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From left or right, Perez feels normal

July 10, 2013

Ambidextrous pitcher back from injury, ready to go for Miners

BECKLEY — When Ryan Perez was a three-year-old boy growing up in Illinois, he would throw rocks in the pond in his backyard.

Just normal kid stuff.

But there was something altogether abnormal about an otherwise simple act of boyhood.

“To a kid, that’s cool. (But) every time I would pick up a rock right-handed, he would switch it,” Perez said, smiling as he demonstrated how his dad would take the rock from his right hand and place it in his left.

Perez is the youngest of three brothers, none of them naturally left-handed. Lefties are a valued commodity in baseball, prompting Perez’s dad to start the experiment.

“That’s how it started,” he said.

Sixteen years later, it appears to be paying off.

Perez made his West Virginia Miners debut Tuesday night against Richmond. He pitched right-handed, but as an ultra-rare ambidextrous pitcher, it is likely fans will see him work left-handed later in the season.

In the dictionary, the definition of “ambidextrous” is “able to use both hands with equal facility.” For the Miners, it means even more versatility for their pitching staff.

“He comes with good accolades,” Miners manager Tim Epling said of the rising sophomore at Judson University. “Still, this is his first game; I haven’t seen him throw. But his coach told me what he can do. I’m sure he’s anxious to get out there. I talked to him three or four times before today and he seems really poised and ready to go.”

Perez — who by this time can easily spell ambidextrous and obviously knows the definition — is of a decidedly rare breed. The last Major League pitcher to do it was Greg Harris when he pitched both ways in one inning for the San Diego Padres in 1995. There were four known so-called switch pitchers in the 19th century.

Currently, Pat Venditte is the only ambidextrous pitcher in professional baseball. He pitches for the Scranton-Wilkes Barre RailRiders, the New York Yankees’ affiliate of the Class AAA International League.

Venditte, ironically, pitched one summer for the Quincy Gems, a current Prospect League team that was still in the Central Illinois Collegiate League when Venditte pitched there in 2006.

Perez called Venditte to get tips on how to handle things as he marches toward his goal of pitching professionally.

“I asked him about the difference between college and the minors,” Perez said. “He said in the minor leagues, (hitters) are just waiting for their pitch. In college, the hitters are more aggressive.”

Venditte’s emergence led to the creation of a rule — aptly called the Pat Venditte Rule — that governs what is legal and what is not in the use of a switch-pitcher. Among the provisions are that a pitcher must visually illustrate which way he intends to pitch. Also, the pitcher and the batter — if he is a switch hitter — are each allowed to switch hands once per at-bat.

Epling said there is no such rule in the Prospect League.

“You could actually throw him three innings left and then three innings right,” Epling said. “I would never do that. That’s doing him an injustice.”

Perez’s unique ability was a slight center of controversy at the Little League level, where pitchers are on strict league-mandated pitch counts. Those rules are in place to protect young players’ arms, but the line becomes blurred in the case of a player such as Perez.

He often ran into opposing coaches who thought Perez and his coach were trying to use sleight of hands, er, hand to gain an advantage.

“I never really heard it. They talked to my dad about it,” Perez said. “You usually go to the director of the tournament and say, ‘OK, we’ve got an ambidextrous guy. Can he throw seven innings left-handed and right-handed, or just seven innings in general?’ Some of them would say yes and some would say no.

“In some tournaments, I would be able to pitch every other day — or every day — just because, at a younger age I wasn’t throwing as hard so there wasn’t as much pressure on (either) arm.”

Word of Perez and his inclusion on the Miners’ original roster was spreading in May, but an injury to his right arm shut him down. The arm was originally hurt when he was pitching in a Perfect Game Showcase Tournament while he was still in high school.

He seems to be 100 percent now, and has kept in touch with current Miners Cameron Balough and Jordan Pemble — Perez’s teammates at Judson.

“So I said, ‘OK, let’s do it,’” Perez said. “It’s a nice facility.”

“We stay in contact with players,” Epling said. “When we got to a point where I was like, ‘Let’s check and see how things are going,’ we contacted him and he was ready to go. We met his dad in Chillicothe and started talking. He’s excited about coming to our program.”

Beckley is a stop on a road Perez hopes sees him follow the path being blazed by Venditte.

“He may be my (inspiration),” Perez said, “but I’m after him.”

— E-mail: gfauber@