WASHINGTON -- An e-mail requesting an internship arrived at
the Agriculture Department this summer with an impressive resume:
Princeton University degree in operations research and financial
engineering, 3.8 college GPA, 1520 SATs.
Ross Ohlendorf didn't mention his 95 mph sinking fastball, but
it probably wouldn't have hurt his chances. Department officials
were impressed that the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher wanted to work
for them in the offseason.
Doug McKalip, confidential assistant to Agriculture Secretary
Tom Vilsack, recalled the secretary's reaction when told of
Ohlendorf's e-mail: "Are you serious? A major league player wants
to do this?"
Good location is key to both pitching and landing a job, and
Ohlendorf had mastered that this summer, arranging to catch
Vilsack's opening pitch at a Pirates game in Pittsburgh because of
the pitcher's interest in agriculture.
"I talked to him briefly afterward and told him my family
raised longhorns," Ohlendorf recalled in an interview at his USDA
office. "A little while later, it came into my head that it would
be a great opportunity to intern here in the offseason."
followed that up with an e-mail to McKalip.
Ohlendorf said he and his father are involved in their longhorn
cattle business outside Austin, Texas -- the pitcher works on the
ranch's Web site, even during the baseball season -- and that he's
been developing an interest in how government works.
"So this was a really good opportunity to combine the two," he
Now, Ohlendorf shows up every day at the office for his
internship in a kind of throwback to earlier times when baseball
players had to supplement their income working offseason jobs.
Except that Ohlendorf isn't getting paid, and he usually takes
afternoons off to work out. He typically logs a little more than 20
hours a week, and plans to extend his eight-week internship, which
began last month, by two weeks.
Ohlendorf, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound right-hander, shares a small office with another USDA employee. His work is
mainly focused on animal identification -- the nationwide tracking
system intended to pinpoint an animal's location after a disease is
"I've really enjoyed it," he said. "In addition to learning a
lot of things and meeting a lot of neat people, I've gotten to do
some cool events too."
He mentioned one at the Eisenhower
Executive Office Building, next to the White House, focused on
youth sports, and another at a local elementary school with first
lady Michelle Obama, a fellow Princeton grad, aimed at promoting
healthy eating among children.
"If you know Ross," said Ohlendorf's baseball coach at
Princeton, Scott Bradley, "everything about his life is always
about making himself better and making himself more educated. He's
not someone who wants to sit and not do anything. This is a perfect
fit for him."
Ohlendorf said he's also picking up some insights that might
help the business back home.
"We haven't sold our beef directly to consumers very often,"
he said. "But longhorn beef's very healthy, and our meat for the
most part is grass-fed. I'm becoming more familiar with the demand
for grass-fed and local products. There's more of a market that we
can explore. ... I'm just learning about certification programs
that USDA runs, where you can become organically-certified, or
Many of the cattle on the ranch are sold to people who want to
raise registered longhorns, Ohlendorf said, "because they like the
way they look, and they want to get enjoyment out of raising them,
more so than for the end product."
Ohlendorf, 27, had a breakout season this year, winning 11 games
as a starter for the last-place Pirates and posting a 3.92 ERA. He
was drafted in 2004 by the Arizona Diamondbacks, who traded him to
the New York Yankees as part of the deal that brought Randy Johnson
back to Arizona. New York later shipped him to Pittsburgh in
another multiplayer trade.
Ohlendorf's college thesis was on the investment return for
major league teams on draft choices.
ESPN's Tim Kurkjian has
written that Ohlendorf "may be the smartest player in baseball and
the smartest person in almost any room he enters."
His teammate, pitcher Zach Duke, said he wasn't surprised that
Ohlendorf is spending his offseason interning with the government.
"He's a guy who has an unquenched thirst for knowledge," Duke
said in a telephone interview. "This is something he's very
passionate about, and if he can learn more about the industry and
things that can affect his business in a positive way, he's going
to do it."
"He's kind of a geek, as we refer to him," Duke added with a
laugh. "I'm kind of jealous of him after talking to him because he
told me he's doing all this stuff, getting to meet people" like
Michelle Obama. Duke said he's spending his own offseason "just
kind of hanging out."
Ohlendorf said he might consider a career in public service
after playing baseball.
"At this point, there are a lot of things that interest me, but
it is certainly one of them," he said.
But like a pitcher careful
not to telegraph his pitches, Ohlendorf declined to share any views
on public policy -- except to say he's impressed with the USDA's
efforts at promoting healthier lifestyles for kids.
Now that's good politics.