JUPITER, Fla. -- Chris Young was a prototypical Princeton center, slightly undersized by Division I standards but capable of passing and shooting like a smaller player. Earning Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors in 1999, the 6-foot-10 Young set school freshman records for points and rebounds, leading his Tigers to the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament. The next season, he broke his own school record for blocked shots while again guiding Princeton to the NIT.He describes Princeton basketball as "a very close-knit group," so it's little surprise that the school's legendary coach Pete Carril, then an assistant for the Sacramento Kings, took notice of Young's successes. Famous for his Princeton team's upset of heavily favored UCLA in the 1996 NCAA tournament, Carril continued paying attention when the Pirates drafted Young two years into his college career, when Young signed his first professional-baseball contract that autumn, when Young completed his studies while playing Minor League ball. Then in 2004, with the former basketball standout on the cusp of a big league pitching career, Carril offered Young a guaranteed two-year contract to quit baseball and sign with the Kings. "I had to make a decision at that point whether to stick with baseball or go pursue this basketball opportunity," Young said. "I had just gotten to the big leagues and decided that I couldn't walk away from it at that point." It was at that moment that Young blocked out all thoughts of the NBA and what could have been a basketball career, shifting the entirety of his focus to baseball. And until shoulder woes first struck in 2008, the decision appeared to be a rousing success. Developing into one of the game's top young starting pitchers, Young went 42-28 with a 3.72 ERA over his first five seasons with the Rangers and Padres, making the National League All-Star team in 2007.
2010 Spring Training - New York Mets
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"I felt like I had just gotten there and I couldn't walk away and leave what I worked the last three years to get to," Young said. "I couldn't walk away from it."That Young signed with the Mets this past offseason is something of a reflection of his subsequent struggles. Robbing him of both velocity and durability, shoulder issues have kept Young sidelined for much of the past three seasons, prompting the Padres to cut ties with him last winter and allowing the Mets to sign him cheaply. For a heavily incentive-laden one-year commitment, the Mets received a once-standout pitcher to anchor the back of their rotation. Young's six innings of shutout ball against the Marlins on Sunday provided the latest evidence that now, at 31 -- 11 years removed from his final blocked shot at Princeton -- he is ready to contribute again to a Major League rotation. Through five Grapefruit League outings, Young has posted a 1.33 ERA, striking out nine batters and walking three in 20 1/3 innings. Though his velocity has crept no higher than the upper 80s -- several miles per hour slower than he averaged in his prime -- Young is nonetheless locating well enough to thrive. "I've talked to guys that have faced him, and they just say you can't pick the ball up until late," manager Terry Collins said. "The ball's on you before you can do anything." Partially the result of his height and his stride length -- Young is the second-tallest pitcher in the big leagues, behind Jon Rauch of the Blue Jays -- and partially because of his deceptive delivery, he is able to hide pitches until his arm motion reaches its apex, giving his upper-80s fastballs that required extra juice. "I know he's not throwing 95 or 96," said catcher Josh Thole. "But when I'm catching it, it looks like 95 or 96. He's got the big long arm, it seems like he's just handing the ball to me." Once used for blocking shots, that wingspan remains Young's principle weapon. He still follows basketball closely, of course, specifically his Princeton Tigers. But it is perhaps telling that Young declined an opportunity to watch Princeton play a tournament game in Tampa, Fla. earlier this week, citing his need for extra work and conditioning at Spring Training camp. This version of Young knows precisely what he is: a pitcher, and nothing else. Even Carril can't change that now. "It's worked out," Young said. "This is my 11th or 12th season in professional baseball, my eighth in the big leagues. It's gone well, and I still feel like there are a lot of good seasons left."