A Bronx Tale

What the Yankees see in a kid from Austin.

May 2007By Comments

IN THE SPRING OF ODD-NUMBERED YEARS, I generally use this space to write about Texas politics—about the inevitable failure of the Legislature and especially the leadership to do enough for the public weal—and I never lack for material. But so much has already happened at the Capitol this session (see Topic A: The Great Undoing) that it’s been a tad unrelenting, even for a junkie like me. I needed to get away from it all for a few days, and I decided that the ideal destination was Florida, where I could witness another kind of hardball in action. The real kind.

I’ve been a devoted baseball fan since the age of 8, but I’d never been to spring training. When I heard that a 24-year-old pitcher from Austin named Ross Ohlendorf would be taking the mound for the New York Yankees against the Boston Red Sox on March 12—a kid trying to make an impression in the middle of one of the greatest rivalries in sports—I knew I had to be there. As the father of a former high school ballplayer, I’d heard of Ross, whose exploits as a prep school and Ivy League athlete were well-known to baseball parents. And, as an aficionado of the game, I knew that Ross had recently been traded to the Yankees as part of a deal that had sent an aging Randy Johnson to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

And so, on a breezy afternoon, I found myself heading south on Interstate 75 from Tampa, on the way to Fort Myers, where the Red Sox were hosting their mortal enemies. It was a two-hour drive to the old ballpark downtown, near the former Edison and Ford estates. This was just an exhibition game, but it was still the Red Sox and the Yankees; tickets on the Web were going for $350, and scalpers lined the sidewalks out front. (If you have ever entertained the thought of going to spring training, I should advise you that the most popular teams sell out every game. This was the Red Sox’s fifty-fifth straight sellout at City of Palms Park; back in Tampa, the Yankees had sold out the preseason before the first game.)

Ross was not due to pitch until the seventh inning, so I watched the game unfold and listened to the chatter in the press box. The Red Sox fielded their starting lineup, but the Yankees had only a smattering of veterans: Robinson Cano, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui. Their biggest stars, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, had remained in Tampa. I learned that this is standard practice in spring training—the longer the distance (130 miles in this case), the fewer the vets who make the trip. The Yankees grabbed a 3—0 lead in the first inning, but by the time Ross hit the mound, the Red Sox had managed a 4—4 tie.

I would like to be able to report that the young hurler overwhelmed the Sox with his stuff, but alas, that was not to be his destiny on this night. As luck would have it, he had to face the only three veterans not yet replaced in the Red Sox lineup by scrubs or minor leaguers: shortstop and leadoff hitter Julio Lugo, first baseman Kevin Youkilis, and David Ortiz, one of the great sluggers in the game. In rapid succession, this resulted in a walk, an errant pickoff throw to first base, and a hit batter, and then the Brobdingnagian Ortiz approached the plate. With the count at two balls and two strikes, Ross threw a good curve that I thought was strike three, but the umpire disagreed. On the next pitch Ortiz uncoiled and smote the ball high and far into the soft night air. I thought it would clear the fence and land amid the palms behind it, and, I would learn the next day, so did Ross. But the ball didn’t carry in the muggy seaside air, and the center fielder snatched it at the wall in mid-sprint. Lugo tagged up and scored the go-ahead run. Before the inning was over Ross would hit another batter and yield a single and another sacrifice fly. The eighth inning went better—just three batters, ending with a double play—but the game was gone, and the kid was tagged with the loss. I felt I had jinxed him.

The next morning, back in Tampa, Ross and I sat in the bleachers at Legends Field—who but the Yankees would pick such an obnoxious name for their ballpark?—and talked about the game and about baseball. His father, Curtis, who had flown in as well, sat with us. (Ross’s mother, Patti, has a connection to the Capitol I had left behind; as a vice president at the University of Texas at Austin, she is responsible for, among other things, governmental relations. His younger brother, Chad, is also a talented pitcher who will play for Princeton this fall.) Ross wore tan shorts and a T-shirt with horizontal green and white stripes, and no one on the planet would have taken him for anything but an athlete: long, narrow face; broad shoulders; well-tanned arms and legs; rangy build despite carrying 230 pounds on a six-foot-four-inch frame. Unlike a lot of athletes I’ve interviewed over the years, he conversed easily, without resorting to a single cliché.

When I was hesitant to ask about his performance the previous night, he brought it up. “I tried to overthrow too much,” he said. “I was all over the place. I couldn’t locate my fastball. When I struggle, I try to take positive things away from it. I threw three curves last night, and they were all good. For a pitcher, the mental and emotional part of the game is huge. I’ve come to understand my mood swings, how to react to them. You have to have confidence, but you can’t get too high; you might relax too much. And you can think too much. If I’m working on my mechanics, I want them to come naturally. I don’t want to think about them during a game.

“I like to analyze things,” he told me, and he launched into a discussion of pitch selection—what to throw in certain situations, something the Yankees emphasize. “We’re taught not to throw inside in close games to guys who aren’t power hitters. If they’re going to hit a home run, it’s going to be down the line off an inside pitch, so if the game is tied or you’re ahead by a run, don’t pitch inside to weak hitters.”

Ross always wanted to play college ball—but not baseball. His favorite sport at St. Stephen’s, an elite Austin private school, was basketball. When he was old enough to join a “select” team composed of the most promising players of his age group, he chose to spend his summers on the court rather than the diamond. He says he wasn’t very good at baseball. He played first base and pitched a little, but as a hitter he struck out too often, and as a pitcher he walked too many batters. Only when he realized that he wasn’t quick enough to play guard in college, nor tall enough to play underneath the basket, did he fully embrace baseball. The St. Stephen’s coaches, one of whom was former UT All-American and major league player Keith Moreland, knew that they had something special when they clocked his fastball at 94 miles per hour. It was the first time anyone had put a radar gun on him. By the end of his junior year, big-league scouts were showing up to watch him pitch, and he knew he wanted eventually to play pro ball.

In the fall of 2001, Ross went off to Princeton, where he was named Ivy League Rookie of the Year the following spring. The Diamondbacks drafted him in June 2004, and he signed a contract the next month. He was assigned to the single-A (entry-level) Yakima (Washington) Bears, for whom he pitched in only seven games. The next year he moved up to the South Bend (Indiana) Silver Hawks in a more competitive single-A league, where he struck out 144 batters in 157 innings. Last year he played for the (Knoxville) Tennessee Smokies, in a double-A league, the second rung from the top on the minor league ladder. He walked only 29 batters in 177 innings, an eye-opening stat, and found himself a hot prospect. I asked how he passed the time, since his education set him apart from most minor leaguers (only two Knoxville players, for instance, had finished college). Many of his teammates came from the Caribbean and spoke little English, so on road trips, Ross says he “learned Spanish.” He also did crossword and logic puzzles, played cards, read books by Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons), and “watched SportsCenter, over and over.”

After the ’04 and ’05 seasons, he went back to Princeton for the fall semesters and earned his degree in operations research and financial engineering, graduating with honors. “Most of the people in my major go into investment banking,” he says. The subject of his senior thesis was whether signing bonuses following the baseball draft are good investments.

In Ross’s case, the answer remains unknown. Two days after his appearance against the Red Sox, the Yankees reassigned him to their minor league training camp. As expected, he opened the season pitching for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Yankees, the big-league triple-A affiliate and the highest level in their farm system. His potential is evident from his record, but so are the problems he has had to overcome. At South Bend he posted those league-leading strikeout numbers, “but in five or six games,” he says, “I didn’t make it out of the fourth inning. I really needed to be more consistent.” Last season, Ross’s goal was to increase his efficiency—the number of pitches per batter—and control so that he could pitch deeper into games, and he achieved it, finishing fourth in the minors in the number of innings pitched.

Even so, he is joining an organization that is loaded with pitching prospects. Fans like me look up scouting reports on fantasy baseball Web sites like RotoWire.com, where I found this comment about Ross: “Ohlendorf is a tall control pitcher out of Princeton. He doesn’t have [Highland Park High School phenom and San Diego Padres pitcher Chris] Young’s stuff, but held his own at Double-A by keeping mistakes—walks and homers—to a bare minimum. It’s a very difficult way to live in Triple-A or the AL East, so you should wait a year [to pick him for your fantasy team]. Among Yankee pitching prospects, he’s at best third in line behind Philip Hughes and Tyler Clippard, and arguably behind Humberto Sanchez too.”

What RotoWire overlooked is that, as Ross puts it, the mental side of the game is “huge.” You can’t succeed at hardball without it—not in Yankee Stadium, not in the Capitol.

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