(Photo courtesy of Princeton's Office of Athletic Communications)
Not too long ago, an athletic Texan in his junior year at St. Stephen's Episcopal School in Austin began to weigh the different opportunities that awaited him in colleges across the country.
Unlike the other kids in his situation, however, he had much more to think about than just where he wanted to go to school. As a two-sport star excelling in both basketball and baseball Ross Ohlendorf had to decide not only where to study but also what to play.
After all, scouts and college coaches from both sports had been drooling over the young man for months and were pulling him in a hundred different directions. Even in Texas where superb athletes seem to grow on trees, Ohlendorf's large frame, mature physique, and 90-m.p.h. fastball put him head and shoulders above his peers.
But if one would have asked him which sport he was leaning towards at the time, Ohlendorf's answer was definitive basketball. He had aspired to play college basketball since he was a little kid shooting hoops in his local gym; baseball and the Major Leagues were little more than an afterthought.
That was of course until he reported to his first baseball practice that spring and he met the coach that would change his life forever, former Major Leaguer Keith Moreland.
"Before then I really had no intention whatsoever of playing baseball far into my future," said Ohlendorf with a gentle southern twang. "I was just focused on playing basketball at the next level. But Coach Moreland changed my whole mindset; he made me believe that I had the ability to play in college and afterwards."
Coming from your typical coach, that statement might not mean much. But Coach Moreland wasn't just any coach; he was one who had spent twelve seasons in the Major Leagues, making it to the All-Star game with the Cubs, and winning a World Series with the Phillies in 1980. Coaches like that you listen to and that is exactly what Ohlendorf did he listened.
In fact he soaked up all of the information he could handle that year, learning proper pitching mechanics, a big league attitude and, above all, confidence. After listening to Moreland for an entire season, a funny thing started to happen, the kid who was convinced that he wanted to play college hoops started to believe a little less in his jump shot and a little more in his fastball.
Although he still had the same decisions to make, he was now armed with the knowledge that he wanted to play both sports in college.
As a result, Ohlendorf turned down offers from such powerhouses as Texas and Baylor (where they were only interested in him as a pitcher) to attend a school that was interested in his full range of athletic abilities. And as an added bonus, that school just happened to be one of the nation's premier colleges Princeton University.
By making that choice to head to New Jersey, the 6'4, 220-pound Ohlendorf put himself on a road which has seen him ascend to the Double A level of Minor League baseball and could ultimately land him in the Major Leagues.
In deciding to take the Princeton route, Ohlendorf relied heavily on the advice of Tiger two-sport star Chris Young.
"I placed a pretty big emphasis on academics and obviously you can't get much better than Princeton in that area," said Ohlendorf. "But the biggest draw was the fact that I would be able to play both sports if I wanted to. I talked to [current San Diego Padres pitcher] Chris Young about it and after that conversation I was very confident that I could do it and would do it."
When Ohlendorf finally arrived at Princeton, however, it became clear to him that the academic workload as an engineering major would make the original plan of a two-sport career very difficult. Thus, he decided to not play basketball for a year until he had a better idea of how much of a time commitment two varsity sports would demand.
From that point on, under the tutelage of Tiger baseball head coach Scott Bradley, the gifted right-hander would never look back. During his freshman campaign he led the Tigers in wins (6), innings pitched (52), and strikeouts (51) to earn Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors, quickly establishing himself as the staff ace.
After battling through injuries as a sophomore, Ohlendorf hit his stride in his junior campaign after developing a sharper breaking slider to replace his curveball and adding consistency to his delivery.
In the spring of 2004, Ohlendorf helped Princeton win its second consecutive Ivy League title, leading the Tigers pitching staff in wins (7), complete games (3), and strikeouts (79), while also leading all starters in ERA (3.46). Ohlendorf also showed he could rise to the occasion, holding a No.1-seeded Virginia team to two runs in the opening game of Princeton's NCAA Regional Tournament, picking up the win in the process.
By that time, pro baseball scouts were crawling all over the ballpark every time Ohlendorf took the mound. Both he and junior outfielder B.J. Szymanski were being considered as second round draft picks in the 2004 MLB draft.
After Princeton was knocked out of the tournament, Ohlendorf had yet another important decision to make return for his senior year or take his talent to the professional ranks. After much deliberation, Ohlendorf eventually listened to the advice of Coach Bradley (who told Ohlendorf he had nothing left to teach him) and chose the latter option.
In the MLB draft that summer, his stock took an unexpected hit and the talented Tiger dropped all the way down to the fourth round, where the Arizona Diamondbacks took him with the 116th overall pick.
"To be honest I was really expecting to go higher," said Ohlendorf. "But in retrospect, I think I was taken right where I deserved to be."
Feeling somewhat slighted, Ohlendorf bought himself a new car and deposited the rest of his $280,000 signing bonus in the bank. He then set out to prove his critics wrong. It didn't take him long to do that as he posted a 2.79 ERA to go along with two victories and 28 strikeouts in seven starts for the Single-A Yakima Bears, Arizona's rookie league team.
The Diamondbacks promoted him to the South Bend Silver Hawks, the club's high-A affiliate for the start of the 2005 season. With the Silver Hawks, Ohlendorf was able to experience for the first time the trials and tribulations of pitching in the minor leagues for an entire season.
"Certainly my life style that year changed dramatically," he explained. "At Princeton I would pitch ten times in a season and grew accustomed to Coach Bradley giving us a lot of freedom both on and off the field. At South Bend I had to get my arm in good enough shape to make 30 starts in the year, not to mention the fact that I was doing baseball-related activities for at least eight hours a day. At times it became monotonous and it was a grind from start to finish, but all in all, I still obviously think it is a great job to have."
That grind was evident in Ohlendorf's numbers at South Bend as he posted a 4.53 ERA in 26 starts. Although it was considered a down year by his standards, he still earned 11 victories, struck out 144 batters in 157 innings, and was selected to the Midwest League All-Star Team.
In the off-season, Ross headed back to Princeton to finish his degree in Operations Research in Financial Engineering. Upon graduating, Ohlendorf began to prepare himself, both mentally and physically, to tackle another season of pro baseball, this time with the AA Tennessee Smokies.
This summer, Ross is showing the potential so many scouts had seen in him since his high school days. As of last weekend, Ohlendorf was 7-6 with a 3.05 ERA and 78 strikeouts in 130 innings. The biggest improvement in his game has come in the walk column where he has issued 18 free passes, down from 48 in 157 innings last season.
"I've always been able to strike a lot of people out," he said. "But most of the time I would let it loose with little idea of where it was headed. This year that has completely changed; I have a much more consistent delivery which has allowed me to place all of my pitches where I want to."
In addition to his much improved control, Ohlendorf has been working on adding a changeup to his repertoire, giving him an additional out pitch when he is in trouble.
While Ohlendorf has shown the ability to adapt from being a college star to a legitimate minor league prospect, the next step, of course, is taking his talent to the Major Leagues.
"Hopefully one day I will get that opportunity," he said with a chuckle. "I can't wait."
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