Mother's advice kept Venable on track
Former hoops star encouraged to stick with baseball
SAN DIEGO -- Molly Venable could barely contain her enthusiasm during a recent visit to PETCO Park as she watched her son, Will Venable, smash a home run in the first inning against the Braves.
"He told me, 'That one was for you Mom,'" said Molly, who was visiting from San Rafael, Calif.
Venable has provided plenty of opportunities for home run dedications during his recent at-bats. While he's batting .260 for the season, he's hitting .357 in August and homered five times in a span of seven games between July 30 and Aug. 5. Of his 19 RBIs this season, 14 have come in the past 10 games.
The Padres right fielder owes his natural baseball ability to genes from his father, Max Venable, who played in the Major Leagues for 12 seasons. But Venable credits his career path to his mother, who discouraged him from abandoning baseball for his first love of basketball.
Molly voiced her objections when her son considered quitting baseball before his freshman year at San Rafael High School.
"Do not cut off your options. You have no idea what your future holds,'" she told him.
Venable's future would lead to first-team All-Ivy League honors in both baseball and basketball at Princeton University, joining Padres pitcher Chris Young as the only players to accomplish the feat.
But as a young high schooler, Venable estimates he devoted 90 percent of his athletic training to basketball.
"I was obsessed with basketball, and it showed up in my lack of training for baseball," he said.
Max recalled an incident where he planned some early hitting work in the high school batting cages with Will, who clearly had made other plans.
"It didn't really matter to me, but I knew that basketball was his first love," Max said. "He walked right past the basketball gym and went in. He said, 'I'll be right there, Dad.' And he never made it."
Venable quit baseball his senior year in high school and chose to run track instead. His freshman year at Princeton proved to be taxing both intellectually and athletically, once again leaving baseball as the sport to be dismissed. He decided to major in anthropology, joking that it was the only class freshman year that he didn't struggle to pass.
"We got a lot of phone calls about how things were tough," Max said. "It was tough, but he made it through. Who said life was easy?"
All the while, Molly patiently encouraged her son not to overlook baseball, the sport she thought presented the brightest future. Once he realized a future in the NBA was doubtful, the road to a professional baseball career seemed more promising.
"I think, as you spend more time playing the game, you understand it and develop a respect for the game and how hard it is," Will said. "I think that, mixed with the challenge, and being excited about the challenge that the game presents, has definitely helped me respect the game and appreciate the game more than I used to."
The challenge of baseball was at times difficult for Venable, who has learned to love the often-frustrating sport as he's moved beyond his basketball dreams.
"I don't care what anyone says ... there is absolutely nothing harder to do than hit a baseball," he said. "There's no other game where you can fail so much and still be good. That just tells you what kind of game it is and how hard it is when you're good if you fail seven out of 10 times.
"In any other sport, in any other job ... 70 percent failure is getting fired. In this job, that means you're the best."
The Padres drafted Venable in seventh round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft. He spent time in the Minor Leagues with Max, who now serves as the hitting coach for Triple-A Portland. Their first stint together at Class A Fort Wayne challenged Max to control his emotions when coaching his son.
"[Fort Wayne] was my first year with William every day, and it was a little nerve-wracking for me," Max said. "I told my wife Molly, 'I'm going to have a heart attack here.'
"Bases loaded, here's William up. My son, my own blood ... it was just a little bit different."
Padres hitting coach Randy Ready, who served as Portland's manager, said the father-son dynamic was amusing to observe.
"There was a lot of anxiety when Max is our hitting and first base coach, and William is at the plate with runners in scoring position or with the game on the line," Ready said. "I was always in the mix, so I'd stir the pot in that situation. It wasn't my kid at bat, so I could have a little fun with it."
Perhaps surprisingly, there weren't any noticeable spats between father and son. Max, who played with the Giants, Expos, Reds and Angels, is known for his calm, relaxed nature.
"Not at all, I've never seen it," Ready said about any arguments between the two. "I've only seen William as being hungry for the information. And when he's talking to Max, he's getting the right information. He's talking to an experienced Major League player."
Venable made his Major League debut with the Padres in 2008, hitting .264 in 28 games. He was recalled this season in early June when Scott Hairston went on the disabled list with a strained biceps.
Venable struggled, hitting .196 in 32 at-bats in June. The pinch-hitting role was a difficult transition into the Major Leagues, although his father developed a reputation as being quite skilled at the task.
"There's so much to be said for seeing pitches every day and getting comfortable at the plate," Will said. "It just doesn't happen like you'd like it to when you're just pinch hitting.
"A lot of the times you're pinch-hitting in tough situations where you might need to get a guy over, or drive a guy in with two outs against a setup guy or a closer that you're facing. It's just not easy."
Venable improved to a .268 batting average in July, with 16 starts compared to six the prior month. He made a few minor adjustments, including a greater emphasis on relaxing his upper body, along with having more patience at the plate.
"There's times to be aggressive and not to be aggressive ... as long as you're not letting that first-pitch fastball get by you, then you can lay off a breaking ball first pitch," he said. "You don't have to swing at everything. Sometimes I get caught up in not wanting to fall behind, and I just swing ... when I don't need to be doing that.
"Now I've got my approach along with my swing where I feel comfortable saying 'Hey, that was a good pitch ... maybe a pitch I could drive, but I think I'm going to get a better one.'"
It's a mentality Max instilled in his son, along with the importance of having patience with the game as a whole.
"He's constantly reminding me how tough a game it is," Will said. "Things get tough, and you have to make sure you don't get overwhelmed. At the same time, when things are going well ... don't get too confident. You have to maintain that even keel and stay focused on being consistent."
And now that things are going well, Venable's current pace indicates that Molly may be receiving a few more dedicated home runs before the season's end.
"He's starting to get a sense of belonging at the Major League level," Ready said. "We can't predict the future between now and October ... but he's going to have an opportunity to really play his game. He's determined to have success."
Amy Brittain is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.