Ross Ohlendorf: Will Work for Free

The Pirates' ace has one up his sleeve.

Last summer, a famous Pittsburgher returned home to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before a game at PNC Park. Pirates pitcher Ross Ohlendorf was so excited about the chance to meet the honored guest that he asked catcher Jason Jaramillo if he could substitute for him behind home plate for the opening pitch. So who was this Pittsburgh-born celebrity—Dan Marino? Donny Iris? Try Tom Vilsack, U.S. secretary of agriculture. Ohlendorf didn’t want an autograph. He wanted an internship.

“I wanted to do something productive in the off-season, and I thought an internship with the federal government would be a great way to my spend time,” Ohlendorf says. “The Department of Agriculture [USDA] seemed like a great fit.” Typical jock.

At first, Vilsack couldn’t believe that a major-league baseball player was interested in the unpaid position. Then he looked at Ohlendorf’s off-the-field résumé. It includes a degree from Princeton University in operations research and financial engineering, and membership in Sigma Xi, an exclusive, international scientific-research society. Plus, Ohlendorf achieved a college grade-point average (3.75) nearly higher than his 2009 earned-run average (3.92).

Those impressive credentials scored him a two-month internship at the USDA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., to study the economic effects of the National Animal Identification System. “The program is designed is to keep better records of animal movement and location, which aids in responses to disease detections in livestock,” Ohlendorf says. See, the man is smart. So smart that he reads history books during downtime in the clubhouse. So smart that his teammates (calculators in hand) try to stump him with rapid-fire questions about square roots and probabilities. But the 6-foot-4-inch right-hander isn’t your typical Ivy League egghead.

“I grew up working on my grandparents’ longhorn cattle ranch near Austin, Texas,” he says. “I’d repair fences, feed the calves and vaccinate cattle.” Ohlendorf even maintains the ranch’s Web site ( during the baseball season. In exchange for his tech support, the pitcher gets to name some of ranch’s 250-plus cattle—like Cindy Crawford, Yahtzee and Kickapoo.

Ohlendorf had to rely on his blue-collar work ethic when he reported to D.C. in the fall. By day, he worked on cost-benefit analysis—by night, he kept in shape for the baseball season by hitting the running paths around the capital. Fortunately, Ohlendorf isn’t a stranger to working overtime. After being drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2004, he returned to the grind of economics classes each off-season until he finished his degree in 2006. And what about his 144-page senior thesis that used advanced statistical formulas to calculate the value of major-league rookies? “Oh, I finished that during my second spring training,” Ohlendorf says. Surprise: He aced it. “My parents taught me to work hard and take pride in what I do.”

He aced the internship, too, and was even asked to accompany Secretary Vilsack and first lady Michelle Obama at an event celebrating the HealthierUS Schools Challenge, a competition that promotes healthy nutrition and physical activity in schools. While mum on his post-baseball career plans, Ohlendorf is a man of many hats. The Pirates just hope that he will keep wearing the one with the “P” on it for many years to come.

By the Numbers:

109  >>  Ohlendorf’s strikeout total in 2009; second on the team.

1520 >> SAT score (out of 1600).

9      >> Number of pitches he needed to strike out three batters last season.

Categories: Sports