(Photo by Bill Allen/NJ SportAction)
ON A MISSION: Will Venable lays down a bunt during his career with the Princeton University baseball team. Venable, a 2005 PU alum who was an All-Ivy League performer in both baseball and basketball, is starring for the San Antonio Missions of the Double A Texas League. Venable and the Missions, who are an affiliate of the San Diego Padres, start play in the Texas League divisional playoffs this week.
Growing up as the son of a Major League baseball player, many would assume that Will Venable always dreamed of following in his father's footsteps and was destined to a career in the big leagues.
In reality, however, Venable, a former two-sport star at Princeton University, aspired as a child to be more like Michael Jordan than Derek Jeter.
"I always wanted to be a basketball player," said Venable, whose father, Max Venable, played 12 years in the majors with the San Francisco Giants, Cincinnati Reds, and California Angels.
"I thought I might be able to play baseball as a professional, but basketball was always my first choice."
Yet when he was faced with a choice between playing professional basketball overseas or reporting to the Padres' rookie ball affiliate who had drafted him in the 7th round of the 2005 draft Venable realized that he should finally abandon his childhood dream.
"I talked to my parents and my agent, and they said that I probably wasn't going to get to the NBA but that my ceiling in baseball was unknown, so I took a shot," recalled Venable.
Since that time Venable has established himself as one of the premier outfield prospects in the minor leagues, earning both Midwest and Texas League All-Star honors.
Furthermore, he received one the top awards in the Padres' organization in 2006, the minor league player of the year award, and was ranked as the fifth best prospect in the entire organization by Baseball America following a breakout campaign in his first full year as a professional.
This week, Venable will lead the San Antonio Missions as they face the Frisco Roughriders in a best-of-five Texas league Southern Division playoff series.
Just a few years ago, it seemed unlikely that Venable would be on a pro diamond, let alone one of the stars on a minor league playoff team.
As a senior in high school in San Rafael, Calif,, Venable chose to forgo baseball in favor of track despite the fact that his father was a part-time baseball coach. "I just wasn't into it," he said.
When Venable got to Princeton, he continued down the same path, opting to focus his athletic efforts on playing for the PU men's basketball team.
"I practiced with the [baseball] team and wanted to play, but I just felt I couldn't handle the load as a freshman at Princeton," noted Venable. But a year later, encouraged by the decision of football standout B.J. Syzmanski to come out for the baseball team, Venable asked PU baseball head coach Scott Bradley if he could try out.
Bradley knew Venable's father when they played in the Major Leagues together in the 1980s, and welcomed the younger Venable to the team.
In his sophomore spring Venable played in 23 games for the Tigers, mostly as a DH, and experienced moderate success at the plate, hitting .244 with 8 RBIs.
The next year, after earning the team MVP award for his performance on the basketball team, Venable showed his baseball talent by boosting his average to a robust .344 to go along with 20 RBIs and 14 stolen bases.
His performance on the field, coupled with his vast potential as a two-sport athlete quickly caught the eye of Major League scouts and Venable was picked in the 15th round of the 2004 MLB draft by the Milwaukee Brewers.
Choosing to return for his senior year, Venable's decision was handsomely rewarded by excelling in both sports. On the hardcourt, Will averaged 10.5 points and 3.1 assists per game to earn his second consecutive team MVP award and first-team All-Ivy distinction as he finished his Princeton career with 1,010 points.
While patrolling the outfield for the baseball team that spring, Venable racked up equally impressive statistics and first team All-Ivy recognition, hitting a team-leading .385 with nine home runs, 33 RBIs, 35 runs, and 10 stolen bases.
"During that year, my dad's old agent represented me and we sent out a video of my basketball highlights to all of the major league teams," Venable said.
"I still didn't quite know what sport I wanted to play and we figured I could market myself as an athlete and use basketball as leverage during contract negotiations."
The strategy paid off as Venable was taken in the seventh round (218th overall pick) by the San Diego Padres. Venable considered the opportunity in professional baseball too good to refuse, and reported to the Padres' rookie ball affiliate the next week the Arizona Padres.
After hitting .322 with 12 RBI and 4 stolen bases in 15 games for the Padres, Venable was promoted to short season 'A' ball with the Eugene Emeralds. There, the physical grind of playing two sports at a very high level seemed to finally catch up with Venable, as he struggled at the newlevel, batting only .216 with 14 RBI over 42 games.
"I think my struggles were just a result of my body being tired," said Venable. "I had showed up the previous August for basketball camp at Princeton and then went directly from that season into baseball. Then to go from Princeton to pro ball, I just never had a rest. Baseball is all about making adjustments and you need energy to do that; I just didn't have any energy."
Given an entire off-season to rest and focus his athletic talent on baseball, however, Venable quickly showed his potential. Playing 124 games for the 'Low A' Fort Wayne Wizards, Venable put together a season which established him as one of the best outfield prospects in all of minor league baseball. The 6'2", 205 pound outfielder hit .313 with 11 home runs, 92 RBIs, 86 runs, and 18 stolen bases.
Besides simply being rested, Venable credits much of his success that season to the coaching of his father, who by pure luck, was installed two seasons earlier as the team's hitting coach.
"It was great to have my dad there coaching me," he said. "I had the right environment and the time to get comfortable with my swing. It was pretty cool for both of us."
Following that season, Venable was selected as the organization's minor league player of the year, and was flown to San Diego in the winter to attend the team's annual award banquet.
"I was pretty surprised when I got that award since there were a couple of guys in AAA who were having a huge year " added Venable. "At the same banquet Trevor Hoffman was pitcher of the year and Adrian Gonzalez was the rookie of the year; it was really cool to see all of them."
Venable was promoted to the Double A San Antonio Missions for the 2007 season and despite having what he describes as an average season, has performed well enough to be selected as a Texas League All-Star.
Through 133 games, Venable hit .280 with eight home runs, 67 RBIs, 21 stolen bases and a team-high 143 hits as he earned All-Star recognition.
A highlight of the season for Venable came on May 30 when he hit for the cycle, becoming the first Missions player to accomplish that feat since 2002.
"It's been [an] interesting [season], a lot of ups and downs," said Venable, who was rumored to be in line to be called up to the Padres in September but was left in San Antonio to help the Missions in their playoff run.
"I haven't found the consistency I've been looking for and am really just not competing at the level I should be. The pitching is unbelievable but I just haven't made the adjustments; as a competitor it's been pretty disappointing."
Still, Venable is glad that he abandoned his dream of pro hoops glory. "[In one year] I would like to be in a situation where I'm ready to take advantage of an opportunity in the big leagues," said Venable. "You never know what's coming, I need to be prepared."
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