Versatile players can be potent secret weapons in a coach’s arsenal
It is often the unconventional that can give a player or team that all-important edge
The ambidextrous Major League Baseball player Pat Venditte pitched left-handed before switching his glove from his right to left hand. Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Last Friday night 29-year-old pitcher Pat Venditte made his Major League Baseball debut for the Oakland Athletics. Drafted by the New York Yankees in 2008, Venditte (pronounced ven-det-ee) would toe the rubber on a big league mound for the first time in Boston’s Fenway Park. A new tale would be added to that marvellous little ballpark’s storied past: the debut of the first full time switch-pitcher of baseball’s modern era.
A rule was created for him and a new position designated: switch-handed pitcher (SHP). To face his first opponent, Brock Holt, Venditte would pitch left-handed before switching his glove (worn on the opposite hand to the pitching arm) from his right to left hand. He would pitch right-handed to the next man up. The switch-pitcher. Two major league arms in one, a strategic boon for his manager, Bob Melvin, and the team’s general manager, the ever-resourceful Billy Beane.
Ambidextrousness as tactical advantage. Native American PGA golfer Notah Begay carried a double-bladed putter which he used either right- or left-handed depending on the break. Snooker’s Ronnie O’Sullivan famously uses the rest less than most; where some might need that extra bit of lumber O’Sullivan might pop the cue into his left hand and carry on.
The GAA had Maurice Fitzgerald, the mercurial Kerryman able to shoot delicious, arcing frees with either foot from the appropriate touchline. Rugby’s equivalent might be Jonny Wilkinson; his World Cup-winning drop goal in 2003 was taken with his “weaker” foot, after all. Being able to kick accurately and powerfully from both feet gave him options.
Around the same time that Venditte was drafted by the Yankees, half a world away cricket’s Kevin Pietersen was causing some fuss. That summer the gifted South African-born batsman got into a right-hander’s batting stance before, as the bowler was in his delivery stride, spinning around to smash the ball away left handed. Was the switch-hit “cricket”? The game’s overlords eventually ruled in favour of creativity and excitement.
The switch-hit was legal, given that it required tremendous skill to execute and, if the batsman got it wrong, offered the bowler a very reasonable chance of taking a wicket.
The Irish rugby team’s non-engagement tactic as their opponents try to launch a lineout maul is an example of unconventional thinking, but asking players to do that runs the risk of looking very silly if it goes wrong. It takes trust and confidence to be unconventional.
Sometimes convention can be so strong that it’s seemingly impossible to deviate from that norm. In these analytical times it’s been clear for some years now that NFL coaches should go for it far more often on fourth down, passing or running the ball to try to keep possession alive rather than punting the ball back to the opposition. So obvious was the disparity between convention and optimal choice that the New York Times created the 4thDownBot, a website (and Twitter account) offering instant analysis of every fourth down in every game.
Embracing the unconventional is not always followed with garlands. Sampdoria kicked off a Serie A game against Lazio this season with all ten outfield players lined up along the half way line. Starting in, quite literally, a 0-0-10 formation they hoped that out of chaos would emerge a corner or goal chance. Neither did, and they lost three nil.
In rugby one thinks of Mauro Bergamasco, the open-side flanker, named by former Italian coach Nick Mallett to start at scrumhalf against England. The experiment failed with hideous immediacy. But in a way you had to admire the moxie of coach and player for trying it.
Lest one think that an emergency scrumhalf might never play, it’s worth recalling Brian O’Driscoll stepping into the role in 2013 against Wales. These things can happen. Having a player able to slot in for even 10 minutes is useful for a coach; even more so if they can play multiple positions from the start. An extra arrow to the coach’s quiver.