An NBA general manager thought that he would have been a first-round pick, but Princeton's Chris Young took a different path. That path has made him one of the toughest pitchers in the game of baseball.
On October 6, 2006, Chris Young made Princeton history.
When he took the mound for the San Diego Padres in Game 3 of the National League Division Series against the eventual World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals, Young became the first ex-Princeton player to ever appear in major league baseball's postseason. Twenty-three Princeton alums played major league ball before Young, starting with Leonidas Funkhouser, who played as Leonidas Lee for the National League's St. Louis Brown Stockings in 1877.
"I tried to treat it like any other game," remembers Young, but on the field "there was a buzz, an extra energy. It was an abnormal experience." What wasn't abnormal was his performance. He struck out nine in 6 2/3 scoreless innings as he earned the Padres only postseason victory. "It was a great experience," he says.
This capped a season where Young was arguably the most effective starting pitcher in the majors. He held opposing batters to the lowest batting average, .206, of any starter with at least 162 innings, on the way to an 11-5 won-loss record. In addition he had a National League-best 2.41 road ERA, and almost had three no-hitters. On May 30, he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning versus Colorado; in his next start, he took a no-hitter into the sixth at Pittsburgh; and on September 22 he nearly no-hit the Pirates again, holding them hitless through 8 1/3 innings.
Yet at Princeton he was probably better known for playing basketball. Choosing Princeton over Vanderbilt and the University of Texas because of its "great baseball and basketball programs along with the tremendous academic record," Young is the only player in Ivy League history to earn Rookie of the Year honors in both basketball and baseball. In basketball he was a two-time letter winner and team captain, first team All-Ivy in 2000, and still holds the school record for blocked shots in a game and season. Yet at the same time he was training for baseball, throwing in "The Pit" (a workout area under Jadwin gym) with baseball coach Scott Bradley, sometimes late in the evening after basketball.
In baseball he was no less stellar. Named first team All-Ivy in 1998 in 2000, Young was perfect in 2000, with a 5-0 record. More importantly, he acquired baseball coach Scott Bradley as a mentor. "He taught me great lessons in professionalism and what it takes to succeed at the highest level on and off the playing field," says Young.
On top of this was his academic work. "Balancing academics and athletics was a major challenge," says Young. "There were times when I dropped a couple of classes because I felt the academic requirements and commitments were going to be too great with my athletic schedule." To play two sports and succeed academically "there were times when I had to sacrifice the pleasures and joys of a social life," he says, "but it was a sacrifice I was willing to make."
Taken in the third round of the 2000 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates, Young slowly worked through the minors. He also earned his degree in 2002, taking his final semester via e-mail while at spring training. His thesis? The impact that Jackie Robinson's integration of professional baseball in 1947 had on racial attitudes and stereotypes within the media, particularly the New York Times.
By 2004, his fifth season in the minors, Young had been traded twice and risen to AA Frisco in the Texas Rangers organization. The NBA's Sacramento Kings, led by fellow Princeton alum Geoff Petrie, made him a two-year offer, with Petrie claiming that if Young had played basketball all four years at Princeton he would have been a first-round draft pick. In response the Rangers promoted him to Class AAA and awarded him a three-year, $1.5 million contract. And on August 24, 2004 Young became the first Princeton alum to appear in a major league game since Bob Tufts pitched for the Kansas City Royals in 1983.
"If I hadn't been called up," Young said at the time, "I would have had to at least go to (Sacramento's) training camp to see if I could make it to the NBA." He doesn't regret not trying the NBA. "I don't know what kind of NBA player I would have been," he says now. "My biggest disappointment is not being able to play [his final basketball seasons] for Princeton."
Young posted a 3-2 record in 2004, then went 12-7 in 2005. After that season the Rangers traded him to the San Diego Padres, a deal that still rankles Rangers fans. "We should have never got rid of Chris Young. I'm still rather disturbed from that deal," says one such fan blog.
San Diego has proven to be quite congenial to Young. "We match up with any team," he says. "If we stay healthy there's no reason why we couldn't repeat (as Division Champions). I like our chances." After the 2006 season, he was afforded a rare opportunity - to travel to Japan with a group of major league all-stars and play Japan's all-stars.
In 1934 another Princeton alum, the legendary Moe Berg, made this trip with a group of baseball immortals that included Babe Ruth and Columbia's Lou Gehrig. Berg, an intellectual who spoke multiple languages, took movies of the Tokyo skyline that were later used during World War II to plan bombing runs - though this story may be apocryphal.
What struck Young during his trip was "the tremendous fan support for major league baseball. They treated us like rock stars," he remembers. And "knew every player by name. That experience made the trip."
His future plans are simple. "I'll play as long as I possibly can as long as anybody will let me and a team will have me," he says simply. But he hasn't forgotten where he came from. "I feel very grateful and proud of my Princeton degree, I would not trade it for anything. It is a great institution that has afforded me opportunities in life that I could not have experienced anywhere else."
— Stephen Eschenbach