Soon after finishing his freshman season on the basketball team at Princeton University, Will Venable went to the office of the baseball coach, Scott Bradley, and asked if he could also play on the Tigers' baseball team the next year. Bradley was thrilled. "Do you want to go hit?'' Bradley asked. Venable picked up a bat for the first time in two years, then stepped in against his coach.
"The first five pitches, he swung and missed,'' Bradley said. "He said, 'Oh, man, it's been a long time.' He wasn't nervous, he was laughing. The next five pitches, he popped into the top of the cage. He said, 'I'm getting closer.' On the 11th pitch, he squared one up, and hit a line drive. He was the best hitter on our team from that point forward. He had a shaved head, he reminded me of David Justice, with a loosey-goosey swing. I told my assistant coach, 'We've got a new player. He might be the best hitter we have in our program.' ''
Eight years later, Venable, a 27-year-old right fielder, is one of the best hitters on the Padres. He's currently hitting .265 with three home runs and eight RBIs. In San Diego's home opener against the Braves on Monday, Venable hit a ringing line drive over the center field fence, a shot that one scout called "one of the hardest-hit balls I've ever seen.''
"And we've seen him hit balls harder than that,'' said Padres pitcher Chris Young.
There will be more of them, to be sure, because Venable is, by any definition, a natural, a stunning combination of good genes, good size (6-foot-2, 205 pounds), tremendous athleticism and great instincts for the game. His father, Max, played 12 years in the major leagues as a speedy outfielder for the Giants, Expos, Reds and Angels. His mother, Molly, played basketball at Dominican University. And his brother, Winston, plays football at Boise State.
Scott Bradley played against Max Venable in the big leagues. When Max and Will visited Princeton on a recruiting trip for basketball, Max stopped in to see Bradley, and told him, "I think Will has a chance to be a good baseball player.'' But Will was always a basketball player first; when his dad would take him to Anaheim Stadium, and offer him chances to take batting practice on the field, Will would decline, and go play basketball with the guys from the grounds crew. He didn't even play baseball his senior year in high school.
"I was tired of baseball, I ran track my senior year,'' Will said. "Basketball was my passion.''
"But baseball was in his blood,'' Young said. "It comes naturally to him. It's easier for him.''
After playing for Princeton in the NIT his sophomore season, Venable jumped on a plane and joined the baseball team on its spring trip south. "We were playing North Carolina, the fifth-ranked team in the country,'' Bradley said. "I told him, 'Will, there's only one way you're going to figure this out, you're playing today.' The first at-bat, they threw three fastballs right by him. He walked past me on the bench and said, 'Coach, they throw harder than you do.' Those were the only pitches he had seen since I threw to him that day [a year earlier]. Next time up, he fouled off one pitch, then smoked a line drive base hit.''
By the end of his sophomore season, Bradley said, "Will was really, really good. He played fall ball the next year for the first time, and he was unbelievable. He played basketball again his junior year, then his first games back with us, after only two days of batting practice, we played a three-game series against William & Mary, which had Chris Ray and Billy Bray, both of whom later pitched in the major leagues. Will went 10-for-13.''
Venable was drafted in the 15th round by the Orioles after his junior year, but "I had no communication with them,'' he said. He went back to Princeton for his senior year.
"He was amazing,'' Bradley said. "Scouts would tell me, 'But he's raw.' He was not raw. He had instincts and a feel for the game better than anyone on our team. With a high sky, kids on our team that had played their whole lives, struggled to see the ball, but Will tracked it. He'd take an 18-foot lead off first [base], and had no problem getting back to the bag. We played Harvard. They had a side-winding left-hander, like Mike Myers, and Will hit his first pitch nearly into the football stadium at Harvard. I asked him, 'Why did you swing at the first pitch, and how did you hit it so far?' He said, 'It just looked good.' You can't teach that. I had a guy on my team who came to me and said, 'It isn't fair. I've worked my whole life to be a good hitter, and Will just shows up and he's a better hitter than I will ever be in my entire life. It isn't fair.' I told him, 'Will Venable will play in the big leagues.' ''
[Baseball] comes naturally to him. It's easier for him.
”-- Padres pitcher Chris Young on teammate Will Venable
The Padres took him in the seventh round of the 2005 draft. He hit at every level in the minor leagues. "We went to see him play at Portland [Ore.] in the Pacific Coast League, and he hit a ball over the bullpen in right field, it hit the balcony of an athletic club,'' Bradley said. "They said the only other player to hit a ball up there was Willie Stargell.''
Venable made it to the major leagues in 2008, and hit .264 with two home runs and 10 RBIs in 110 at-bats. Last season, he batted .256 with 12 homers in only 293 at-bats. But he struck out 89 times, and vowed to make more contact this year. Surely, he will because he has been able to make adjustments his entire athletic life, including taking two years away from baseball at ages 18-20, quickly thriving in an excellent collegiate baseball program, then somehow making it the big leagues by the age of 25.
"I credit Coach Bradley and my dad,'' Venable said. "We're all huge competitors, but when I was struggling, hitting .240 my sophomore year, I would beat myself up, and Coach would say, 'It's a hard enough game as it is. Don't make it harder. Just trust yourself.' I think those growing pains really helped me when I struggled in the minor leagues because I knew how to deal with it. And my dad really helped me. I'd pick up the phone and tell him how I was feeling with my swing, and he was able to fix my swing over the phone.''
Will Venable still will have days when he struggles, and he still loves basketball. He and Young, who also played basketball at Princeton, hold a free throw shooting contest every spring with the Padres. It's a team competition: This spring, Venable, Young, Chase Headley and Jerry Hairston Jr. were team captains. "My team has not done very well, I was a bad GM, I didn't pick the right players,'' Venable said, laughing. "I've played college basketball in front of 10,000-15,000 people yelling at me, and I made some big free throws. But shooting free throws with your team watching in spring training was more intense.''
Eight years ago, before he took that first batting practice against his coach, it would have been logical to predict that Venable would still be playing basketball, maybe in Europe. But even with his ability, his genes and his instincts, it would have been hard to imagine him playing in the big leagues.
"I remember that day I swung and missed a few times, it wasn't pretty,'' Venable said. "Coach Bradley gave me way too much credit, but I did progress: I went from horrible to decent.''
Now he's way beyond decent. He is a big leaguer with a big future.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.