And this is a big deal because?
Okay, so he's the first Princeton alumnus to appear in the Major Leagues since early 1980's, when Bob Tufts pitched in relief for both the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals. Moe Berg is probably the most famous Princeton person to have played in the majors, and since Tufts' time there are have plenty of other Major Leaguers' from Ivy schools (and even from tiny Amherst College, an Ivy-quality school whose alum, John Cerruti, pitched ably for the Blue Jays in the 80's). Ron Darling went to Yale, Brad Ausmus and Mark Johnson went to Dartmouth, Mark DeRosa and Doug Glanville went to Pennsylvania. And, of course, it's not as though Young has star written all over him the way, say, Josh Beckett had when he was drafted.
All true, but Young is a legend in Princeton circles (to others he was a dalliance; read more). He got to Princeton in the late 1990's, right after the team that featured Steve Goodrich, Gabe Lewullis, Brian Earl, Mitch Henderson and James Mastaglio finished 27-2 and was ranked as high as #8 during the regular season (the team lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Mateen Cleaves and Michigan State). He led an 8-person recruiting class that was supposed to enable the Tigers to re-load and not just re-build. He was a well-heralded 6'10" center who went to Princeton specifically to play 2 sports, and he wanted to play baseball for coach Scott Bradley because Bradley, a formerly major leaguer with the Mariners and the Yankees, had caught a rather tall, rather successfully pitcher named Randy Johnson when they were teammates in Seattle. The bonus for the Tigers: the kid played basketball too. With Brian Earl and Gabe Lewullis returning, the Tigers were supposed to win the Ivies again.
But, alas, that's where the story didn't turn out as all of the Princeton prognosticators had hoped. Young had an excellent year on the basketball court, was a first-team all-Ivy player (and, if my memory serves me, was the Ivies' rookie of the year), but the Tigers lost out on the Ivy title to the Penn Quakers (even after beating Penn 50-49 that year in the Palestra, after having trailed 41-15 with 15:00 to go in the fifth best comeback ever in NCAA history; Young hit a three-pointer, a hook shot and a jumper from the foul line in the last 5 minutes after having gone 0-8 in the first half). Young also excelled on the baseball field. Penn, by the way, had junior guards Michael Jordan and Matt Langel and senior forwards Paul Romanczuk and Jed Ryan.
The following year Princeton lost Earl and Lewullis, and their 8-man recruiting class turned out to me more volume than quality. One player never went out for the team, and several more were unable to play for various reasons. Young, as a sophomore, was a co-captain, but the Tigers were unable to overtake the Quakers' senior guards and a core of talented freshmen that included forwards Ugonna Onyekwe and Koko Archibong. Penn won the Ivy title, and Young again was named first-team all-Ivy. His freshman year, Chris Young looked like he was better than three-time all-Ivy Steve Goodrich -- when Goodrich was a senior. His calm demeanor belied an intensity on the court, although it didn't always seem that Young dominated when he could have.
After that season, all hell broke loose within the Princeton basketball program. Happily, long-time assistant coach Joe Scott was hired at Air Force, getting his chance to show what he could do as a head coach. Very sadly, head coach Bill Carmody was lured away to Northwestern in the late summer, after Wildcats' coach Kevin O'Neill bolted for an assistant's job in the NBA. The Tigers hired their second assistant, John Thompson III, to be head coach.
And then matters got much worse. First, Chris Young was eligible for the major league draft (because he was 19 when he graduated from HS), and he was selected on the third round by the Pittsburgh Pirates (who signed him for over $1 million). Then, talented sophomore guard Spencer Gloger transferred to UCLA, the school that had come in second to Princeton in his recruiting parade. Returning veterans Phil Belin, Chris Krug and Ray Robbins dropped off the team for one reason or another. And three more returning players were battling injuries at the season's outset, including PG Ahmed El-Nokali (groin surgery) and C Nate Walton (foot or ankle injury).
The cupboard, relatively speaking, was bare. Chris Young was gone, and while he had performed in a stellar fashion he didn't lead the Tigers to any titles. The odds also were that with Ugonna Onyekwe at Penn, the Tigers were going to be in for a drought for a few more years.
But you just don't mail in your effort, even when the cognoscenti think you're going to be an also-ran within the first division of your league at best. Led by a dazzling season by Nate Walton, a courageous and undermanned Tigers' team won an unlikely title. Without Chris Young. It was an inspiring year.
As for Young? He always pitched okay in the minors, but he didn't dominate. Perhaps it was because he still had the NBA on his mind. Perhaps because it was he didn't get into full baseball rhthym for a while (i.e., he needed a year to go by when all he did was baseball). At any rate, after he spent a few years in the Pittsburgh system, the Pirates gave up on him and traded him and Jon Searles (ironically a Penn undergrad, recruited to play football for Penn, but who ended up signing with the Pirates and going to college at the same time) to the Expos for Matt Herges (whom the Pirates promptly cut after the trade). The word from Baseball America: the Pirates lost patience with Young, and they couldn't understand why his velocity couldn't top 90 mph. As for the Expos, by the time Young got to their system, 7 or 8 of the top 10 prospects (according to BA) in the Expos' organization were right-handed pitchers. At the bottom of that pecking order: Chris Young. His career, to a certain degree, was at its first precipice.
Young stayed the course, pitched reasonably well at AA for the Expos, and then got traded again in the off-season, this time to the Texas Rangers. He started at AA and moved up AAA Oklahoma City, where he pitched very well. Manager Buck Showalter watched him last week, and the report was that he increased his velocity to 90-94 mph and showed Showalter, a tough critic, that he could pitch.
So here is Chris Young, as age 25, making his Major League debut for a team that is in the midst of a pennant race. His hometown team to boot. His second precipice in his baseball career, one frought with peril and joy at the same time. Combined, those the perils and the joys create on heck of an opportunity. Excel here and now, and you'll be in the big leagues for a while.
So perhaps the Pirates and Expos were wrong about Chris Young. Perhaps he did need to get basketball out of his system. And perhaps it just takes a little bit longer for very tall pitchers to develop (just like short, crafty lefties; see: Jamie Moyer).
As of today, it looks like Chris Young made the right decision when he left the Princeton basketball team to embark on a journey through the minor leagues. Four years ago he played to crowds of 9000 or less in a drafty gym that had an indoor running track surrounding it. Tonight, he'll be playing before tens of thousands on a hot, muggy night in Texas.
Tonight he's made it to The Show, where his teammates won't be Earl, Lewullis, Rocca and El-Nokali, but Texeira, Blalock, Jordan and Soriano.
Good luck, Chris Young.