Agriculture

Pro-baseball player interns at Ag Department

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 said. "A little while later, it came into my head that it would be a great opportunity to intern here in the offseason." He followed that up with the e-mail.

Ohlendorf said that 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 said.

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 Ohlendorf isn't getting paid, and he usually takes afternoons off to work out.

Ohlendorf shares a small office with another USDA employee. His work focuses on animal identification — the nationwide tracking system intended to pinpoint an animal's location after a disease is discovered.

"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.

Ohlendorf said he's also picking up insights that might help the family business.

"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."

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. "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."

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