Originally published in March/April 2015 Omaha Magazine.
If you have boys, and if you and those boys love baseball, and if those boys were cursed enough to be right-handed, you likely would have a hard time not day-dreaming on what-ifs while watching Pat Venditte throw a bullpen using his left hand.
Left-handed pitchers are gold in baseball. (While 10 percent of people are left-handed, 22 percent of pro pitchers are lefties). They make the team even if their fastball can’t break stemware. Pat Venditte was born a right-hander like most of us. But his dad, Pat Sr., followed through on that grand scheme that other dads of righties invariably abandon: When Pat junior was 3, Pat Sr. senior had him throw with both hands when they played catch, kick a football with both feet, and eat with both hands at dinner. In time, he was a genuine switch-pitcher, able to pitch from whichever hand gave him the biggest advantage over the hitter. “It was an experiment,” says his father as he watches Pat throw at Creighton’s Kitty Gaughan Pavilion. “But it wouldn’t have gone anywhere without Pat’s persistence. Any success is all his.”
So now, 25 years later, thanks to both rare nature and persistent nurture, Pat stands on this mound in Creighton’s baseball facility on the verge of the major leagues. He throws from three different arms slots from the left side and three more from his right like some six-armed Hindu deity. “I don’t overpower people,” Venditte says after his south-paw two-seam fastball draws a faint pop from the catcher’s mitt. “But I get people out. I’ve done that consistently all my career. If I keep getting people out, I should get my shot.”
For baseball fans in Omaha, especially Creighton fans, the Venditte story is pretty well known. He walked on at Creighton after a “nothing special” career at Central High School, struggled early, then had a breakout season in 2007. He held opposing batters to a .185 batting average, the fourth best in the nation. Still, scouts treated him as little more than an oddity. He was picked in the 40th round that year.
After his 2008 season, scouts took him more seriously. He went in the 20th round to the New York Yankees. Still, he was the 620th pick that year. Do the math. His chances of reaching the majors were considered slim.
Thanks to his custom-made ambidextrous glove, Venditte switches hands depending on the batter he faces. Early in his career, he met a switch hitter who switched sides every time Venditte switched to his opposite hand. There is now the “Pat Venditte Rule” [8.01(f)] that says he must declare which hand he’ll use and stick with it. He has a ruled named after him. That’s how rare he is.
Besides an injury that upended his 2013 season, Venditte put up call-up worthy numbers thoughout his minor league career (an impressive 2.46 ERA as a reliever in 384.2 innings). But even with those numbers, even though he is a fan-favorite who always draws onlookers when he warms up in the bullpen, the Yankees never gave him a shot. Near the end of last season, with the Yankees out of contention and Venditte yet again getting batters out, fans and some baseball writers were clamoring for him to get a chance. Once again, he didn’t.
He wasn’t bitter, he says. Just disappointed—again. “I saw the amazing guys around me, I had an idea of what the organization’s plans were, I knew it wasn’t going to happen,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of things go right in my life. A lot of things. But sometimes it’s just not your day. This time it didn’t quite happen.”
Which brings us to the news in the Pat Venditte story. In the fall, Venditte was signed by the Oakland A’s. If you’ve seen Money Ball, you know why Venditte calls his signing “the perfect fit for me.”
The A’s management is famous for looking deep inside statistics to find under-valued, under-appreciated players. They embrace the unconventional. If you get guys out, you’ll get a shot. Venditte feels he has a real opportunity to play for manager Bob Melvin. “Honestly, I’ll probably end up in AAA (in Nashville) coming out of spring training,” Venditte says. “But if I show them I can be consistent—do the job I know I can do—I really think I’ll be given a shot. It’s a great opportunity.”
Many in the baseball world agree. Dave Rawnsley, national director of scouting for the scouting service, Perfect Game, says the A’s are the best organization in baseball for Venditte’s skillset.
“The A’s think outside the box and do creative things with their MLB roster,” he says. “With that is his great story. I think the Yankees made a mistake not giving Venditte a cup of coffee last fall once they were out of it. He’s such a great story. The positive publicity they could have gotten from that would have been a plus with all the bad stuff going on there. You can’t measure that in dollars.”
If Venditte finally reaches his dream this year, it is likely he will become a national story. Television cameras and fans will gravitate toward him. He will be star.
And then, no doubt, dad’s eager to give their boys an edge in the sport will start their own Venditte family program.
But, honestly, both father and son suggested boys and their fathers not get their hopes up too much. Rawnsley, who has tracked a nation of ballplayers for more than two decades, also says dads should temper their hopes.
“There are switch hitters, sure. But it’s so much more complicated to throw a ball than hit a ball. Dads wanting it to happen won’t impact the fact it’s extremely rare.
“That’s why Venditte is close to unique,” he says. “That’s why he’s such a great story.”