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Venditte: Pitcher or Pioneer?07/04/2008 9:00 AM ET
By Benjamin Hill / Special to MLB.com
There are two sides to every story. This saying holds extra meaning if the story in question involves ambidextrous pitcher Pat Venditte.
Several weeks ago, Venditte enjoyed a brief moment in the national spotlight thanks to the comical nature of his professional debut.
Pitching for the New York-Penn League's Staten Island Yankees, the 23-year-old product of Creighton University retired the first two batters he faced before allowing a single. This brought switch-hitter Ralph Henriquez to the plate, and what began as a game of cat-and-mouse quickly devolved into a full-blown farce as the two combatants repeatedly switched back and forth in an attempt to gain what can best be described as the "upper hand."
The video of this encounter swept through the sports media landscape like wildfire and resulted in a small avalanche of press about Venditte. But the general reaction to the young hurler seemed to be one of amused condescension, a brief diversion before attention shifted to spectacular ball-girl catches, 110-yard field goals and other quirky sports phenomenon.
But Venditte deserves a closer look. After all, he is attempting to make it to the Major Leagues as a pitcher who can throw with equal skill from both sides of the plate. If he is successful in this quest, Venditte could very well be the catalyst for what some are already heralding as the forthcoming ambidextrous revolution.
Are you prepared?
"These Were Uncharted Waters"
Pat Venditte is not a biological oddity. The Omaha native is a natural right-hander, and his ambidextrous abilities were developed over two decades of backyard exercise with his father, Pat Sr.
"I had always wondered, 'Why can't a person pitch with both arms? Or kick with both legs?'" recalled the elder Venditte. "My thought when I started doing this with Pat was that if we devoted the time to it, or, in this case, devoted double the amount of time, that he could be ambidextrous."
So that's exactly what they did.
"We worked on punting, placekicking and throwing. It was awkward at first and just seemed impossible. But the more you do it, the more you see that road getting smoother," added Pat Sr. "I attribute a lot of this to the fact that we had the facilities, including lights at night and Astroturf. And home schooling also had a lot to do with it. To have that level of control of a youth's time makes a big difference. Whether it was 10 o'clock in the morning or two in the afternoon, it didn't matter. We both had the desire to continue to work and strive toward this goal. It sounds like a lot of work, but it was a lot of fun too."
"When you start doing something at such a young age, you don't realize it's different," Venditte said. "It's all I have ever known. And growing up in Omaha, I played baseball with the same kids from the time I was 7 or 8 years old. Being ambidextrous was no big deal."
Nonetheless, Venditte's unique abilities have been confounding to the opposition ever since he first started playing organized baseball.
"When Pat played in his first game at the age of 6 or 7 years old, he took two gloves out to the mound and the umpire wouldn't let him do it," recalled Pat Sr. "And after that game, the opposing coach told our coach, 'Those twins you've got on your team both did a hell of a job today', and our coach said, 'Those aren't twins, that was just one guy.'"
"The Most Intense Competitor I've Ever Coached"
While Venditte is now intent on working his way up the Minor League ladder, he harbored very few dreams of baseball stardom growing up.
"Honestly, my initial baseball goal was just to be able to pitch in college," he said.
At times, even that modest goal seemed out of reach. Upon graduating high school, Venditte drew very little interest from college programs. He ended up attending nearby Creighton, where he made the team as a walk-on.
"I first saw Pat when he was a high school senior, because my son and his son were the same age," said Creighton head coach Ed Servais. "When I saw him throw for the first time I thought he was interesting and unique, but to be honest I thought he came up a little short on both sides. I never thought much about him afterwards, thinking that'll be the end of that. But that summer, I received a call from his Dad asking for a tryout. I said, 'Why not?'"
Venditte was just impressive enough to make the team, but his first season as a collegiate player left much to be desired.
"In the spring of his freshman year, Pat made the travel team. But he pitched just a little over an inning the entire season and got hit hard," said Servais. "At the end of that year, we told him he needed to get in better shape, pitch throughout the summer and come back having shown some real improvement."
Venditte did just that.
"When he returned, Pat had dramatically changed in terms of his body type, velocity and confidence," said Servais. "It was clear that he was now ready to become one of the team's main players."
Venditte was low-key and modest in explaining what sparked his dramatic turnaround.
"I just became a lot more focused and it really helped that I was a lot more comfortable in my surroundings, now that I had a year of college under my belt," he said. "My goal was basically to outwork everyone around me."
Once Venditte had proven that he was ready to take his game to the next level, the coaching staff needed to find a role for him that suited his unique skills.
"We figured that he would give us the biggest advantage if he was pitching from the bullpen, and he quickly went from pitching in out-of-hand games to pitching in critical situations," said Servais. "Over the last two years, he was pitching in pretty much every game, as early as the third inning and as late as the ninth."
Of course, one of the greatest attributes of having an ambidextrous pitcher is the wealth of favorable matchups it creates.
"With switch-hitters, we would predetermine which side of the plate we would want them to hit from," said Servais. "Then, when they came to bat, we would just yell to Pat from the dugout, 'Throw right-handed!' or 'Throw left-handed!'"
The more Venditte's role on the team increased, the better he pitched.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think he'd achieve what he achieved with us," Servais admitted. "He pitched 41 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings as a junior, in college ball, against players using aluminum bats! That is just phenomenal and really says what you need to know."
Gradually, Venditte realized that Division I college ball wasn't necessarily going to be the pinnacle of his baseball career.
"In May of my junior year was when I really started to change my goals," he said. "I initially didn't think I would ever be drafted, but I was really fortunate that year. We had a very good team top to bottom, which allowed me to be seen by a wide variety of people."
"There Are No More Weak Spots in the Lineup"
After a senior year in which he went 9-3 with a 3.34 ERA over a team-leading 86 1/3 innings, Venditte was drafted in the 20th round by the New York Yankees. He was then sent to the Staten Island to begin the long and arduous road to the Majors.
"Every hitter you face here is good. You can't take any pitches off," said Venditte, who had yet to allow a run after his first six professional appearances. "I'm just working hard, trying to control the things I can control. I need to keep getting ahead in the count, locate my breaking stuff better and add velocity. I'm never going to have a plus-plus fastball, I just need to keep the ball down."
Venditte sounds like just about any other aspiring hurler trying to make it to the Majors. The difference being, of course, that he needs to work twice as hard in order to achieve his goals.
"I throw as much as I can, but the Yankees have really cut me back a lot when it comes to that," he said. "I got so used to throwing every single day, so that's been a change. The most important thing for me is keeping muscle memory."
Venditte also has to deal with a far greater level of attention than the average New York-Penn League ballplayer. So far, he has proved adept at taking it all in stride.
"I have a unique talent, so it's understandable that people have an interest in what I do," he said. "But as I continue to get better, I hope to just be known as a pitcher. I just want to get out there on the mound and close the game down."
"The Future Could Be Dominated By Ambidextrous Athletes"
Pat Venditte is currently professional baseball's only ambidextrous pitcher, but in the long history of the sport there have been several others who have also possessed this unique talent. Nineteenth century star Tony Mullane, Little League World Series hero Angel Macias and, more recently, reliever Greg Harris were all ambidextrous, but were generally treated as oddities as opposed to pioneers.
That may now be changing. Ambidexterity is a learned skill, as Venditte has so ably proven, and it is a talent that provides a player with many physical and strategic advantages. Is it possible that we may soon see a wave of self-taught "ambidexterians," not only in baseball, but throughout the sporting world?
Michael "The Hammerman" Lavery has dedicated his life to this goal. As a Malibu-based artist with no formal experience in either neuroscience or physical training, he seems an unlikely leader of what he calls, with no trace of irony, the "ambidextrous revolution."
"At age 29, I made a concerted effort to become ambidextrous. I had been competing as a righty in tennis tournaments and I made the decision to learn to play with both hands," explained Lavery, whose calm, measured tones belie his fanatical passion for ambidexterity.
"The more people said I couldn't do it, the more I wanted to. There was just a paradigm shift in my mind that never left. Every single day since 1988, I've been absorbed in this."
Lavery's "Hammerman" moniker is a reference to a key component of his training regimen: bouncing a golf ball off of a hammer, often while engaging in complex memory rituals (such as reciting two to the 65th power). He also writes 10 pages of script each day with his left hand, backwards from right to left.
"I look at the brain as a computer," said Lavery. "With these handwriting and memory drills, it's like you're going into a computer and reconfiguring it so that it works twice as fast. The brain is the signaling center for the movement of the arm, and if one can write with either hand, one can throw a ball with either hand."
Lavery's methods may sound unorthodox, but there is no denying that they yield results. He competes ambidextrously in golf and tennis tournaments, and can throw a baseball with nearly equal velocity with both his right and left hands. Lavery is also no stranger to the world of Minor League Baseball. A former catching standout, he spent the 1982 season in the Toronto Blue Jays' farm system. He communicates regularly with Pat Venditte Sr. and has taken a keen interest in the progress of his son.
"These are not God-given talents. In Pat's case, his father knew that nurture would override nature, and that's what happened in his brain," Lavery said. "Most people have dominant and non-dominant sides when it comes to motor control, but he's dominant on both sides. Pat has a normal body structure. He's able to do what he does because his brain is wired differently."
Lavery has what could almost be described as a messianic zeal when it comes to the effects that widespread ambidexterity could have in the world of sports. His son, Chris, can serve a tennis ball over 100 mph with either arm, and he is currently working with an amateur pitcher by the name of Chuck Mellick. At 37, Mellick is attempting to break into pro ball by developing the ability to throw 90 mph with both arms.
"In a nutshell, what all of this is showing is that nurture is huge," said Lavery. "We can override our one-sidedness. Could ambidexterity be a revolution? Absolutely."
"I've Got A Long Way To Go"
Venditte, meanwhile, is focused on the task at hand: finding success as a professional. He'd rather be seen as just another Minor League ballplayer as opposed to some sort of trend-setting pioneer.
"All over this country, there are kids who would do anything to be able to play professional baseball," he said. "I'm just fortunate to be here, and I have a long way to go before I can even think about making it to the Major Leagues. Right now, I don't see myself as anything but another pitcher who needs to improve his game."
Nonetheless, Venditte had defied the odds just by making it this far. Those who know him well, such as his college coach, admit they wouldn't put anything past him.
"It would be a huge mistake to say that this kid has leveled off. This kid doesn't know quitting, and he doesn't respond to 'no'," said Servais. "And this won't be the last time you see an ambidextrous pitcher. It's like in track and field, when Dick Fosbury first did the 'Fosbury Flop'. That wasn't how they did things back then, but it soon became a phenomenon. That's like how it is with Pat, in that he's opened up an opportunity for people to try something new. Who knows what's in store?"
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.