When Will Venable stepped on Princeton’s campus for his official recruiting visit before the fall of 2001, it was for basketball not baseball. He was a star on the court at San Rafael High School in Northern California. During his teenage years, basketball was Venable’s first love and what he saw as his future.
But Venable’s father, Max, a former major leaguer who carved out a 12-year playing career, knew his son. So, during the visit, as the younger Venable envisioned what it would be like to play for an historic Ivy League brought to prominence by the legendary Pete Carril, Max slipped away to meet the Princeton baseball coach, Scott Bradley.
The two had known each other in passing from their time in the majors. Sure, Max wanted to catch up on the time that had passed since they had seen each other, but Max also had a clear and distinct message for the Princeton skipper.
“He came up to the office just to kind of [say] hi and chat for a while,” Bradley recalled by phone Wednesday. “And he said, ‘Look, I think at some point, Will would want to play baseball. He hasn’t played in two years.’ ”
Venable didn’t turn an eye toward the baseball diamond early into his freshman year. It was all basketball. He averaged just over 15 minutes per game during his freshman campaign and the Tigers finished 16-12, second in the Ivy League. But as his father had predicted, the baseball bug would eventually hit him. After nearly three years away from the game, Venable felt it was the right time for a return and intimated that to Bradley.
“I said, ‘You want to go hit?’ ’’ Bradley remembered asking Venable at the time. “He said, ‘Sure.’ ” I go, ‘When was the last time you hit?’ He goes, ‘I don’t know, maybe three years ago.’ ”
The first five pitches Bradley threw Venable, he missed. The next five Bradley threw him, he popped up in the cage.
“Then he became our best hitter,” Bradley said.
Venable played three seasons for Bradley and turned himself into a seventh-round draft choice by the San Diego Padres in 2005 after hitting .385 with nine homers during his senior season. He turned that into a nine-year playing career in the majors for the Padres, Texas Rangers, and Los Angeles Dodgers, hitting .249 with 81 homers while playing all three outfield positions.
This is an example of who Venable is. That’s why his latest challenge as the new Red Sox bench coach under Alex Cora isn’t random. Venable knows he’s capable. Furthermore, he understands when it’s time to make a shift.
“In his last year [in the majors in 2016], he called me and said, ‘You know, I could probably go make a team. But I think I really want to get onto the other side of baseball, you know, whether it is player development, coaching,’ ” Bradley said. “He knew it at that point.”
In 2017, Venable served as the Chicago Cubs’ special assistant to president Theo Epstein, before taking on the role as the team’s first base coach for the 2018-19 seasons. In 2020, he became the Cubs’ third base coach. Veteran Cameron Maybin understands the road Venable took to get here and what he can offer the game and the Red Sox. The two were teammates in San Diego for parts of four seasons (2011-14). Then, Venable briefly coached Maybin last season with the Cubs.
“I don’t think there is a bad thing that I can say about Will Venable, the friend, the teammate, the coach,” Maybin said via text. “I’ve never met a guy more driven to be prepared. The thing I love about him the most is that he’s always finding a way to get better. I truly think the combination of him and Alex Cora is going to be something serious. Those are definitely two of the brightest minds in the game right now.”
Venable, 38, is widely considered to be a bright managerial candidate. For now, though, he’s beginning a new chapter with the Sox. One that his college coach thinks will be a successful one based on Venable’s shrewdness, of course, but also his human touch.
“He’s one of the best human beings that I have ever been associated with in my life,” Bradley said.