A Breed Apart

February 01, 2010

He's just another Princeton-educated rancher who throws in the mid-90s and fell one question short of acing the math SAT. Ross Ohlendorf can do anything—maybe even make the Pirates worth watching this season

Big Chief has gone missing, and Ross Ohlendorf is worried.

Earlier on this January day the young longhorn rancher had discovered a broken gate near where Big Chief and another bull, Winner's Edge, had been eyeing each other menacingly the previous afternoon. Given the territorial nature of the animals, there's a pretty good chance that they eventually locked horns—literally—and that the busted gate was collateral damage from their fight. Winner's Edge is accounted for. Big Chief isn't.

Which is why Ohlendorf—who also happens to be a starting pitcher for the Pirates and one of this season's potential breakout stars—is standing in the middle of a vast, grassy field, yodeling at the top of his lungs. He's trying to coax Big Chief out of hiding with a cattle call that's a cross between a birdcall and the Arkansas Woo Pig Sooie cheer. "Most people honk their horns," he says, but instead of driving a pickup he's making his way around his central Texas ranch in a Kawasaki mule, a four-seat utility vehicle that lacks a horn. So the pattern continues: Bellow, scan the horizon, repeat.

It's all in a day's work for Ohlendorf, 26, the rare major league player who actually puts in a day's work during the off-season. With his father, Curtis (a recently retired IT manager at the University of Texas), and his younger brother, Chad (a junior pitcher at Princeton), Ohlendorf has been raising longhorns for 15 years, and the family's Rocking O Ranch now has 300 head of cattle on 2,000 acres of land 25 miles south of Austin.

It's easy to become attached to the animals, but Ohlendorf can take solace in the fact that most of the longhorns sold by the family don't end up as the delicious barbecue brisket served at Smitty's Market just up the road in Lockhart. "People buy them almost as pets," says Ohlendorf, who led the Pirates' rotation with a 3.92 ERA last year and tied for the team lead with 11 wins. "It'll be people who want small herds, and they like longhorns because they're prettier than most breeds. We aren't always able to sell enough that way, so we have to take some to auction [where they will become meat]. But we try to avoid that."

Ohlendorf's duties (after his morning workout) range from branding to feeding to measuring horns to naming the calves to photographing animals for the ranch's website. It's not always pretty, he says while searching for Big Chief: "My arms were covered in manure this morning."

The Pirates' ace spent the first two months of his off-season in a very different job, one that smelled a lot better and required him to wear a shirt and tie. He was an intern for the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington. The gig came about last summer when Pittsburgh native Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture and a die-hard Pirates fan, threw out the first pitch at a game at PNC Park. Normally the ballplayer on the receiving end of a ceremonial first pitch is a rookie who's forced into service. But when Ohlendorf found out that Vilsack was in the house, he actually asked to be the catcher, a move that's unheard of unless the pitcher is a supermodel or someone with a line on free clothes.

After complimenting Vilsack on his arm, Ohlendorf chatted up the Secretary, who was over the moon that a Pirate not only knew who he was but also wanted to talk to him. A day or two later Ohlendorf e-mailed Vilsack, who set him up with the internship. Ohlendorf, an all-state forward at St. Stephen's Episcopal School in Austin, was pressed into duty as a ringer when the department hoops team played a pickup game on the court President Obama had installed on the South Lawn, and he was sent on a photo op at an elementary school with Michelle Obama, but his internship was no public relations stunt. He spent much of his time doing cost analysis of regulatory programs that identify and trace diseased animals and plants.

An advanced topic, yes, but Ohlendorf graduated from Princeton with a 3.75 GPA in something called operations research and financial engineering; his egghead bona fides are in order. He missed only one math question on the SAT, and his senior thesis at Princeton was so well-received that it got him an invitation to join Sigma Xi: The Scientific Research Society.

The title of Ohlendorf's thesis was Investing in Prospects: A Look at the Financial Successes of Major League Baseball Rule IV Drafts from 1989 to 1993. It might sound like interesting reading for Joe Baseball Fan, but unless Mr. Fan knows what a Boolean coefficient is, he probably ought to pick up some Roger Kahn instead. Ohlendorf once offered to let Pirates teammate Paul Maholm read the thesis. "I told him no chance," says Maholm. "He summed it up for me, gave me the Cliffs Notes version. It's ridiculous how smart he is. He blends in, but sometimes I tell him when we're talking he's got to dumb it down a little."

The Cliffs Notes version is this: While bonuses have escalated in recent years, players on average still produce an effective return for their teams of twice their bonuses. It's a safe bet that when Ohlendorf's career is over, he will prove to have been well worth the $280,000 he signed for when the Diamondbacks drafted him in the fourth round in 2004.

Big Chief has turned up.

Ross's dad found him in a field hanging out with a couple of cows, looking no worse for his dustup with Winner's Edge. And now Ross is showing him off to some guests, luring him across a field with grain pellets. He's also holding a long stick with a golf club handle that when waved at an approaching longhorn is supposed to divert the animal. He looks overmatched.

The standard major league contract forbids players from racing cars, riding motorcycles and skydiving. It says nothing about consorting with 2,000-pound beasts, but if owners around the league got a look at Big Chief, that might change. To be fair, Big Chief is, like most longhorns, fairly docile around people. The worst injury Ohlendorf has picked up in 15 years of ranching was a scratch from a barbed wire fence.

Still, you couldn't blame the Pirates if they're a little nervous. Last year Ohlendorf emerged as an indispensable member of a young staff that could be good enough to allow Pittsburgh, which hasn't had a winning season since 1992, to actually flirt with respectability in 2010. Ohlendorf's path to the bigs wasn't without its bumps. Arizona traded him to the Yankees as part of a deal for Randy Johnson in 2007. But being a young pitcher for the game's richest franchise isn't easy. Because they could go out and purchase free agent starters at a whim, the Yankees had the luxury of sending Ohlendorf to the bullpen. As a reliever, Ohlendorf felt it was his duty to throw as hard as he could—which, granted, is pretty hard. (His heater maxed out around 97 mph.) But he was just throwing, not pitching. Ohlendorf was on the Yankees' Opening Day roster in 2008, but at the trade deadline New York shipped Ohlendorf, who had a 6.52 ERA, to the Pirates as part of a package for outfielder Xavier Nady and reliever Damaso Marte. Pittsburgh immediately sent him to Triple A to become a starter again.

The relearning process took off last spring, when Ohlendorf began working with the Pirates' new pitching coach, Joe Kerrigan. "In baseball they say you want to be smart but not too smart," says Ohlendorf's coach at Princeton, Scott Bradley. "Some people are scared of too much intelligence. But Joe Kerrigan is smart. The combination of him and Ross was perfect. Joe relishes when people ask him, Why?"

Well, usually.

"I do have a tendency to overcomplicate things, which can be a detriment," says Ohlendorf. "You want to think about things, but there's also a benefit to keeping them simple. So there were times when Joe would tell me I wasn't allowed to ask questions. Like in spring training, every Thursday I wasn't allowed to ask any."

In addition to keeping things simple, Kerrigan emphasized pitching to contact. As a reliever Ohlendorf threw nothing but fastballs and sliders and averaged 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings. But his WHIP was 1.64. As a starter he's mixed in a changeup and has more confidence in his stuff, and last season he averaged 5.6 K's with a 1.23 WHIP. That's not to say he can't make hitters miss. On Sept. 5 against the Cardinals, he became just the 40th pitcher to strike out the side on nine pitches, in the seventh inning of a tough 2--1 loss.

Last spring Kerrigan also began toying with the idea of having Ohlendorf go to an overhead windup. The plan was to ease Ohlendorf into it gradually—he'd only use it when he and Kerrigan played catch—and then implement it off the mound in the spring of 2010. But after a mediocre July start against the Diamondbacks, Kerrigan sped up the timetable. Ohlendorf was pitching O.K.—he was 8--8 with a 4.51 ERA—but opponents were hitting .276 against him and he seemed stuck in a rut. He took to the mechanical overhaul right away. "It frees him up, makes him looser, makes him more deceptive, gives him a better downhill angle," says Kerrigan. "It was like his natural delivery, like he'd been doing that for years." In nine outings with the overhead windup, Ohlendorf had seven quality starts, was 3--2 with a 2.75 ERA, and opponents hit just .212 against him.

Next up on Kerrigan's agenda is fine-tuning that changeup. But he sees even bigger things for Ohlendorf in the future. "Growing up I was a big fan of Bill Bradley," says Kerrigan. "Ross reminds me of the things I read about Bradley—very intelligent, very much an old-school gentleman, well-mannered, great competitor, loves the spotlight. I could see this guy down the line being a United States senator, I really can."

While conceding that anything is possible, Ohlendorf downplays such talk, saying he went to Washington to learn about agriculture and the governmental process, not to get into partisan politics. But Vilsack—a former governor of Iowa who briefly ran for president in 2008—thinks Kerrigan might be on to something. "Ross has got a very solid base from which to approach politics," Vilsack says. "[Raising longhorns] is a business that's not easy, so he'd be sympathetic and empathetic to small-business owners. The sky's the limit."

"But first," Vilsack adds, "I hope he wins the Cy Young for the Pirates."

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"It's ridiculous how smart he is," says a teammate. "I tell him when we're talking he has to dumb it down a little."

PHOTOPhotograph by DARREN CARROLLBRAND MANAGER With Ohlendorf atop the rotation, there's reason to be bullish on Pittsburgh's chances for respectability in 2010. PHOTOGEORGE GOJKOVICH/GETTY IMAGES (LEFT)[See caption above] PHOTOJ. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/APWASHINGTON HEIGHTS? He's a pitcher by trade and a rancher at heart, but one coach thinks a D.C. internship was just the start of Ohlendorf's political career. PHOTODILIP VISHWANAT/GETTY IMAGES (ABOVE)[See caption above] PHOTODARREN CARROLL (RIGHT)[See caption above]

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