Chris Young ’02 stays in the game

Chris Young ’02
John Sleezer/The Kansas City Star via AP Images

The major-league baseball season invariably is described as a “grind,” at least by those who’ve lived through one. Teams play 162 games in six months, with few days off and hundreds of hours spent on planes or buses. But spring training is different — the familiar routines are more relaxed, the time constraints less rigid. Think Groundhog Day, says Chris Young ’02, but the day you’re repeating is fun.

“I love it. There’s not a day that I wish I was doing something else,” says Young, a pitcher for the Kansas City Royals. It’s a cool March morning at spring training in Surprise, Ariz., and the 6-foot-10-inch righthander lines up with his fellow pitchers for fielding practice, covering first base on ground balls hit toward the first baseman. His partner is Mike Sweeney, a retired Royals All-Star who now serves as a spring-training instructor. Sweeney fields the ball with a slight bobble, and Young, striding across the infield, shouts encouragement. “Stay with it, Sween!” Sweeney barehands the ball and tosses it into Young’s new baby-blue Rawlings glove, just as the pitcher’s toe reaches the bag. 

Four years ago, Young wondered if he’d ever return to spring training. As he endured a painful cycle of shoulder injuries followed by long periods of rehabilitation, his career seemed headed toward a premature end. Just imagining the pain caused by throwing a baseball was enough to make him ill. “If I can’t throw without feeling that way, I can’t keep doing this,” he told himself.

But Young’s outlook improved after a chance meeting with a former minor-league teammate who’d had surgery to repair a nerve condition called thoracic outlet syndrome. They compared symptoms, and Young saw striking similarities. He made his way to a leading surgeon in St. Louis, Robert Thompson, who confirmed Young’s self-diagnosis. 

Thompson removed muscle and bone to relieve pressure on nerves in Young’s neck and shoulder. Four weeks after the surgery, Young was throwing without pain. The following year, he landed a job in the Seattle Mariners’ starting rotation, where he won 12 games and was voted the American League Comeback Player of the Year. A year after that, in 2015, Young climbed the mound in the opening game of the World Series and pitched three scoreless innings in relief, helping the Royals to the first of four victories over the New York Mets.

Young, now nearing his 38th birthday, is the second-oldest player on the Royals’ roster. He’s in his 17th season of professional baseball and hopes to keep pitching for a few more years, extending a career that started when he was a 21-year-old Princeton undergrad. “Coming back from a point when I thought my career could be over — and likely was, had I not had the surgery — has given me a different perspective,” he says.

Some of Young’s earliest memories involve baseball. His father would pitch to him at a ball field in Dallas, the city where Young was born, raised, and now lives with his wife, Liz ’02, and their three children. But at Princeton, he was known as much for his play on the basketball court as he was for his time on the pitcher’s mound. In two seasons, he helped the men’s basketball team to a pair of NIT appearances. 

His baseball career was impressive as well. Pro scouts would watch and wonder just what they were seeing: Could Young become an intimidating fireballer like the 6-foot-10 lefty Randy Johnson, then the reigning Cy Young Award-winner for the Arizona Diamondbacks? Princeton coach Scott Bradley, a former major-league catcher who’d been Johnson’s teammate, compared Young to two Hall of Famers, telling the scouts, “He’s Greg Maddux in Randy Johnson’s body.” Johnson won because of his power; Maddux because of his control.

 Young was chosen by baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates in the third round of the 2000 amateur draft, forcing him to make a difficult choice: If he signed a pro contract, he’d have to give up basketball — Ivy League rules prohibit a pro in one sport from playing in another. If he declined the contract, there was no guarantee he’d get another opportunity. 

During a quiet summer in the Cape Cod Baseball League, a showcase for top collegiate players, Young pondered his options. Then Pittsburgh, impressed by Young’s summer stats, offered a contract that was comparable to the one given to its first-round draft pick that year. Young signed it before the start of the fall semester. 

In negotiating the deal, Young asked the Pirates to accommodate his academic schedule so that he could graduate with his Princeton class — a significant concession, since it meant he would miss parts of the team’s fall rookie camp and spring training. “If I leave and don’t come back or don’t finish on time, I’m sort of a stereotype, and I don’t want to be that,” he recalls thinking. “I want to show that I’m making a commitment to my education and I’m not here just to play sports.”

Without the demands of two varsity practice schedules, Young saw another side of Princeton, one that included more of a social life. As a senior, he began dating Liz, a friend he’d met in a freshman-year Spanish class. When Chris traveled south for spring training that year, it was Liz who took his senior thesis to be bound. “She takes credit for my graduating, and she should,” he says, laughing.

Young would spend three and a half years in the minor leagues before earning his first shot to play in the majors, as a member of his hometown Texas Rangers, in August 2004. He pitched well enough to stay in the starting rotation through the end of the season, and then won a roster spot again the following spring. When he hit his first slump — a dismal stretch in July 2005 — Texas manager Buck Showalter called Young into his office for what the pitcher assumed would be a demotion back to the minors. Instead, Showalter told Young that the team was committed to keeping him in the majors. In his next start, he threw seven scoreless innings against the Minnesota Twins, restoring his confidence and propelling him through the rest of the season.

In the next two years, Young would have far more highs than lows. He was traded again, to the San Diego Padres, one of the top teams in the National League West, and he emerged as one of the most effective starters in baseball, leading the league with the fewest hits allowed per inning in two consecutive years. He was selected for the National League All-Star team in 2007. 

The following year, Young was struck with a line drive off the bat of St. Louis star Albert Pujols. The ball broke Young’s nose, leaving a jagged scar between his eyes, and sidelined him for two months. As scary as it appeared, the injury seemed like a freak accident, a momentary dip in a steadily rising trajectory. But in 2009, Young began dealing with pain in his right shoulder so debilitating that he couldn’t even reach across his body to pull on his seat belt when driving. 

It was just the beginning. Young went through extensive rehab regimens to combat two shoulder injuries in consecutive seasons, avoiding surgery at first. Then, in 2011, four starts into his first year with the New York Mets, a ligament in Young’s shoulder tore off the bone. Surgery was the only option. 

He returned to the Mets in June 2012, but the following year, with no major-league deals to be found, he signed a minor-league contract with the Washington Nationals. But his shoulder problems were not over. By the end of spring training, his shoulder ached constantly. “Any pitcher who’s been doing this for a while experiences levels of aches and discomfort, and there’s a pretty high threshold for pain for all major-league players,” he says. But when the pain begins to dramatically affect quality of life, “you really have to start evaluating and saying, ‘Is this something that is normal that I can deal with?’ ”

When Young learned that surgery could take away his pain, he had a modest question for Thompson, the surgeon: Would he be able to play catch again with his kids? Yes, Thompson told him — and you’ll be able to pitch in the major leagues, too.

Hours of off-season weightlifting and throwing paved Young’s road back to the major leagues, but he credits less tangible elements for making his return possible. There is an enormous “emotional component,” he says, including a supportive family that provides a much-needed counterbalance to the pressures on the field. Chris credits Liz, a Georgetown Law grad who decided not to practice in order to be a stay-at-home parent, for making their family run. “There’s no way I could do this job without her,” he says.

The Young family celebrates Kansas City’s 2015 World Series title at Citi Field in New York. Pictured from left are Grant, Catherine, Chris ’02, Scott, and Liz ’02.
Courtesy Liz Young ’02

The Youngs — including daughter Catherine, now 9, and sons Scott, 6, and Grant, 4 — are a baseball family. Some major-league spouses homeschool their children, to keep the family together as much as possible, but Liz and Chris settled in Dallas when Catherine started school. That means more time apart from February through May, when Liz and the kids see Chris only during school vacations and on occasional weekends. The night before the last day of school, Liz packs the car for Kansas City, and the family spends most of the summer together. She says that the pros of Chris’ atypical career far outweigh the cons: He may be away more than most dads, but “when he’s home, he’s home 100 percent.” 

On the field, Young is known for the same kind of commitment. Royals pitcher Ian Kennedy calls him “one of the most competitive guys that I’ve played with, ever” and “the perfect professional.” Pitching coach Dave Eiland says perseverance and conviction set Young apart. “He doesn’t show up at the ballpark the day that he’s pitching and hope that he does well,” he says. “He shows up convinced he’s going to do well. And that goes a long way in this game.”

Young, affable and soft-spoken, describes his mindset on the mound as “angry,” though you’d never know it from watching. He has an outward calm that can be hard to read — if you turn on a game without looking at the scoreboard, it could be hard to tell whether he’s throwing a no-hitter or trailing by four runs. But there are moments of subtle intensity, according to Bradley, his Princeton coach. “He kind of sets his jaw and gets a little bit more of stare in his eyes,” Bradley says. “Then you know he’s locked in.”

The jaw, the stare, the anger, the concentration, the unflinching composure — it all takes a toll. By the time he leaves most games, Young says, he has a headache. 

This month, Young began his 13th major-league season. Statistically, that puts him far above average: A 2000 study by Pomona College economists Teddy Schall and Gary Smith found an average career span of 4.8 seasons for major-league pitchers, based on data from 1901–99. A paper published in Population Research and Policy Review in 2007 bumped up the average to 6.9 years for hitters in the “modern era” (1969–2003), but the authors didn’t study pitchers because of the frequency of career-ending or career-altering injuries. And these figures don’t include the hundreds of players who never reach the game’s highest tier.

Other Princetonians have built careers in pro sports, including baseball players Ross Ohlendorf ’05 and Will Venable ’05, who’ve each played parts of nine seasons in the majors. Ohlendorf is pitching in Japan this year, while Venable, an outfielder, is a free agent. In other sports, Princeton’s recent pros include Jesse Marsch ’96, who had a 14-year career in Major League Soccer (MLS), and Jeff Halpern ’99, who spent 14 seasons in the NHL.

Marsch, who now coaches the New York Red Bulls, says he faced a crossroads relatively early in his career, when he was 26 years old. MLS was still establishing itself — contracts weren’t very lucrative — so he considered three paths: leaving for Europe, where the competition would be fierce and the pay could be much higher; giving up the game to attend business school; or sticking with MLS and preparing for a coaching career. He chose the third option. 

Halpern says his career longevity came from a willingness to be self-critical. At age 32, he spent the offseason working with a skating coach to remake his stride; at 34, he took a closer look at nutrition and cut 10 pounds from his playing weight. He says he was skating faster the day he left the NHL than the day he arrived. 

But even with speed and veteran savvy, Halpern reached a point where teams stopped calling. He jokes that being a pro athlete is like having “super powers.” One day you’re Superman, the next you’re Clark Kent, without a phone booth in sight. Halpern landed a coaching job with the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch.

Not all ex-pros are so fortunate. Keith Elias ’94, a former pro football player, works in the NFL’s Player Engagement office, helping players take the next steps after their time on the field is done. For some, there are serious financial and lifestyle issues to resolve. But for those who’ve managed to play for a long time and reach a certain level of financial security, the questions are more philosophical. “The conversation isn’t about résumés and job-shadowing or internships,” he says. “The conversation is about purpose.”

Young seems reticent when talking about next steps in his career, since he wants to keep pitching. But he leans toward staying in the game, perhaps in a front-office role, where he could help to shape a team. “At this point, I feel like I have a master’s in baseball,” he says. 

The peak of Young’s baseball career, to date, came late in the evening of Nov. 1, 2015, when Royals teammate Wade Davis struck out the Mets’ Wilmer Flores to clinch the World Series title. Young bounded out to the pitcher’s mound to celebrate with his teammates in a scene that was later featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. But Young’s quintessential view of that moment is a video he keeps on his phone, shot by a family friend. Liz watches the final out and screams in delight with Royals fans nearby while Grant, wearing a plush yellow crown, smiles in her arms. Catherine cheers. And Scott, curled up in his seat, sleeps soundly through it all.

Years earlier, when Liz was pregnant with Catherine, she noticed Chris counting on his fingers and asked what he was doing. He replied that he was figuring out how long he’d have to keep pitching for his kids to remember it. 

Like his dad, Young pitches batting practice to his children — he just happens to do it on a major-league field, after games. He watches his kids high-fiving All-Star teammates like Eric Hosmer and Salvy Perez. “I don’t think they appreciate it yet,” he says, “but one day they will.”

Young appreciates the long, often meandering path of his career. After the Royals’ World Series run, he endured one of his most frustrating seasons, in 2016, struggling as a starter in the first half of the season before eventually finding a place in the bullpen. But he’s optimistic about a return to the postseason this October.

“It’s one of the best groups of people that I’ve been around in my life,” Young says. “I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be. To me, it’s the perfect fit.” 

 Brett Tomlinson is PAW’s digital and sports editor.