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A Breed Apart
MARK BECHTEL
February 01, 2010
He's just another Princeton-educated rancher who throws in the mid-90s and fell one question short of acing the math SAT. Ross Ohlendorf can do anything—maybe even make the Pirates worth watching this season
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February 01, 2010

A Breed Apart

He's just another Princeton-educated rancher who throws in the mid-90s and fell one question short of acing the math SAT. Ross Ohlendorf can do anything—maybe even make the Pirates worth watching this season

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Big Chief has gone missing, and Ross Ohlendorf is worried.

Earlier on this January day the young longhorn rancher had discovered a broken gate near where Big Chief and another bull, Winner's Edge, had been eyeing each other menacingly the previous afternoon. Given the territorial nature of the animals, there's a pretty good chance that they eventually locked horns—literally—and that the busted gate was collateral damage from their fight. Winner's Edge is accounted for. Big Chief isn't.

Which is why Ohlendorf—who also happens to be a starting pitcher for the Pirates and one of this season's potential breakout stars—is standing in the middle of a vast, grassy field, yodeling at the top of his lungs. He's trying to coax Big Chief out of hiding with a cattle call that's a cross between a birdcall and the Arkansas Woo Pig Sooie cheer. "Most people honk their horns," he says, but instead of driving a pickup he's making his way around his central Texas ranch in a Kawasaki mule, a four-seat utility vehicle that lacks a horn. So the pattern continues: Bellow, scan the horizon, repeat.

It's all in a day's work for Ohlendorf, 26, the rare major league player who actually puts in a day's work during the off-season. With his father, Curtis (a recently retired IT manager at the University of Texas), and his younger brother, Chad (a junior pitcher at Princeton), Ohlendorf has been raising longhorns for 15 years, and the family's Rocking O Ranch now has 300 head of cattle on 2,000 acres of land 25 miles south of Austin.

It's easy to become attached to the animals, but Ohlendorf can take solace in the fact that most of the longhorns sold by the family don't end up as the delicious barbecue brisket served at Smitty's Market just up the road in Lockhart. "People buy them almost as pets," says Ohlendorf, who led the Pirates' rotation with a 3.92 ERA last year and tied for the team lead with 11 wins. "It'll be people who want small herds, and they like longhorns because they're prettier than most breeds. We aren't always able to sell enough that way, so we have to take some to auction [where they will become meat]. But we try to avoid that."

Ohlendorf's duties (after his morning workout) range from branding to feeding to measuring horns to naming the calves to photographing animals for the ranch's website. It's not always pretty, he says while searching for Big Chief: "My arms were covered in manure this morning."

The Pirates' ace spent the first two months of his off-season in a very different job, one that smelled a lot better and required him to wear a shirt and tie. He was an intern for the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington. The gig came about last summer when Pittsburgh native Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture and a die-hard Pirates fan, threw out the first pitch at a game at PNC Park. Normally the ballplayer on the receiving end of a ceremonial first pitch is a rookie who's forced into service. But when Ohlendorf found out that Vilsack was in the house, he actually asked to be the catcher, a move that's unheard of unless the pitcher is a supermodel or someone with a line on free clothes.

After complimenting Vilsack on his arm, Ohlendorf chatted up the Secretary, who was over the moon that a Pirate not only knew who he was but also wanted to talk to him. A day or two later Ohlendorf e-mailed Vilsack, who set him up with the internship. Ohlendorf, an all-state forward at St. Stephen's Episcopal School in Austin, was pressed into duty as a ringer when the department hoops team played a pickup game on the court President Obama had installed on the South Lawn, and he was sent on a photo op at an elementary school with Michelle Obama, but his internship was no public relations stunt. He spent much of his time doing cost analysis of regulatory programs that identify and trace diseased animals and plants.

An advanced topic, yes, but Ohlendorf graduated from Princeton with a 3.75 GPA in something called operations research and financial engineering; his egghead bona fides are in order. He missed only one math question on the SAT, and his senior thesis at Princeton was so well-received that it got him an invitation to join Sigma Xi: The Scientific Research Society.

The title of Ohlendorf's thesis was Investing in Prospects: A Look at the Financial Successes of Major League Baseball Rule IV Drafts from 1989 to 1993. It might sound like interesting reading for Joe Baseball Fan, but unless Mr. Fan knows what a Boolean coefficient is, he probably ought to pick up some Roger Kahn instead. Ohlendorf once offered to let Pirates teammate Paul Maholm read the thesis. "I told him no chance," says Maholm. "He summed it up for me, gave me the Cliffs Notes version. It's ridiculous how smart he is. He blends in, but sometimes I tell him when we're talking he's got to dumb it down a little."

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