It was exactly one year ago today that Pat Venditte made his Minor League debut with the Staten Island Yankees. He made a memorable first impression, to say the least.
Venditte, the only ambidextrous hurler in all of professional baseball, entered that evening's ballgame in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Yankees were enjoying a 7-2 lead over the Brooklyn Cyclones, and Venditte was entrusted with the task of recording the game's final three outs. Pitching right-handed, he induced a pair of groundouts before allowing a single to right field. This brought to the plate switch-hitter Ralph Manriquez, and havoc ensued.
What follows is a brief summary of said havoc: Henriquez had been swinging left-handed in the on-deck circle, so Venditte switched his glove to his right hand in order to face the 21-year-old backstop. Seeing this, Henriquez instead came to the plate batting from the right side. So Venditte switched his glove back to his left hand. Henriquez then decided to bat lefty, and Venditte switched his glove yet again.
After a lengthy delay, Henriquez was made to bat right-handed against Venditte throwing right-handed (a four-pitch strikeout was the result). In order to ensure that such a farce would not occur again, the Professional Baseball Umpires Corporation quickly instituted the so-called "Venditte rule." In a nutshell, it stated that an ambidextrous pitcher must visually indicate which hand he is going to throw with. The batter, if he is a switch-hitter, then chooses which side of the plate he is going to hit from.
Venditte's debut was a fitting indication of what was to come. The unassuming 23-year-old Nebraskan, now with the Class A Charleston RiverDogs, has received a steady barrage of media attention that shows no signs of abating (as recent appearances on ESPN 360 and the CBS Evening News make clear). At ballgames, fans line up along the bullpens to get a glimpse of the kid with the six-fingered glove, and requests for dual autographs -- featuring a signature with each hand -- are common.
So Far, So Good
Of course, all of this would be a moot point if Venditte had been unable to perform adequately at the professional level. But thus far he hasn't just held his own -- he has dominated. With Staten Island last season, he converted all 23 of his save opportunities and recorded a microscopic 0.83 ERA. He has been equally successful in Charleston this season, as his 20 saves lead all of Minor League Baseball. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that he has struck out 39 batters while walking just one, while holding opponents to a .202 average against him.
And it should go without saying that he's remarkably durable -- using both arms minimizes the wear-and-tear that pitchers inevitably experience over a 140-game season.
But for all the success that Venditte has had thus far, the fact remains that he is a long, long way from the Bronx.
"The guys sitting back there behind the screen with the radar guns, I'm not going to blow them away," said Venditte, who, while pitching with his dominant right hand, has a fastball that tops out in the high 80s. "In order to compete, I'm just going to have to work harder than the average guy. That's something I've had to deal with since college."
Indeed, Venditte's college career at Creighton University was a case study in the triumph of the underdog. He joined the team as a walk-on during his freshman year, but was hit hard in the handful of games he appeared in. He stayed committed to the sport, however, and ended up stringing together a 41 1/3 scoreless-inning streak during his junior year. This success led the Yankees to draft him in the 20th round in 2008.
"The biggest thing is not to be complacent and to work on getting better everyday," said Venditte, whose ambidexterity was developed as a result of years of backyard practice with his father, Pat Sr. "I stick with my routines, always working on staying down in the zone. And right now, I'm working on improving my changeup from both sides."
But as a closer, Venditte finds himself in a bit of a Catch-22. When the game is on the line, it can be very difficult to experiment with new pitches and new approaches.
"I'm not a bonus baby. I always have to do well, and there's no room for error," he said. "But at the same time I need to develop as a pitcher, and it can be tough to do that when I'm working with a one-run lead in the ninth."
Despite these limitations, Venditte has little to prove in his current South Atlantic League environs. He insists that thoughts of a promotion are far from his mind, however.
"If I am fortunate enough to have that happen, then I'll deal with it," he said. "But we're in such a tight playoff race right now; it would be crazy for me to be thinking about anything else. As soon as you start doing that, the wheels fall off."
Indeed, the race for the South Atlantic League's first-half Southern Division crown couldn't be any closer. The RiverDogs currently maintain a half-game edge over Greenville, and their magic number to clinch the division is four.
"It's a lot of pressure, but I wouldn't have it any other way," said Venditte. "Every night that I get that ball in my hands, my response is that I don't take that for granted. I'm happy to hold on to it."
It Comes With the Territory
As the above quotes have already made clear, Venditte is a seasoned pro when it comes to speaking with the media. His responses are well thought out and articulate, and he is very careful not to say anything than could be misconstrued or blown out of proportion. While the constant barrage of media requests could easily be viewed as a burden, Venditte seems to take it all in stride.
"[The RiverDogs] decide what I'm going to do or not do, so everything gets filtered through them," he said. "I'm sure there has been stuff that they've shot down and said no to, but my job is to do what they ask. ... I would be foolish to think that I'm not going to get asked these questions [about being ambidextrous]. Really, it doesn't bother me."
And the requests just keep coming, from the aforementioned national television appearances to recent profiles by the New York Times' Alan Schwarz and Rick Reilly of ESPN the Magazine. Obviously, Venditte's reality is far different than the typical Minor League media experience. At his level of play, interview requests are usually limited to local beat reporters and broadcasters (and, of course, MiLB.com).
"I get quite a bit of grief from my teammates," he said. "Anytime I joke around with them, I immediately hear 'Don't you have an interview to go do?' A lot of these guys I was with in Staten Island, so we've been around each other for a year and they have no problem dishing it out."
But even if Venditte denied every interview request, the curiosity surrounding his unorthodox and unprecedented switch-pitching prowess would be impossible to suppress.
"It's something I've had to deal with since college," said Venditte. "The fans in Charleston are a little more laid-back, so things aren't quite as hectic as they were in Staten Island. But I do get a lot of emails and messages on Facebook, where people will say 'I want to learn to throw with both arms' and 'How can I get [an ambidextrous] glove?' It's kind of neat."
For the record, Venditte wears a custom-designed six-fingered Mizuno glove that he can switch back and forth between hands. He has a contract with the company ("Not bad for a 20th-round Draft pick," he says), but there are currently no plans for the item to go into mass production.
And as for those who want to become ambidextrous themselves, Venditte has a simple message.
"It definitely takes a lot of work and a lot of patience, but if you want to do it, you can," he said. "You just have to put in a lot of time."
It seems that Venditte takes his own words to heart when it comes to his steadfast, against-the-odds desire to make it to the Major Leagues.
"I'm happy with my [professional] start, but I'm by no means anywhere near where I'll need to be," he said. "All I can do is just keep working."