Benton, my 3-year-old grandson, is a delight in every way except one.
Since his early days, I have placed a baseball (or any suitable round object) in his left hand, hoping the repetition will be the first step in his development as a southpaw relief pitcher.
You may know my dream. Benton warms up in the bullpen to face one batter in the eighth inning of a major-league game, gets an out, and collects a $5 million check annually without breaking a sweat. Meanwhile, Papaw is beaming in the stands.
Unfortunately, Benton’s genetic disposition is not cooperating. His off-the-charts frame (size 6 clothes at 36 months) appears destined for a first baseman slot (Big Papi?). And, despite my continued encouragement to eat, draw and throw left-handed, he favors the right side (Grammy vetoed my plan to duct tape his right hand to his thigh).
As it now appears, left is out. Yes, this is crushing, the pangs rivaled only by the moment I realized that my Jack beagle was not going to be a circus dog. She refused to jump through my makeshift “ring of fire” or ride a tricycle.
We live through our kids and grandkids (and dogs), wanting them to be better than us.
Of course, I can’t be too disappointed in a grandson who is the best in the world in every other way.
Still, two of the traits I hope Benton develops are persistence and the ability to adapt to new opportunities. With that in mind, I am not giving up entirely on “our” southpaw dream, but I am moving on to Plan B.
Enter Pat Venditte.
Only a few hardcore baseball fans will recognize Venditte as a relief pitcher with a modest degree of success for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, an International League opponent of the Indianapolis Indians.
What makes Venditte special? He throws right-handed. And he throws left-handed, too.
That’s right, er correct: Venditte is ambidextrous.
In fact, in the long history of Major League Baseball, Venditte is only the fourth “switch pitcher” under contract.
How difficult is this? If you want to make a grown man look silly, challenge him to throw a baseball with his “off” hand.
A right-hander who can laser a fastball looks like a 2-year-old flailing away in an attempt to toss a ball halfway across the backyard from his left side. All control, grace and coordination depart as the ball meekly flutters away.
Venditte has enjoyed a degree of minor-league success as a switch pitcher. He was drafted by the Yankees out of Creighton in 2008 and quickly climbed the ladder toward the big leagues. But a 2012 surgery sidelined him for more than a season, and he is just now working his way back.
At 28, Venditte may be nearing his last shot for an MLB appearance with the Yankees.
Here’s hoping he makes it and inspires a generation of ambidextrous players to follow.
Venditte wears a special “six-hole” glove with thumb slots on each end. That allows him to switch hands and pitch to batters with either hand. He can throw a fastball from either side, making him an especially tough matchup problem. Another advantage: He gets twice as many pitches out of his two throwing arms before tiring.
His play has not been without comical moments, as when the switch pitcher faced switch hitters in his early days. With each player trying to get an advantage, batter and pitcher would continually switch sides.
That led to “The Venditte Rule,” a provision in the rulebook that requires the pitcher to first declare a side before the batter steps into the box.
Venditte is more than a novelty, though. He is 1-1 with a 3.60 ERA, including a shutout inning in relief in his most recent appearance. His fastball can hit 94 mph from his natural right side and 85 from the left.
The ambidextrous throwing motion did not occur by accident. Instead, Venditte’s father worked with him starting at age 3 (do you hear that, Benton?), hoping to give his son an athletic advantage.
It worked. A walk-on at Creighton, Venditte has earned his way up the minor-league ladder and is now within arm’s length of the majors.
If he gets there — and you’ve got to pull for him — his switch pitching will likely be key in providing flexibility from the bullpen.
For every child who dreams of going to the majors, Venditte stands as an example of working to give yourself the best shot. Doing the unconventional and the unexpected may be what it takes.
Benton, if you are reading this, Papaw has a new plan.
Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.