Tag Archives: pitcher

The Perfect Game

February 24, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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.”

20150113_bs_5735

Littleton Alston

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Littleton Alston’s 8-ft bronze statue of Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson catches the moment the ball’s just been released. “It’s when the will and the training and the gift come together,” says the sculptor. “It’s the crescendo of intent.”

Alston’s sculpture embodies motion in its dynamic pose. Leaning into the pitch, the muscled body spirals upward from the left foot—the lower body forward, the shoulders and arms swung wide to the left. The right arm and leg are powerful horizontal flourishes; the left foot, like a dancer’s en pointe, anchors man to earth and channels a diagonal bolt of sheer energy. Only the head is still, as Gibson’s intense gaze follows the ball to its precise target.

Such flawless execution comes from years of training, exercising through fatigue, inclement weather, or personal discouragement. Equally important is the determination, the focus on one’s goal. And thirdly, an inherent gift. This trivium is the foundation of a career in sports and in the arts.

Alston played baseball for one semester in high school, but it was enough to give him a better understanding of himself. “It’s both an individual and a team sport,” he said. “Sometimes you have to forgo the ego for a greater good.” And although he liked baseball, he recognized that it was not his gift. Besides, Alston’s school experience was not one of free time and hobby sports.20130307_bs_8479_Web

Growing up poor in Washington, D.C.’s Northeast neighborhood, Alston and his two closest brothers quickly learned the value of self- and mutual reliance, street smarts, and independence. From home, they could look all the way down East Capitol Street to see the Capitol dome, topped by its statue, Freedom. After one astonishing Christmas when each child got a bike, Capitol Hill became the boys’ playground. Bicycling a couple of miles from home to Hill was hot work in Washington’s humid summers, and the inviting waters of the many reflecting pools were irresistible. They leap-frogged from one to another, sometimes with police in pursuit. Alston particularly liked the pool at the Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History) with its 40-ft Calder stabile. A cool dip was what first appealed to the children, but Alston was unconsciously absorbing the lessons of form embodied in the public art and distinguished buildings.

In junior and senior high school, police presence signaled a much more dangerous environment than summer shenanigans, and violence seemed an unavoidable whirlpool. It was Alston’s gift, an insistent urge to draw, and his mother’s recognition of that talent, that provided him a way out—acceptance at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. It was a gift that demanded constantly that he push past his definitions of endurance, of ability, of understanding. And when he won the senior art prize and a scholarship to Virginia Commonwealth University, the training continued. As his skills were honed, so was his will, so that one night, after his job as a janitor, he was determined to finish a painting assignment. When it was completed, he was so exhausted that he laid his cheek against the wet paint and slept.

After 35 years, he still feels the derision of the teacher and other students, and his own bitter anger. But, sometimes, the ego has to be put aside for a greater good.

Alston with his statue at the unveiling. Photo by Dave Jenkins.

Alston with his statue at the unveiling. Photo by Dave Jenkins.

Littleton Alston got his degree from VCU, and an MFA from Rinehart School of Sculpture. He is Associate Professor of Sculpture at Creighton University and maintains a private studio. Among his awards, the most recent is Midtown Business Association’s 2013 City of Omaha Community Excellence Award for “The Jazz Trio,” located in North 24th’s Dreamland Plaza. Alston has worked in abstract style, but prefers figurative. His website’s home page bears this statement:

“The human form holds endless fascination for me, and it is this vehicle through which I believe can best express the joys and sorrows of the human condition.”

When offered the Bob Gibson commission, Alston took time to think it over. He’d never sculpted a sports figure, but felt “immense respect” for Gibson as a “trailblazer” in terms of racial equality and changes to the game. He was fascinated by the form of a ball player in action, and by the “aging champion” who sat for him.

Alston’s sculpture of Bob Gibson was unveiled April 11 at Werner Park. The presentation was a time of honor for Gibson, but also for Alston. Each man has created a life using will, training, and his unique gift. Every release of the ball, every unveiling strikes a crescendo of intent, an expression that goes out into the world contributing its own perfect harmony.

To view more of Littleton Alston’s work, visit alstonsculpture.com. To view the Bob Gibson Project, visit bobgibsonproject.org.