Ambidextrous Athletes

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

In the fifth inning on Tuesday, Pitcher CC Sabathia came out of one of the Yankees' last spring training games. Sabathia took a seat in the Yankee dugout and then witnessed something he had never seen before. Making his first appearance for the Yankees, a young Pat Venditte took the mound with a six-fingered glove, a slot at each side for each thumb. He threw four warm-up pitches with his right arm, then switched the glove to his right hand and threw four more warm-up pitches with his left arm. Venditte worked the next few batters, throwing to right-handed batters with his right and switching to his left arm for left-handed batters.

Well, CC Sabathia had never seen such an anomaly before because a switch-pitcher in baseball has been an extremely rare commodity.

There were a few back in the 1800's but just a couple in modern times. Greg Harris, a natural right-hander, could pitch with his left but didn't do so until the next-to-last game of his career, in 1995. And there are a few, such as Billy Wagner, who switched permanently because of injury, but weren't actual switch pitchers. But this kid, Venditte, is literally able to switch arms pitch by pitch. His right-handed fastball is faster than his left, but his left-handed slider comes in as a highly effective and unexpected change-up. Imagine the advantage. A batter has a better chance of hitting the ball when thrown by an opposite-handed pitcher. Venditte deftly switches, to pitch with his right to righties, his left to lefties. In one minor league game a couple of years ago, there was a 20-minute stall in one game when Venditte was pitching. This switch-hitter comes up and goes to bat righty when he sees Venditte taking the mound to pitch lefty. As soon as Venditte sees this, he slides his glove over to his left hand, to pitch righty. So the batter steps across the plate to bat lefty. Venditte slides the glove back, to pitch left-handed. And this goes on for 20 minutes, the batter stepping across the plate, the pitcher switching his glove. There doesn't seem to be a rule that states you must announce which arm you're going to pitch with…or which side you're going to bat from.

It makes abundant sense that the first thing to teach a kid in throwing any kind of ball around the back yard is to handle it equally with both hands. Whether it be a football receiver going up for catches with either hand, a basketball player needing to dribble, pass, even shoot with each hand, a pool player needing to stretch across the table and take occasional shots with the non-dominant hand, ambidextrous skills are valuable in almost every sport. And in baseball, especially, when the issue of the extreme pitching motion wearing down an arm to the point that it needs several days' rest after several innings' work, what better solution to productivity than being able to pitch with the left, rest the left the next day while pitching with the right?

Only 10 to 15% of the population at large are left-handers. Even fewer among athletes. Just as daily conveniences, such as can openers are made for righties, most sports equipment, such as golf clubs, are made for righties, too. And of course most instructors are righties. A natural lefty may choose to go righty, just to make life easier.

One of the great left-handed sports stories is that of Hungarian pistol shooter Karoly Takac. Takac, a right-hander, was European Champion, a member of Hungary's World Champion team in the mid-1930's. During the war, a grenade exploded in his right hand and he became an amputee. By the London Olympic Games, 1948, he taught himself to shoot left-handed, a very difficult task, to switch your dominant eye, and won two gold medals with his left hand.

Well, Pat Venditte is going to start the season with the Yankees Class A Tampa squad but I hope he makes it up to the Majors this year. How fun it will be to track his success, from both sides of the mound.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

Banner image: Pat Venditte's six-fingered glove. Photo: Mike Ashmore



Diana Nyad