Saturday, June 21, 2008
Abbott and Costello have nothing on ambidextrous pitcher, switch-hitter
NEW YORK -- Ambidextrous pitcher Pat Venditte can confound hitters -- and umpires -- when he's on the mound.
The umps working a game Thursday night between the Class-A Staten Island Yankees and the Brooklyn Cyclones had nothing to go by when Venditte made his professional debut, less than two weeks after getting drafted in the 20th round by the Yankees.
He pitched the ninth, and after retiring two batters and allowing a single, a switch-hitter stepped to the plate for Brooklyn. That's hardly unusual. But it becomes intriguing against Venditte, a switch pitcher.
Things got a tad dizzying when designated hitter Ralph Henriquez, who had taken his on-deck circle swings as a lefty, entered the batter's box from the right side.
Venditte put his specially made glove (it has six fingers, two webs and fits on both hands) on his left hand, and got ready to pitch right-handed.
Henriquez then changed his mind and switched sides of the plate, because a batter sees the ball sooner when it is thrown by a pitcher using the opposite hand.
So Venditte shifted his glove to the other hand.
Then it happened again.
Apparently unsure of how the rules handle such an oddity, the umpires didn't stop the cat-and-mouse game until Venditte walked toward the plate and said something while pointing at Henriquez.
Umpires and both managers huddled and the umps decided the batter and pitcher can both change sides one time per at-bat, and that the batter must declare first.
The ruling favored the pitcher, since he gets to declare last.
About seven minutes after he first stepped in, Henriquez struck out on four pitches as a righty against a right-handed Venditte and slammed his bat in frustration. Staten Island won, 7-2.
"It's probably been a long, long time since he's seen a right-hander as a righty," Venditte said. "I think in that situation, I had the upper hand because he wasn't used to that. It's been a long time since he'd come in the game as a switch-hitter and faced a righty as a righty."
It wasn't completely new to Venditte, who went 9-3 with a 3.34 ERA and had seven saves as a senior at Creighton.
"That same thing happened my sophomore year against Nebraska," he said. "But in that situation he got to hit off me right-handed, and I faced him lefty. He hit a line drive to center but it got caught, so I lucked out."
It's unclear what the MLB rule book says on the matter. While it's clear that both a batter and a pitcher are allowed to change sides once, the umpire's decision that the batter must declare first remains debatable.
"We're waiting on an official ruling on it," Staten Island media relations director John Davison said.
Pat Venditte Sr., who raised his son as ambidextrous from the age of 3, said the Missouri Valley Conference had rules in place for such a situation. There, the pitcher had to show which arm he was going to pitch with.
"My first thought was, isn't there a rule to cover that?" asked Venditte Sr., by phone from Nebraska.
Justin Klemm, executive director of the Professional Baseball Umpire Corporation, said his organization was working with Major League Baseball to remedy the lack of a clear rule.
"We don't want to rush to any interpretation beyond what is in our manual," Klemm said, referring to the minor league umpire manual. "Obviously what's in our manual doesn't cover every situation. We want to be as fair as possible, but we're going to do that in a timely manner."
It's all happening because Venditte Sr. decided to experiment with his son at age 3, having him first kick footballs with both feet, then punting with both, and finally throwing with both hands. He and his 3-year-old son played long toss -- pitcher's mound to plate -- with each arm.
Because his son was home-schooled, Pat Jr. wasn't dissuaded from doing something that might have been seen as "unnatural," his father said. By the time he started playing organized baseball, his son was already better with both hands than most kids were with either.
"By the time he played at 7, people were in awe," Venditte Sr. said. "It spurred us on. He was doing things that people found unique and different."
Some scouts have noticed that Venditte throws harder from the right side -- near 90 mph as opposed to about 80 from the left side -- and have decided that means he's naturally a righty.
Not so fast, his father said.
"The reason he's not as fast from the left is he drops his arm from the left side to get more movement, he throws a sweeping slider," he said. "The coach at Creighton thought it was more difficult to hit. He has equal arm strength. He can stand at home plate and throw it out of the ballpark from both sides."
The Yankees have enough faith that Venditte can bring his ambidextrous pitching game to the majors to draft him not once, but twice. They drafted him in the 45th round after his junior year as well, but Venditte chose to return to Creighton.
Venditte is not the first professional pitcher to throw with both hands, although he may be the first in the modern era with the potential to regularly switch arms.
Greg A. Harris, who pitched for Cincinnati, Montreal, San Diego, Texas, Philadelphia, Boston and the Yankees from 1981 to 1995, was a righty throughout his career. He pitched from the left side for two batters in the second-to-last game of his career.