This article was written by Jay Hurd
On August 29, 2008, 25-year-old Will Venable, made his major-league debut with the San Diego Padres. Although the Padres lost to the Colorado Rockies that day, 9-4, outfielder Venable, brought up from Triple-A Portland, tripled to right center in the second inning, in his first at-bat, and then scored on Aaron Cook’s wild pitch. Venable, the son of former major leaguer Max Venable, who was his son’s hitting coach at Portland, did not see a quick transition to full-time major leaguer, but became, through athletic ability, persistent effort, and numerous minor-league stints, an everyday player with the Padres by 2011.
William Dion Venable was born on October 29, 1982, at Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, California, 15 miles north of San Francisco. Both his parents were athletes. His father, William McKinley “Max” Venable, was born in Phoenix on June 6, 1957. He excelled in multiple sports at Cordova High School in Rancho Cordova, California. His mother, Mary “Molly” (Cross) Venable, was born in San Francisco on October 16, 1958. She played basketball at Dominican University in San Rafael. She and Max married in May 1982 in Marin, California.
Max graduated from high school in 1975 and passed up football scholarship offers to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers, after having been selected in the 1976 amateur draft. In 1978 the San Francisco Giants acquired him from the Dodgers organization via the Rule 5 draft. He played in the National League for nine years, with the Giants, Montreal Expos, and Cincinnati Reds, and in the American League for three years, with the Los Angeles Angels. After his playing career, he became a coach in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) and in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. Will had spent part of his childhood in Japan, “where his dad was a ‘gaijin’ (foreign player) in the Japanese league. He experienced Japan’s baseball culture while playing for a local Little League team, enduring marathon practices in the summer months.”1 Will’s time in Japan, and awareness of cultural differences influenced his senior thesis at Princeton University where he earned a B.A. degree in anthropology. His thesis, The Game and Community: An Anthropological Look at Baseball in America and Japan, compared American and Japanese culture by presenting histories of baseball’s evolution in each country.”2
Max went on to coach in the US minor leagues, including time with Max in the Pacific Coast League and the California League. Max and Molly had a second son, Winston James Venable, born on March 31, 1987. Winston became a professional football player with the Chicago Bears of the NFL and the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.
Will excelled in three sports at San Rafael High School. He lettered four times in basketball, three times in baseball, and once in track and field. His name regularly appeared in newspapers as a stellar athlete, with particular attention to basketball. His notoriety included mentions in the Prep Athlete of the Week section of the San Francisco Examiner.3 At the age of 16, Will said, “I think I’m naturally better at basketball. I don’t work as hard at baseball as I do at basketball.”4 His senior year, he opted to run track — he “was tired of baseball. … [B]asketball was my passion.”5 After graduating from high school in 2001, Will enrolled at Princeton University. He admitted that, while he would continue academic pursuits, he had chosen Princeton for basketball, not academics.6 “The program had a great tradition of going to the NCAA tournament, and I wanted to be a part of that,” he said.7
At Princeton, Will felt the challenges posed by dual commitments — basketball and academics. “The academics were a little overwhelming for me my first year,” he said later. “My parents hadn’t wanted want [sic] me to be out of my league academically, and I was. You go to discussion groups and hear some of the kids talk — really smart kids — and it’s intimidating.”8 This stress was real but he said he was “better for it.”9
Basketball occupied Will’s time and energy his freshman year. He was not a starter, but played in 27 games, scored 150 points and achieved a .480 two-point field goal percentage. The following three seasons, he was a starter, and was in the top 10 in the Ivy League in two-point field goal percentages each season.10
During his sophomore year, Venable spoke with Princeton baseball coach Scott Bradley, a former major leaguer, and joined the baseball team. His skills impressed Bradley and other Tigers players. One player told Coach Bradley that things were not fair: While he worked very hard to be good hitter, Venable “shows up and he’s a better hitter than I will ever be in my entire life.” Bradley responded simply, “Will Venable will play in the major leagues.”11 From a .244 batting average in his first season, the left-handed throwing and batting Venable steadily progressed to .344 his junior year and .385 his senior year, and finished as the starting center fielder. His baseball achievements mirrored his basketball successes. In addition to All-Ivy League selections in basketball and baseball, Venable twice received the B.F. Bunn Trophy, awarded to the varsity basketball player who “through sportsmanship, play and influence has contributed most to the sport.”12 He also earned the Roper Trophy, awarded to a senior of “high scholastic rank and outstanding qualities of sportsmanship and general proficiency in athletics.”13
Venable was the second Princeton student to be named first-team All-Ivy in both basketball and baseball. The first was Chris Young, Class of 2002, who was a teammate of Venable’s with the Padres. Venable recalled his time at Princeton as a “tough four years that taught me a lot about myself and other people,” adding, “I was challenged academically and athletically at all times.”14 There was “a lot of work, but both Coach Bradley and Coaches Thompson and Scott [in basketball] allowed me to do what I needed in preparation for either season; and academically, “the teachers were also understanding while holding me to the same academic standards of all the other students.”15
By 2004, Venable was attracting interest from major-league teams. That year, the Baltimore Orioles selected him in the 15th round of the amateur draft, but he chose to remain at Princeton. In June 2005, the San Diego Padres selected him in the seventh round; ESPN’s Peter Gammons identified him as “my favorite sleeper” of that draft.16
Venable’s mother, Molly, greatly influenced his decision not to pursue a career in the NBA, via time in European professional basketball. “She told me to think about trying baseball again because she saw the opportunities that it gave my dad,” Venable said. “I went to Princeton with the intentions of trying both. I didn’t play my freshman year because I couldn’t handle it. She just continually reminded me to keep it in mind, and it ended up working out.”17 He signed with the Padres as an outfielder. His first assignment, in June of 2005, was with the Rookie League Arizona Padres. After a month he was assigned to the Eugene (Oregon) Emeralds of the short-season Class-A Northwest League. In 2006 he was advanced to the Fort Wayne Wizards of the Class-A Midwest League.
In Fort Wayne, with the coaching of his father, Max, he impressed the Padres with a .314 batting average and 11 home runs in 124 games. After the season he joined the West Oahu Canefires of Hawaii Winter Baseball and batted .330. In 2007 Venable was promoted to the San Antonio Missions of the Double-A Texas League, and batted .278 in 134 games, then joined the Peoria Saguaros of the Arizona Fall League. Moved up to Triple-A Portland, he batted .292 with 14 home runs in 120 games before making his major-league debut on August 29. Although he would need more time in the minor leagues, in just over three years, the basketball player turned baseball player had reached the major leagues.
Venable played the remainder of the 2008 season with the Padres, and in November, at the Padres’ suggestion, headed to the Dominican Winter League to play with the Gigantes del Cibao. He did not hit well — 18 strikeouts to 15 hits, and a .200 batting average — he admitted his poor hitting “was no one’s fault but my own.”18 He noted only one regret about his time in the Dominican — that he did not travel there while he was studying anthropology at Princeton. He noted, “I wished I was exposed to [the Dominican Republic] before I wrote my thesis. I would have gotten an A. I found an infinite amount of materials to write about. And the love I had for the game.”19
The 26-year-old Venable returned to Portland from April to June 2009, and in 53 games batted .260 with 12 home runs. Called up to San Diego in early June, he played in 95 games, starting in 71. Playing mostly right field, he batted .256 with 12 home runs.
Veable was a regular in the Padres lineup from the start of the 2010 season to August of 2015, with short stints at Lake Elsinore and San Antonio in 2010 for rehabilitation of a lower back strain, which troubled him for much of that year.20 In 2011, batting .224 at the end of May, he was sent to Triple-A Tucson. Manager Bud Black said it was “better for Venable to on his hitting in the minors rather than in big league games. …”21 Will was there to work “on his stance and feeling comfortable at the plate.”22 He did have trouble hitting left-handed pitching, and would specifically address this concern in 2012 and 2013, his best years in the major leagues.
In 2011 Venable batted .246 in 121 games with 9 home runs. He fared somewhat better in the 2012 season, batting .264 in 148 games with 9 home runs. Before the 2012 season, Venable had worked with Padres hitting coach Phil Plantier and said he felt more confident at the plate that season. Of his work with Plantier, Venable commented, “My dad’s never forced ideas on me. And usually when we’ve talked hitting, it’s been from a distance. But when I told him about what Phil had been doing, he liked the adjustments. My dad is another positive reinforcement.”23
In San Diego’s home opener, on April 9, 2013, Venable matched his single-game career high of four RBIs by hitting a home run and a bases-loaded triple.24
More stellar offense and defense would come that season. In June, against San Francisco, he “made an incredible catch to save San Diego. …Venable’s diving grab on the center field warning track with his back to home plate ended the 12th and stole a game-winning hit from Juan Perez.”25 On August 18 against the New York Mets, Venable singled to extend his 15-game hitting streak and hit a game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth. He spent a good deal of the season in center field, filling in for Cameron Maybin, who had been plagued with injuries. For the season Venable “set career highs in nearly every offensive category” He batted .268 with 22 home runs, 53 RBIs, and 22 stolen bases.26 In a September game against the Phillies, Venable hit his ninth leadoff home run, his 22nd of the season, off Roy Halladay.27 This was a Padres record. Venable was named the National League Player of the Week for August 18, the only time he received this recognition. He was named the Padres nominee for the annual Hank Aaron Award;28 and he was unanimously voted the Padres’ Most Valuable Player by the San Diego chapter of the BBWAA.29 In December Venable and to his fiancée Kathryn were married in Anguilla.
Venable’s overall production dropped in 2014. He played in 146 games, and finished the season with a .224 batting average and 8 home runs. In the field he had a perfect season, 1.000, with no errors in the outfield — he played right, center, and left fields.
The 2015 season brought changes in Venable’s career and life. The first major event was the birth of a daughter, McKinley, to him and Kathryn on August 6. He was on the paternity leave list from August 730 to August 9.31 Two weeks later, the Padres traded Venable to the Texas Rangers for catcher-outfielder Marcus Greens and right-handed pitcher Jon Edwards. Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, said Venable was “a smart player, tremendous reputation on and off the field. He can run, has some power, can play all 3 [outfield] positions. … We’re a little thin in the outfield and he gives us protection in all three spots.”32 The “thin in the outfield” referred to the injured Josh Hamilton; Daniels felt the Rangers needed depth. A great deal was happening in Venable’s professional and personal lives. “Knowing I had to say goodbye to people and a place I love is not an easy thing to do,” Venable said before the Rangers opened their series against the Padres at Petco Park on Monday. “Especially, when it’s instant. I had to get my stuff and get out of the clubhouse in about an hour or two. It was emotional, but it’s something that happens to everybody.”33 Fans felt some of those same emotions: “Venable certainly won the heart of Padres fans, who starved for players who stay longer than two or three years.”34
Venable played in 37 regular-season games for the Rangers. He hit .182 with 3 home runs. The Rangers (West Division champions) faced the Toronto Blue Jays (East Division champions) in the first round of the ALDS. The Blue Jays won the best-of-five series, three games to two. Venable appeared in four games, as a left fielder, pinch-runner, designated hitter, and pinch-hitter. He had two at-bats, and one hit. Released by the Rangers, In February of 2016, he signed a minor-league deal with the Cleveland Indians with a nonroster invitation to spring training.35
When Venable realized at the end of spring training that the Indians would not put him on the major-league roster, he asked for his release; and one day later, he signed a minor-league deal with the Philadelphia Phillies with an invitation to major-league camp. Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said, “We’re anxious to see what he looks like. I’ve seen him in the past. … I know he’s a good outfielder, he’s got power, and he can run. We’ll just give him three to four games to see what he looks like.”36
Venable played in 41 games for the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs and batted .205. The Phillies had seen enough. Three days after his release from the Phillies organization, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed him to a deal that would keep him on the club at least until Yasiel Puig returned from the disabled list later in June.37 The Dodgers assigned Venable to the Oklahoma City Dodgers on June 24. He had played in 12 games and had one hit in 18 at-bats. He played his final game in the major leagues on July 6, 2106, perhaps ironically, versus the Baltimore Orioles (the first team to show real interest in him, having drafted him in 2004). He completed the 2016 season with Triple-A Oklahoma City. There he played in 46 games, hit .276 with 4 home runs.
In November Venable elected free-agency status, but no major-league playing opportunity came his way. On September 6, 2017, he officially retired as a player and joined the Chicago Cubs as a special assistant to the club’s president of baseball operations, Theo Epstein, and general manager Jed Hoyer. His responsibilities, according to the Cubs, involved “several aspects of the Cubs’ baseball operations department, including work with Minor League affiliates, amateur player evaluation for the MLB Draft and assistance with the Major League club.”38 Just over two months later, on November 17, 2017, Venable was named the Cubs’ first-base coach. Hoyer said, “You want the experience of older coaches (such as) Chili (Davis) and (Brian Butterfield), as well as Joe (Maddon). But having a couple of guys who are not far removed (from their playing days is) a nice balance when a player has a conversation he might not feel an older guy can necessarily relate to.”39 His responsibilities also included coaching the Cubs outfielders.
Venable’s philosophical summation of playing professional baseball could be applied to his approach to life: “All of us players, I think we have an idea of the player we want to be, and getting there is, a lot of times, difficult. And it’s more than having a good month, or a good couple of at-bats against lefties. I know the ways that I’ve improved. I know the adjustments that I’m making, the improvements that I’m making. It’s not something that happened.”40
Education also remained a priority in Venable’s life: He enrolled at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flager Business School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted Baseball Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, MLB.com, and ESPN.com.
1 Brett Tomlinson, “Fast Pitch, Fast Mind,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, https://paw.princeton.edu/article/fast-pitch-fast-mind.
2 “Chris Young ’02, Will Venable ’05, Ross Ohlendorf, ’05, & David Hale ’11,” Princeton Varsity Club, https://princetonvarsityclub.org/2013/12/chris-young-02-will-venable-05-ross-ohlendorf-05-and-david-hale-11/
3 “Prep Athletes of the Week,” San Francisco Examiner, January 30, 1999.
5 Tim Kurkjian, “Going from Princeton to the Big Leagues,” ESPN, April 16, 2010. https://espn.com/mlb/columns/story?columnist=kurkjian_tim&id=5094390.
6 “Celebrating Black History Month Profiles from Ivy League’s Black History,” “Will Venable.” Ivy@50. https://ivy50.com/blackhistory/story.aspx?sid=12/18/2006.
8 Chris Jenkins, “Venable Has Been a Remarkably Quick Study,” San Diego Union-Tribune, August 10, 2009.
12“Cubs Roster & Staff,” Official Site of the Chicago Cubs, https://m.mlb.com/chc/roster/coach/461416/will-venable.
13 “William Winston Roper Trophy,” Princeton Varsity Club, https://princetonvarsityclub.org/award/william-winston-roper-trophy/.
14 “Celebrating Black History Month Profiles from Ivy League’s Black History.” “Will Venable.”
16 Celebrating Black History Month Profiles from Ivy League’s Black History.”
17 Henry Schulman, “Max Venable’s Son Shows Skills with Padres,” SFGate, September 14, 2008. https://sfgate.com/sports/article/Max-Venable-s-son-shows-skills-with-Padres-3269307.php.
20 “Will Venable 38 — MLB.com.” https://mlb.mlb.com/documents/0/4/6/41912046/venablebio_w8p6y7gw.pdf.
21 “Padres Send Venable to Triple-A,” Akron Beacon Journal, May 24, 2011.
22 Sarah Trotto, “Venable Hits Two Home Runs for Tucson,” Arizona Daily Star (Tucson), May 28, 2011.
23 Bill Center, “Venable Looking to Improve With Help from Plantier,” San Diego Tribune, February 29, 2012.
24 Bernie Wilson, “Venable’s Bat Powers Pads Past Dodgers in Home Opener,” Santa Maria (California) Times, April 10, 2013.
25 Jamie McCauley, “Padres Break Through for 2 in 13th, Beat Giants,” Santa Maria Times, June 18, 2013.
26 “Will Venable Named Padres Nominee for 2013 Hank Aaron Award,” MLB.com, October 7, 2013. https://mlb.com/padres/news/will-venable-named-padres-nominee-for-2013-hank-aaron-award/c-62629386.
27 Dave Zeitlin, “Ruiz Leads Phils to 10-5 Win Over Padres,” Lompoc (California) Record. September 13, 2013.
28 The Hank Aaron Award, given since 1999 to the most outstanding offensive performer in each league, went to first baseman Paul Goldschmidt of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013.
29“Will Venable 38 — MLB.com.”
30 “Thursday’s Sports Transactions, National League,” Tulare (California) Advance Register, August 7, 2015.
31 “Transactions Baseball, National League,” Desert Sun (Palm Springs, California), August 9, 2015.
32 Stefan Stevenson, “With Hamilton Still Out, Rangers Acquire Will Venable from Padres,” Fort Worth Star Telegram, August 18, 2015. https://star-telegram.com/sports/mlb/texas-rangers/article31476940.html.
33 Stefan Stevenson, “Longtime Padre Venable Adjusting to New Life with Rangers,” Fort Worth Star Telegram. https://star-telegram.com/sports/mlb/texas-rangers/article33303756.html.
34 Nick Lee, “Padres Birthday Spotlight: Will Venable,” East Village Times. October 2018. https://eastvillagetimes.com/2018/10/padres-birthday-spotlight-will-venable/.
35 Matt Lyons, “Cleveland Indians Sign Will Venable to Minor-League Deal,” Let’s Go Tribe. https://letsgotribe.com/2016/2/26/11119966/cleveland-indians-free-agents-will-venable-signing.
36 “Venable Signs with Phillies, a Day After Indians Release Him,” USA Today. https://usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/2016/03/28/venable-signs-with-phillies-a-day-after-indians-release-him/82358566/.
37 Ken Gurnick, “Dodgers Add Vet Venable to Bench, Option Barnes,” Official Site of the Philadelphia Phillies, June 14, 2016. https://mlb.com/phillies/news/dodgers-sign-veteran-outfielder-will-venable/c-184020880.
38 Jack Baer, “Ex-Big Leaguer Venable Joins Cubs’ Front Office,” The Official Site of the Chicago Cubs, September 6, 2017. https://mlb.com/cubs/news/cubs-hire-will-venable-as-special-assistant/c-252798732.
39 Mark Gonzales, “Cubs Counting on New Coach Will Venable Being Able to Relate to Players” Chicago Tribune, March 9. 2018. https://chicagotribune.com/sports/baseball/cubs/ct-spt-cubs-will-venable-experience-20180309-story.html.
40 Howard Megdal, “The Reinvention of Will Venable,” Sports on Earth, https://sportsonearth.com/article/60291588/the-new-and-improved-will-venable-explains-his-secrets.