Ross Ohlendorf: From Major League Pitcher to Unpaid Intern

Pittsburgh Pirates' Ross Ohlendorf spending off-season as USDA intern

December 14, 2009, 6:04 PM

Dec. 15, 2009— -- Ross Ohlendorf has a decent full-time job -- as a starting pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But he's spending the winter in a cramped office of the Agriculture Department in Washington -- where his main focus has been tracking the migration of cattle diseases.

Ohlendorf, a 27-year-old Pirates right-hander, is serving as an unpaid intern at the US Department of Agriculture. He logs roughly 20 hours a week behind his desk, in a small room that he shares with a fellow intern, in an anonymous wing of the sprawling department headquarters.

He's nowhere near a pitcher's mound. And he's having a great time.

"This one's been, I'd say, the most exciting off-season I've had," Ohlendorf told ABC News.


It starts with the subject matter: cattle management policy. It's a natural for Ohlendorf, a Princeton grad whose family runs a 300-head Longhorn cattle ranch in Texas, outside of Austin.

Ohlendorf had heard about federal efforts to track cattle disease outbreaks, to identify their sources and better control their spread. The subject has obvious interest for ranch owners, and Ohlendorf was intrigued.

He arranged to catch the first pitch thrown by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at a Pirates game over the summer. They chatted a bit afterward about USDA efforts, and he followed up just like any other would-be intern would: By sending a resume to the department.

"This just seemed like a great opportunity, if USDA had an internship opportunity for me," Ohlendorf said. "It seemed like something I would really enjoy."

So the USDA has perhaps its most famous intern -- an 11-game winner for the Pirates last year, his first as a regular starter. He's got a new item for a resume that includes a degree in operations research and financial engineering, plus stints with the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, the New York Yankees, and now Pittsburgh. (He's been recognized as a baseball player only once around headquarters all winter, he said.)Washington Welcomes Pittsburgh Pirate

USDA officials say they're glad to have Ohlendorf on their team.

"What has made Ross' time here especially valuable is the fact that he didn't just want to take a tour of the building, but showed up ready to roll up his sleeves and engage on substantive issues that interested him," said Orrin Evans, a department spokesman.

It's led to a memorable winter. He met Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., a Hall of Fame pitcher, plus First Lady Michelle Obama, a fellow Princeton alum whom he teamed up with for an event for the USDA's Healthier US School Challenge.

"I was a little more nervous than I thought I'd be," he said of his meeting with Mrs. Obama.

Ohlendorf has been able to spend the off-season with his girlfriend, who lives and works in Washington. He has also picked up some skills that may be relevant down the road, in the family business or beyond.

"They want to be able to go to the source of the problem and trace back to what other animals it has interacted with," Ohlendorf said. "Being able to research on the project has been the most rewarding [thing], because I feel like I've been able to give a little bit with that."

Ohlendorf has kept up with his workouts in the afternoons. He's wrapping up his time at the department this week, so he can be in Florida for Spring Training in February.

The extra employment evokes a bygone age in baseball. Once upon a different-salary era, off-season jobs were the norm.

Brooklyn Dodgers legend Roy Campanella ran a liquor store in the off-season. New York Yankees stars Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin worked together in construction.

Ohlendorf made $413,500 this past year -- putting him on the lower end of the Major League salary scale these days. But unpaid internships aren't about the money, anyway.

A Break from Baseball

"This gives me a perspective of the alternative of working in an office -- which I have enjoyed but it's still not -- I'd rather be playing baseball. And it just kind of reminds you of how good you have it," Ohlendorf said.

And what do his teammates -- far more likely to be golfing than interning -- think of how he's spent his winter?

"I think a lot of them wish that they could have some of the similar opportunities," he said.

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