have given Princeton an NBA-level center for two more seasons. The 2001 men's basketball team won the league in John Thompson's first year as head coach; Young would certainly have made that much easier. He also would have been the difference a year later, when there was a three-way tie for the Ivy title.

Ah, but TB will get over it one day.

Besides, if Chris Young isn't the nicest person he's ever met, like TB said, he's way up there. Anyone who has ever come in contact with him has reached the same conclusion.

TB has heard it so many times through the years, from broadcasters, writers, Penn fans - anyone who has ever met Young. TB is pretty sure Young would still be on an NBA roster today if he'd gone the basketball route, but it's hard to argue with his success in baseball.

Venable probably wasn't an NBA player, but he too was a dominant basketball player in the Ivy League. In fact, TB doesn't remember too many nights when Venable wasn't the best player on the court, and that includes when the Tigers played at, say, Duke, or against Texas in the NCAA tournament.

And, like Young, Venable was very easy to work with from TB's perspective during his time as a Princeton basketball player. Venable always seemed to have a grin on his face, and it was the same grin he had yesterday, when TB saw him for the first time in years.

It was great to see both of them yesterday, now both in their 30s, established Major Leaguers - and rich ones at that.

And yet they seem unchanged by it all. They've hardly become what TB fears most rich professional athletes become - unapproachable, distant jerks.

And that's the best part of all four of them. They spoke about their experiences with a sense of awe, of modesty. They were just very human, much like anyone other lower-profile Princeton grads would be, in front of a room talking about their professional lives.

The questions asked of them varied, and there some great ones. What was your debut like and how did you feel? What sort of rookie hazing experiences had they had (TB hesitates to use the word "hazing," though all four told stories of being subjected to initiations)? Had you ever met your idol and if so what was that like? What is drug testing like and how often are you tested?

There were questions about their time at Princeton and how that helped get them ready. About how they finished their schoolwork as professionals, especially Young, who graduated with his class despite signing as a sophomore. There were questions about how Scott Bradley, Princeton's baseball coach, prepared them. They were asked if they'd experienced any stereotyping as Major Leaguers because they came from the Ivy League.

Hale talked about his debut, which came last September for the Braves (his hometown team and the team he grew up rooting for), and how nervous he was beforehand and how focused he became once he was on the mound. He would go five innings that night, allowing no runs and four hits while striking out nine, only to have his bullpen give it away and come away with a no-decision.

The first batter he faced was Venable, whom he struck out, something the two were able to joke about.

Ohlendorf spoke about how he was in the Yankees bullpen on his first night in the Majors and how nervous he became when the phone rang in the sixth, in the seventh, before he finally got in in the ninth.

Like Hale, Young made his debut with the team he grew up rooting for, the Texas Rangers. He talked about his debut, with 200-300 familiar faces in the stands. He also mentioned the voice in the back of his head that every player must have, the one that whispers "can I do this?"

They all can. Young is battling back from injuries after a long career that has included an all-star game appearance.

Venable is a borderline all-star now in his prime. Ohlendorf is an established veteran. Hale is just starting out, but his future looks bright after his brief time up last year, including his Major League win, which came against the Phillies.

Listening to them yesterday, TB could see big things for any and all of them when their playing days are over. GM. Team president. MLB commissioner. Politics. Anything.

Princeton Athletics is about many things, including on-field success, entertainment, its coaches.

Mostly, it's about the athletes who come through here.

Four of them were back yesterday. Four of the great ones. Four who represent everything good that there is at Princeton.

They excelled athletically. They were dedicated students.

They didn't have to sacrifice their goal of playing professional baseball to get an Ivy League degree. In fact, the two have gone hand-in-hand for them.

They're now proud graduates - and graduates in whom the University can be decidedly proud.

They put on an amazing show yesterday.

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