December 23, 2020

Getting Named as Bench Coach for Boston Red Sox, PU Alum Venable on Course for Managerial Role

WILL TO LEAD: Will Venable shows his focus during his career for the Princeton University baseball team. Venable, a 2005 Princeton alum who starred at both baseball and basketball during his college days, went on to enjoy a nine-year career in Major League Baseball. Staying in the game, Venable served as coach for the Chicago Cubs the last three seasons and was recently named as the bench coach for the Boston Red Sox. (Photo provided courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)

By Justin Feil

Will Venable interviewed for the Boston Red Sox manager job in late October barely one week before he celebrated his 38th birthday.

The 2005 Princeton University graduate was one of the nine top candidates for the spot that the Red Sox gave to Alex Cora on November 6. Cora added Venable as Boston bench coach on November 20 after three seasons coaching with the Chicago Cubs.

“It’s just an awesome opportunity,” said Venable. “I’m really excited. To be able to go from the Chicago Cubs with the history of that organization and the people I got to work with and learn from and the relationships I’ve built, to then go move to another amazing city with a franchise with an unbelievable history and another group of great people that I can learn from, I’m really excited. And the change in role and having more responsibility and another way to impact a club is all very exciting.”

Venable, who played basketball and baseball at Princeton, has been surprised by how quickly he has risen in the coaching ranks. After finishing his nine-year major league playing career – most of it with the San Diego Padres and then stints with the Texas Rangers and the Los Angeles Dodgers – he jumped into the other side of the game as special assistant to the Cubs’ President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. He moved to first base coach the following year and last season moved over to third base coach for the Cubs, for whom he also interviewed for the managerial job.

“This whole thing, to be honest, is insane to me,” said Venable. “I grew up with my dad (former Major Leaguer Max Venable) playing and he coached right away after his playing career. I watched him coach for 20-plus years in the minor leagues and never get an opportunity and less than a year removed from my playing career I had a big-league job.”

Over the last year, Venable has emerged as an increasingly popular managerial candidate. He interviewed for jobs with the Houston Astros and San Francisco Giants last year and Detroit Tigers this year.

“I know how special it is to be a part of the big leagues,” added Venable.

“It’s all been really fast and crazy, and I’m appreciative of the opportunity because I saw how difficult it is to get those opportunities first-hand.”

Before the Cubs asked him to interview last year, Venable wasn’t looking at himself as a managerial candidate. He still sees plenty to learn, but the seed has been planted for a long-term goal.

“That absolutely gives me confidence,” said Venable. “It’s hard to gauge your impact and really figure out how you’re doing. It’s validation that I’m on the right track in how I’m approaching some things, but I’m not going about my daily work thinking about how can this help me as a manager. It’s really, how can I help the guys on my team? I’m encouraged by it, excited about that possibility if it ever came, but I think it’s easy to get ahead of yourself. For me, it’s really about being the best coach I can right now.”

Currently, Venable is transitioning to his new role with the Red Sox. He and Cora did not have a pre-existing relationship, and he is starting to figure out how they will work together along with the rest of Cora’s staff. Venable’s first step is making connections with the rest of the staff.

“A great way to do that is talking baseball and figuring out the structure they have in place, the organization’s values, the way they’re trying to make those values come to life on the field, obviously getting to know Alex and starting to understand the way he sees the game, how I can support him in the things that he needs to do,” said Venable.

“As we get into spring training, a lot of other things will have to wait for the season to develop, but cultivating an understanding of the organization and starting to connect with people is what this last few weeks has been about.”

In coming to Boston, Venable is looking to build on his first coaching experience. Working with the Cubs gave him a start and piqued his desire to follow coaching as the next level of his career in baseball.

“The best way to describe it is the Cubs really challenged me to look at the game a different way,” said Venable.

“They offered different resources to do it and put me in situations to challenge me to use different parts of the organization – whether it was the analytics department or the high performance department – to help me be better and to look at the game from a different perspective. I don’t think there’s one answer, I’ve learned a ton from the Cubs. In general they opened my eyes to different ways to look at the game.”

Three years ago, Venable was starting a more difficult transition when he went from his playing career to coaching. That was a far bigger move than the organization to organization change he is making this year.

“You have to find a new voice,” said Venable, reflecting on his transition into coaching.

“Something I was always comfortable with as a player was having a voice. When you’re going out there and putting in the work and competing with your teammates, it’s a lot easier to have that voice. That was something I had to figure out – how to continue to be a leader and connect with people but not having the playing component of it being something that helped me. That was one part of the transition.”

Now Venable is focusing on the best use of his voice to instruct his players.

“Another part was as I’m filtering information, and I’d think specifically about base running or outfield work which was what I was working closely on with the Cubs,” added Venable.

“There are ways I see the game and I think I had to learn how to adjust my messaging for people who might see the game differently. It’s important not just how I see it, but how they see it. That’s something as you’re figuring out how to be a coach, that’s what all great coaches do. Coming so quickly from just playing, that was something that I had to figure out too.”

Venable’s playing career gave him important perspective that has helped make him a resource for players and he’s been able to use his own experiences in relating with his charges.

“Most of what is helping me now is not what I accomplished, but what I didn’t accomplish,” said Venable. “Some of the ways that I struggled and my inability to step away and make some adjustments or find the right tools to help improve in the ways I needed to improve; now as a coach I think about the things that I fell short with. As I see players saying the same sort of things that I said or feeling the same way or they’re struggling the same way I struggled, that’s a big thing for me to be able to say I’ve been there and maybe look at this before your career passes you by.”

In his nine years playing in the Major Leagues, Venable batted .249 with 81 home runs, 307 RBIs, and 135 stolen bases while playing outfield. He hit .268 with 22 home runs in 2013, his most productive season with the Padres.

“I think I had a great career and I was lucky to play as long as I did, but I wish now like everyone who is done with their career, that I made these little adjustments or done something else to give me some more longevity on the back end,” said Venable.

“Overall, I’m happy about my career and especially the fact that it’s gotten me to this point where I can continue to help people in the game.”

Venable’s path to the majors and into coaching has been a bit unique. The 6’3, 205-pound native of Greenbrae, Calif., came east to Princeton first to play basketball, and didn’t play baseball until his sophomore year. As a junior, he played in the NCAA tournament for basketball and that spring played in the NCAA tournament for baseball. He was selected in the seventh round of the 2005 draft by the San Diego Padres, following another Princeton basketball player, Chris Young, who was selected for major league baseball in the 2000 draft. Young was recently named general manager of the Texas Rangers.

“It says a lot about Princeton athletics,” said Venable. “It also says a lot about specialization. I know right now in youth sports, it’s a huge topic. I’d like to think if nothing else, Chris and I are good examples that competing in different ways can be helpful. I know there’s tons of things I’ve learned from being a basketball player that apply to baseball that I did as a player and I do now as a coach and I’m sure CY would say the same thing. It just shows you that being competitive and being athletic can help you in different ways.”

Venable remains in close contact with former basketball teammates, former Princeton head coach John Thompson III, and Tiger baseball coach Scott Bradley. It’s been a while, but basketball hasn’t totally passed him by, and Cubs coaches got a taste of his abilities on the hardwood.

“We had a pretty good run in ’19,” said Venable. “The staff and I would go on the road and find a place to play and we’d go run around a little bit. We did that pretty consistently in ’19, which was fun. Everyone is past their prime so it was a pretty even playing field – a bunch of non-athletes spotting up and shooting.”

There weren’t the same chances last year in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Venable and all of baseball dealt with a different sort of season in 2020. The season was shortened and altered repeatedly. Venable was part of a Zoom presentation last month that asked Princeton graduates who are professional athletes to discuss their experiences in the pandemic with their sport.

“It was challenging for the players, and our support of the players was challenging also; we’re there for the guys to help them through the grind and put them in the right spots,” said Venable.

“A lot of the things we all depended on, and things players depended on in the past to get you through a grind, everything from time and space on the field, the information and way you’re getting it, your ability to look at video, the energy that you get from fans, the environment, was totally different. Not just at the field, obviously at home too. Guys were challenged in ways that they just hadn’t been before so by virtue of that, it was challenging for us to help them out. At the end of the day, it was really good to get back to the basics a bit and get in touch with some of the things we knew were really important and maybe now will be given even more attention in the future as we’ve seen what it takes to survive a grind like this.”

Looking ahead, Venable is hopeful that the world can overcome the pandemic and ultimately return to normalcy. He would like just to be able to focus on coaching baseball, something that already has gotten off to a faster start than he could have anticipated and put him on the radar to manage in the majors.

“I know it’s an opportunity that hopefully I’ll be able to have down the road also, but right now I’m a bench coach for the Red Sox and that’s what I’m focused on,” said Venable.

“So I really don’t look that far ahead. It’s more about how can I impact this club and help them win more games.”