Last month, after hearing major league outfielder Manny Ramirez (who has received $20 million each year for the past eight years) complain that he felt like a slave, it was time to go to a minor league game where players are paid perhaps $850 per month and are eager to play.
So Susan and I took the Staten Island ferry across New York Harbor to a new 7,000-seat ballpark where the Manhattan skyline glistens behind centerfield, where a family of four can pay $30 for four tickets, four baseball caps, and four Wendy's combo meals-and where the closer for the hometown team throws both right-handed and left-handed.
Enter Pat Venditte, a 23-year-old from Omaha with 20 years of ambidexterity in his resumé. When Pat was 3, his dad started training him to throw with both arms. Again. Again. Again. Using a symmetrical glove (two thumbholes, four finger holes) that he can readily slip on either hand, Venditte threw from both sides in high school and at Creighton University.
(Ambidexterity can help a pitcher two ways: Left-handed hitters typically have much lower batting averages against left-handed pitchers, and wear and tear on a particular pitching arm can be halved.) Throwing a baseball at 80-100 mph with pinpoint accuracy is hard enough for straight right-handed or left-handed aspirants. Only one pitcher in recent history, Greg A. Harris, threw with both arms in a major league game, and he did it as a stunt at the end of the 1995 season. Three late-19th-century players did so at a time when hurling was less intense.
The dreaded New York Yankees drafted Venditte this spring and assigned him to their Staten Island farm team. He made his professional debut in a game against the Brooklyn Cyclones (a New York Mets farm team) on June 19: Venditte was pitching left-handed, so when switch-hitter Ralph Henriquez came to the plate he entered the right-handed batter's box.
That's when the Abbott and Costello routine began. Venditte switched his glove, planning to pitch right-handed. Henriquez went to the other side of the plate, prepared to bat left-handed. Venditte turned around to pitch left-handed. The dance continued until the umpires ordered Henriquez to bat right-handed. He struck out on four pitches, then pounded his bat on the dirt.
(Later, the umpires association met and decreed that the pitcher has to indicate the arm he will use by putting his glove on the other hand. Then the batter gets to choose the side of the plate from which he will bat. The pitcher and the batter may then change only once each during an at-bat.)
By August Venditte had two months of minor league experience and an earned run average under 1.50. He warmed up (throwing first with his right arm and then with his left) in the 9th inning of the 2-2 game Susan and I attended, but Brooklyn scored a run in the top of the ninth. Could Staten Island rally? The scoreboard shows scenes of inspirational speeches from Braveheart and Independence Day: "We will not go quietly into the night."
And Staten Island did not: A run in the bottom of the 9th meant extra innings and-HERE COMES VENDITTE. Over the next three innings he threw left-handed to four batters, right-handed to seven, and did not give up a hit: two walks, nine outs. Making the feat even more remarkable, Venditte has two different pitching styles: From the right he threw over-the-top and offered up fastballs that topped out at 89 mph; from the left he threw sidearm pitches that had good movement but didn't get over 75 mph.
Neither of those speeds would tantalize major league managers, but pitchers like Greg Maddux have had Hall of Fame careers without throwing blazing fastballs: Control, movement, and the fastball/off-speed differential are more important than sheer velocity. After Venditte left, Brooklyn scored two runs in the 13th to win, but at this level it's not whether you win or lose, it's whether you get to move up to a higher minor league next year-and Venditte is on his way.
Did he like all the drills his dad put him through? "I am grateful he had me do it," Venditte said. He's like the homeschoolers who win national spelling bees: different from many of their peers-and better.
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