Why a playoff hero went back to school for his degree

August 11th, 2022

This story was excerpted from Anthony DiComo's Mets Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Generally, top college baseball players are drafted after their junior seasons. Many of those players never receive their college degrees. The particularly motivated ones might return to campus or take online classes over the winter to earn their diplomas. Some do so upon retiring in their 30s or early 40s, as they seek entry into a second career.

But to go back to school after nearly 35 years?

“I don’t know,” Robin Ventura said. “I was just looking for something to do that would be fun.”

Ventura’s personal "Billy Madison" story began at an Oklahoma State football game, where he ran into varsity baseball coach Josh Holliday and his brother, Matt -- the latter a longtime big leaguer whose son just became the No. 1 overall Draft pick of the Orioles. Over the course of the winter, those two tried to persuade Ventura to return to campus as an assistant coach for the team. The more Ventura considered it, the more he liked the idea. He could become a student volunteer, help the baseball team, and receive his degree all at the same time.

“Whether I’ll use it or not, I don’t know,” said Ventura, who earned a bachelor’s degree with a business focus. “It was always something that kind of bugged me that I never got it.”

Back on campus, the 55-year-old Ventura found a world wholly different from the one he left in 1988, when he became a first-round Draft pick of the White Sox. Homework was computerized. Everyone was less than half his age. Ventura often found himself in study groups with the very players he was there to coach, which resulted in plenty of good-natured razzing.

For his efforts, Ventura came away with his desired diploma. Not only that, he took a liking to campus life and hopes to stay a while longer; while Ventura doesn’t have a full-time position lined up at Oklahoma State, and while he’ll always be open to exploring big league opportunities after managing the White Sox from 2012-16, he’s intrigued by the idea of helping the program in Stillwater, Okla.

Those are all conversations for a future date. A more pressing engagement on Ventura’s calendar is Old-Timers’ Day on Aug. 27, when he will join other stars of past Mets eras for the long-awaited reintroduction of the event at Citi Field. Although Ventura’s time with the franchise was relatively brief, lasting just three seasons, he made an outsized impact in helping lead the team to consecutive playoff appearances and the 2000 National League pennant. Ventura’s grand slam single in 1999 NL Championship Series Game 5 remains the defining moment of his career.

These days, that era is dripped in nostalgia, which the newly minted college graduate will appreciate when he returns to Queens for Old-Timers’ Day.

“We had kind of fun and unique guys,” Ventura said. “You obviously had the star in Mike [Piazza], and everybody else was pretty good. We had characters. Look at John Franco, had been there a long time. You had Al [Leiter], who’s a New Jersey guy. You throw in the characters, Turk Wendell, Dennis Cook. Just fun guys. I just really enjoyed playing with those guys.”