For many fans of professional sports, being able to go the championship game is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that they can only hope for. Being able to play in the championship is a pipe dream; forget about winning it. Yet for Princeton alumnus Chris Young, these experiences are all part of the job.
A Class of 2002 politics major-turned MLB star, Chris Young knows what it is like to achieve at the highest level in both academics and athletics. In 2000, Young helped guide Princeton’s baseball team to its first Ivy League title in four years. That same year, he was drafted in the third round by the Pittsburgh Pirates, but opted to finish out his academic career before heading to the pros. Baseball was not the only sport that Young pursued at the collegiate level; he was also named Ivy League Player of the Year by Basketball Weekly for his performance on the hardwood with Princeton’s basketball team. When asked why he chose to pursue baseball over basketball, Young’s answer referred to powers beyond his control. “Once I signed with [the] Pirates I was ineligible to play college basketball at that point in the Ivy League, so my options were to not play or to transfer if I wanted to continue playing basketball, and I felt like, you know, I love Princeton and I want a degree from Princeton, and so I felt like I didn’t want to give that up,” he said.
Many students at Princeton already relate to the dedication it takes to be a student; being a student and a two-sport athlete seems almost unfathomable. “I felt like I was a full-time athlete and student. I felt like I had no social life,” Young said, laughing. “Really, the balance of playing two sports and going to class and balancing the academic workload — it was challenging, but it was what I had done my whole life and it was familiar to me, and so I really didn’t know what I was missing out on.”
During his final two years at Princeton, Young balanced academics with his minor league career. For him, the experience was similar to that of any other student with a job. “I knew what my job was going to be,” he said, “and at that point I was just simply working to get my degree…. It was unique, but not much different than somebody going through second semester senior year, where they know what firm they have lined up.”
After spending four seasons in the minors split between the Pirates’, Expos’, and Rangers’ organizations, Young made his MLB debut with the Rangers on Aug. 24, 2004, in a game against the Minnesota Twins. This was not only a significant moment for Young, but also for Princeton: Young was the first Princeton Tiger to start a major league game since Dave Sisler ’53 in 1961.
The following season, Young started 31 games for the Rangers, posting a 12–7 record, 4.26 ERA, and 137 strikeouts. Despite his early success, Young said he had doubts about his ability to succeed in the MLB.
“Once you get to the major leagues, you get there and you wonder, ‘Am I good enough?’ and you go through that uncertainty for a little bit of time before you start to realize that I can do this and I belong here,” he said.
Traded to the Padres after the 2005 season, Young continued to build on the success of his rookie year, culminating in an appearance in the 2007 All-Star Game. That season, Young recorded a 3.12 ERA and 167 strikeouts while leading the majors in opponent batting average and hits per nine innings. A mid-season showcase of the best players in the MLB, the All-Star Game is one of the highest honors an MLB player can achieve.
“It’s almost surreal looking around the locker room and being teammates with guys like Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds, and thinking ‘I’m among the best players that have ever played the game,’” Young said. “To be there, in that moment, for at least one year and one period of time, it was pretty special.”
Young’s success continued into the 2008 season, but he struggled with injuries in 2009 and 2010, and his time with the Padres came to an end when he signed with the Mets before the 2011 season. Although he only started four games for the Mets in 2011, he bounced back in 2012, recording a 4.15 ERA in 20 starts. After another injury-riddled season in 2013, Young posted a 12–9 record and a 3.65 ERA pitching for the Mariners in 2014, winning the American League Comeback Player of the Year Award.
Despite the individual accolades Young accrued in his career, his greatest accomplishment came in 2015, when his team, the Kansas City Royals, won the World Series. Young joined the team in March of 2015, and knew from “the very first day of spring training” that the Royals were destined for something special.
“It was very apparent the day I signed there that the club had high expectations and an inner belief that they were going to win a World Series,” he said.
In the 2015 regular season, Young recorded an 11–6 record and — aside from injury-shortened seasons — a career-best 3.06 ERA, helping the Royals win the AL Central with a 95–67 record. His success continued into the postseason, in which he posted a 2.87 ERA in six games with the Royals. He recorded a win in Game 1 of the World Series, pitching three shutout innings and helping the Royals edge the Mets in 14 innings.
When asked about his ability to perform in high-stress situations, Young cited his college basketball experience.
“I think college basketball helped prepare me for that to an extent,” he said. “When you’re playing in big environments — and certainly pitching in the major leagues you’re going to play in big environments — I think that I was prepared for that from an earlier age by my college hoops experience.”
In 2018, Young retired from baseball, joining the commissioner’s office as the Vice-President of On-field Operations and Initiatives & Strategy. Young’s department oversees everything that happens on the field, including uniforms, pace-of-play regulations, and instant replay. Although Young is certainly well versed in baseball, making the transition from the field to the office posed some challenges for him.
“Just being at a desk now and understanding all aspects of the commissioner’s office and the league and seeing how they all work together to make such a great product on the field — it’s been extremely interesting and a huge learning curve for me but adjustments that I’m thankful for and have been able to make,” he said.
Young’s experience as a player has also provided him with a unique viewpoint in his work with the league office.
“It’s been great for me, being able to provide a player’s perspective in areas in which I’m extremely versed and familiar,” he said. “I think it’s been a good fit for the commissioner’s office to have someone who is very familiar with today’s game.”
From baseball on the east side of campus, to baseball on the national stage, to administering baseball from the main office, Young has always connected his life to one of America’s national pastimes. Like a majority of Princeton students, he was able to perform at the highest level throughout his life, and acknowledges that his time at Princeton has been critical to the success he has had.
At the same time, Young stressed, “Just enjoy it and take it all in, because once it’s over, the real world starts and you can never go back and get that same experience.”
“Expose yourself to as many different areas and unique activities,” he said. “It’s such a special place, try to do as much and participate in as much as possible, and enjoy every minute of it.”