By pitching like an All-Star for the San Diego Padres, Chris Young ’02 continues to be a pitchman for Princeton baseball. And more major-league alumni could be on the way, according to coach Scott Bradley. “I think we’ll have at least three more players play in the majors,” Bradley said of the current crop of alumni in the minor leagues, “and there is an outside chance for five or six.”
Perennial powerhouse programs like Vanderbilt, Stanford, and Rice can sell prestigious educations, along with warmer weather and longer schedules, to the student-athletes Princeton covets. But Young’s success and Bradley’s nine years as a major-league catcher are valuable recruiting tools as well.
Former Tigers playing pro baseball — including pitcher Ross Ohlendorf ’05 (New York Yankees) in Triple-A and pitcher Tim Lahey ’04 (Minnesota Twins) and outfielder Will Venable ’05 (Padres) in Double-A — help Princeton attract high school players with professional aspirations.
“Recruits saw Chris had been drafted high [third round], and that made it easier when we talked to somebody like Ohlendorf, who had other options besides Princeton,” Bradley said. “He didn’t have to give up other dreams to get the best education in the world.”
Venable is a former Tiger basketball player who took advantage of the Ivy League’s short baseball season to play two sports on campus, as did B.J. Szymanski ’06, an outfielder for Cincinnati’s High-A affiliate at Sara-sota who played football at Princeton.
“We have to find athletes who played multiple sports and perhaps didn’t go to high-level [recruiting] showcases, or maybe were slow developers,” Bradley said. “The University of Texas wanted Ohlendorf [both parents work for the school], but he was going to have to wait to see the mound there. He could come to Princeton and pitch significant innings right away.”
Ohlendorf, the key Yankee acquisition in the team’s trade of Randy Johnson to the Arizona Diamondbacks last winter, starred in three seasons at Princeton. This year, he has been slowed by hamstring and back injuries, but he remains one step away from joining Young in the majors.
Lahey was Ohlendorf’s catcher at Princeton, but Bradley, noticing his strong arm, sent him to the pros with instructions not to allow himself to be cut without a pitching tryout. Lahey took Bradley’s advice in his second pro season, when the Twins chose two catchers ahead of him for their Low-A roster, and he made a strong impression on the mound.
Two years later, Lahey is pitching in relief at AA New Britain (Conn.) with a fastball that has put him on the fast track — an unexpected career path for someone who had stopped pitching at age 11. “He has a major-league fastball and slider and just needs time and experience to get command of them,” said Gary Lucas, the New Britain pitching coach.
Other Tigers are trying to find their way back to top form. Szymanski, drafted in the second round by the Reds in 2004, has had two surgeries on his right knee that have caused him to give up switch-hitting, but he came on strong in May and early June, as did Sarasota teammate Thomas Pauly ’04. Pauly, a second-round pick in 2003 and once the Reds’ minor-league pitcher of the year, is coming back from shoulder surgery.
Pauly, a chemical engineering graduate, could easily “turn the page” and move on to his next career, Bradley said, but he loves baseball. The same goes for promising pitchers Brian Kappel ’05, who has improved his breaking pitches in Low-A for the Seattle Mariners, and Erik Stiller ’06, whose fastball has topped 94 miles per hour in High-A for the Cleveland Indians. Princeton’s latest draft choice, third baseman Sal Iacono ’07, joined the Houston Astros’ Single-A affiliate in Troy, N.Y., in June.
Lahey, who divided his energies between baseball and basketball in high school, said the credit for Princeton’s pro baseball success should go to Bradley. “He brings in guys like me who hadn’t been playing for long and need coaching,” Lahey said. “He got me into pro ball.”