Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Life of Reilly
By Rick Reilly
ESPN The Magazine
You'll probably never witness an unassisted triple play in your lifetime, right? (There have been only 14.) Or see an intentional walk with the bases loaded. (Six.) Or watch one player hit two grand slams in an inning. (Once.)
But you can see something right now that hasn't been around in baseball since the late 1800s: a switch-pitcher.
His name is Pat Venditte, he's 23, and he's pro baseball's only ambidextrous pitcher. This living piece of history is more than a YouTube star; he's throwing almost daily for the Charleston RiverDogs, the Yankees' Single-A club. And he's not just throwing: He's blowing through hitters like a Cub Scout through Skittles. At one point in April, the closer's ERA was 0.00 in 6 1/3 innings, and he hadn't blown a save in five games.
Last season, he had 23 saves for the Staten Island Yankees, with a 0.83 ERA. And best of all, the kid can relieve himself!
He wears a specially made six-fingered Mizuno glove with two thumbs. (His Dominican teammates call him Pulpo, Spanish for "octopus.") When he warms up, he throws four pitches righty and four lefty. You should see the opposition when he does it. It's as if they had seen a ghost. Wait—did you just see that? If a righty is up, he throws righty, and vice versa. Whenever Venditte switches sides, everybody in the Charleston ballpark is encouraged to switch seats. A switch-pitcher? He's living history.
"I've got to remember to tell people which way he's throwing," says RiverDogs radio play-by-play man Danny Reed. "Never had to do that before."
There are a lot of "never befores" with Venditte. The pitching coach has to file two reports: Venditte the lefty and Venditte the righty. And he should; they're two different pitchers. The righty has a 90 mph fastball, a curve and a nice change. The lefty comes sidearm and has a murderous slider and a change. He's a five-pitch pitcher! Once, in Little League, the other team's coach came up to Pat Sr. and said, "Your twins pitched a heck of a game."
His college pitching coach called him Dexter, and opposing managers call him an ulcer. What's the point of saving your righthanded pinch-hitter for the ninth if Venditte is just going to switch to righty? Strategy is futile. Remember in The Princess Bride when, halfway through the sword fight, Inigo Montoya suddenly says, "I know something you don't know: I am not lefthanded!"?
All this was Pat Sr.'s idea. When his son was 3, Dad noticed Pat threw balls with both hands. So he fed it. He had him throw footballs both ways, punt both ways, kick field goals both ways. Pat was homeschooled by his mom, Jan, who had him write both ways and eat both ways.
We might be looking at the future here, people. "I get calls and letters from people wanting to know how they can do it with their kids," says Jan. "But you have to do it when they're very young. If you try it at 9, they won't listen."
For Pat Jr., it's meant a way to chase his dream of playing in the Show someday. "I know I wouldn't be this far without it," he says. "I don't have dominating stuff from one side or the other. I need both."
Not that it doesn't cause problems. If he walks a hitter, fans will start hollering, "Try the other side!" People want him to sign autographs with both hands. And switch-hitters will switch batter's boxes, making Venditte switch the glove, starting a cat-and-mouse game that can go on for 10 minutes. Minor league umps now have the Venditte Rule: At the start of an at-bat, the pitcher must declare his throwing arm, then the hitter can pick his side, with each man able to switch once. Phew.
There's been only one other such pitcher in the past century: Greg Harris, who threw one scoreless inning for the Expos, in 1995. More than 120 years ago, three guys are believed to have done it occasionally. The best was Tony Mullane, who stood on the mound with no glove and the ball cradled in both hands so nobody would know which way he was going to pitch until his windup. I've had bosses like that.
But Venditte, a four-year letterman at Creighton, has a chance to be the best. If the Yankees bring him up—and at this pace it could happen within three years—they won't need a pitch count. Venditte can throw every day! And when manager Joe Girardi needs to call the bullpen, he can say, "Okay, get a righty and lefty throwing. In other words, get Pat." Of course, how would Girardi signal the bullpen? Touch both arms? Either way, it's a steal for the Yankees. As one scout says, "This could be an economical two-for-one." (Hey, Pat, ask for two salaries.)
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