Inside Robin Ventura’s post-baseball journey that led him back to college

Robin Ventura had to know the question was coming. I’d like to think he would’ve been disappointed if I hadn’t asked him.

After all, if you’re 53 years old and attending college…

“They like to call me Thornton Melon,” the perpetually wry Ventura acknowledged Monday in a telephone interview. “I told them I’m not getting an apartment that we can all stay in. So don’t be coming to my house.”

Yes, the former Mets and Yankees (and White Sox and Dodgers) third baseman is back to school, serving as a “student assistant” for his alma mater Oklahoma State, for whom he memorably put together a Division I record 58-game hitting streak in 1988. How he wound up finishing his undergraduate degree, taking classes alongside many of the young ball players he also is coaching (and who, bless them, apparently have seen the Rodney Dangerfield classic “Back to School” even though it came out well before they were born), is both a warm homecoming tale as well as a dissertation on college sports red tape.

For years, Ventura explained, he made annual visits to campus to tailgate for football games with his old Cowboys teammates, with the Holliday family serving as the connective tissue. Tom Holliday served as the OSU pitching coach during Ventura’s time there, which preceded a long run as the head coach. The Oklahoma State head coach is now Josh Holliday, Tom’s son. Oh, and Josh’s brother Matt, who grew up in Stillwater (where the school is located), put together one heck of a major-league career, primarily with the Rockies and Cardinals (and also the Yankees, in 2017).

“They would come over by the tailgate, walking recruits around,” Ventura said of Josh Holliday and his assistant coaches. “We were joking about, ‘Maybe I’d come back and coach. I just kept coming back. I came over and watched a practice and thought, ‘Really, bottom line, what if I did come and coach?’

“They already had enough coaches (including the retired Matt Holliday working as a volunteer assistant coach). They said, ‘There is a way, but you’d have to be a student. The only spot open was student-coach because I didn’t graduate. I kind of fit the description even though I am 53 and most of the guys that do this are 21 or 23. I said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s do it for a year and see what happens.’”

So he moved to Stillwater in January, and his first season got cut short after 18 games by the coronavirus. Completing his bachelor of arts degree will take “another year and a half,” he said, so he’ll be around for this coming season, COVID-permitting, and quite possibly the 2022 campaign as well. Even before the shutdown, he took mostly virtual classes.

“I was trying to do it where I wouldn’t be the creepy 53-year-old guy with a backpack on,” he quipped, and has enjoyed classes on diversity as well as the science of making beer.

“I’m not gonna be a physicist or anything,” he said, but between 12 class hours a semester and working with the team, he’s plenty busy. And happy.

“I love being at Oklahoma State,” he said. “I wouldn’t have done this anywhere else. I wouldn’t have gone anywhere else to coach.”

That prompted a follow-up about whether Ventura would consider managing again in the big leagues after managing the White Sox from 2012 through 2016. “Probably,” he said. For now, though, he enjoys working with youngsters who hope to be in the major leagues one day.

“For these kids, they all want to get drafted, we can let them understand what it takes to get to that point. What scouts and teams are looking for,” he said. “We explain to them, ‘They watch you all the time. What you don’t think they’re watching, they’re actually watching. That part’s kind of an eye-opener for them, for how they play the game: ‘When the ball’s not in play, what are you doing?’”

Before saying goodbye, I had to ask Ventura what he thought about the start of the Steve Cohen Era with the Mets, for whom Ventura played three very eventful years (1999 through 2001) that included his legendary Grand Slam Single, his suggestion that manager Bobby Valentine wear a disguise after getting ejected and his contribution to the Mets’ collectively wonderful help following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“I think it’s great,” Ventura said. “He got Sandy (Alderson) back, who I admire a lot. That’s a good first step, taking a guy like him to get it going in the right direction.”

With chatter surfacing that Cohen wants to bring back Mets Old-Timers Day (the new owner confirmed it on Tuesday), Ventura laughed and said, “I’m going to have to work out. I don’t do a whole lot of demonstrations. Here, they try to get you to do stuff. I’m good for one day a week of demos.”

The Yankees have invited him to their Old-Timers Day, Ventura said, but “I’ve never been able to do it (schedule-wise).” Bottom line, he said of getting together with old teammates and playing a little, “That’d be fun.”

Right now, he’s having a different sort of fun, even if he won’t be doing the Triple Lindy anytime soon.

Let’s catch up on Pop Quiz questions. Both come from Gary Mintz of South Huntington:

In a 2019 episode of “Schooled,” Coach Mellor shows off his baseball card collection featuring a legendary father-son duo. Name the duo.

In the musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” Connor’s father owns a bunch of baseball memorabilia centered around one major-league team. Name the team.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Alderson’s unusual return to the Mets and offered a few sports executives who had clocked comparable “Work for Team A, go work somewhere else, return to Team A” journeys, and asked for additions to the list. You responded enthusiastically and doggedly. To all of you who nominated Omar Minaya, who worked for the Mets on three different occasions: Thanks and sorry, but I was thinking specifically of people who ran their baseball/basketball/hockey operations (or the entire team, as Alderson will now do), rather than just working in the department. Minaya served as the boss only in his second Mets tenure. My fault for not being more specific.

Anyway, here are additions to the list:

Paul Beeston. He was the Blue Jays’ president from 1989 to 1997, climbing the ladders after serving as an original employee of the expansion team in 1976, served as Bud Selig’s deputy at Major League Baseball from 1997 to 2002 and then served another term as Blue Jays president from 2008 to 2015. Thanks to Marc Bordignon.

Punch Imlach. He worked as the Maple Leafs’ general manager from 1958 to 1969, leading them to their most recent Stanley Cup title (in 1967). After getting fired, he joined the expansion Sabres in 1970 and worked there through 1978. He returned to the Leafs in ‘79, eventually becoming the GM again before his third heart attack (of five!) sidelined him. Thanks to Frank from New Jersey.

Gabe Paul. He ran the Indians’ baseball ops from 1961 to 1973, left to become George Steinbrenner’s first GM with the Yankees and lasted an impressive five years there, winning it all in 1977, before returning to Cleveland as team president. Thanks to Chris Gannon of Scotch Plains, NJ and Rob Serafinowicz of Naugatuck, Conn.

Tal Smith. He worked as the Astros’ GM from 1975 to 1980, formed his own consulting company after getting fired and became Houston’s team president in 1994, holding that position until 2011. Thanks to former Braves public-relations executive Glen Serra.

Your Pop Quiz answers:

— Ken Griffey and Ken Griffey Jr.

— The Orioles

If you have a tidbit that connects baseball with popular culture, please send it to me at [email protected]

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