Jamie Irving's baseball cleats are the one giveaway of his unique ability. Look first at his right foot and you notice the telltale sign that Irving, a Harvard sophomore, is a righthanded pitcher. That's where he has his toeplate, the extra protection needed to offset the scuffing of the pitcher's shoe during the push-off on each of his deliveries. Look again and you notice that he also has a toeplate on his left foot. This must mean...no...couldn't be...could it?
Well, yes. Jamie Irving pitches both righthanded and lefthanded. "Looks strange, huh?" says Irving, pointing at the shoes. "We buy a pair of normal pitcher's shoes, one shoe reinforced, and send the other one out to have it done."
What looks even stranger to Harvard's opponents is the sight of Irving pitching righthanded one day and coming back to pitch lefthanded the next. One man, two pitching arms. Is this a mirage? Are there two 6'5", 210-pound livings on the Crimson roster, both out of Miami? Twins? Is this legal? The whole story sounds as if it might be found on some shelf of juvenile fiction under the title The Ambidextrous Kid.
Irving, a natural righthander, began pitching lefty when he was seven years old. His father, Bruce, a onetime pitcher at Yale, of all places, was playing catch with Jamie in the backyard and noticed that his son's left arm seemed to be as strong as his right. "Why don't we try practicing with both arms?" the father suggested. The workouts became a routine. Each arm received equal time and encouragement. Matching baseball gloves were purchased.
"I throw basically the same pitches with both arms," Irving says. "I throw harder with my right arm, but my fastball has a lot more natural movement with my left. What I can't do is switch from one arm to another during a game [though the rules stipulate only that a pitcher has to declare which arm he will use before he faces each batter]. The mechanics become too complicated. I have to know, starting a day, which arm I'm going to use. I'm not ambidextrous in anything else."
Irving's two-sided approach was a saving grace in high school when he needed surgery on his right elbow before his sophomore season. He pitched with his left arm while he recuperated, and then slowly brought his right arm back during his junior year, starting games lefthanded and relieving righthanded. The experience—a career saved by diversity—was the subject of the essay he wrote on his application to Harvard.
"You look at him righthanded and he's a very, very good righthanded pitcher," says Crimson coach Leigh Hogan. "Then again, you look at him lefthanded and he's not bad there, either. It's been our problem to figure out how to use him best. We've had to feel everything out. There aren't any guidebooks for a case like this."
Hogan treats Irving like two people, even listing him twice on the lineup card, as Irving, R. and Irving, L. Separate workouts are scheduled for each person. Irving has pitched almost exclusively righthanded this season, and through Sunday he was 5-4 with a 5.49 ERA. Twice, though, he has followed a righthanded start with a lefthanded start the next day.
The highlight came when he pitched 5? innings in a 16-7 righthanded win against Yale on a Saturday and got a complete-game, 4-3 lefthanded victory against the Elis on Sunday. "I can retire now," Yale coach John Stuper, the former St. Louis Cardinal pitcher, said, "because I've seen it all."
The scary part is that Harvard's opponents will see Irving for two more years. Or is it four?