Pirates pitcher Ross Ohlendorf worked as intern for Department of Agriculture

"I was doing something useful with my time," says Ross Ohlendorf. (Jared Wickerham/getty Images)
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By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2010

Ross Ohlendorf was no different from most interns who flood Washington. He shared an office, squeezing a second desk into a space often reserved for one employee. He found short-term housing, either taking the Metro or walking to work each morning. He endured D.C. traffic, learning about Rock Creek Parkway too late to enjoy the benefits.

Except when the internship at the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded, Ohlendorf did not return to school. He returned to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where the right-handed starting pitcher is in his third season. The Pirates finish a three-game series with the Washington Nationals on Thursday, and Ohlendorf is scheduled to pitch Saturday in Detroit.

The notion of Ohlendorf's internship originated last summer, when U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack threw out the first pitch for his beloved Pirates. Ohlendorf volunteered to catch for Vilsack. Conversation ensued -- Vilsack was interested in the Pirates, and Ohlendorf was interested in agriculture. His family owns a cattle ranch in Austin.

A few days later, Ohlendorf sent Vilsack's office an e-mail inquiring about an internship. The 11-game winner in 2009 even attached his résumé.

"I had an opportunity to feel like I was doing something useful with my time," Ohlendorf said. "That was the most rewarding experience about it."

The internship did not surprise teammates and former teammates, who all vouch for Ohlendorf's intellect. He attended Princeton, where he earned a 3.75 GPA and completed a senior thesis titled "Investing in Prospects: A Look at the Financial Successes of Major League Baseball Rule IV Drafts from 1989 to 1993."

"No matter what's going on, you can always tell he's thinking of something," said Nationals closer Matt Capps, who played with Ohlendorf in Pittsburgh. "He was never shy at throwing anything back to you. And whatever he came back at you with, you couldn't respond to because you either didn't get it, or it was too good to try to argue."

Ohlendorf arrived in Washington before a pitcher's heavy offseason training begins, and immediately went to work. His internship lasted 10 weeks -- from one week after the season to one week before Christmas. He worked in the Whitten Building at the USDA, sharing an office tucked down a hallway from the secretary's office.

The office is usually occupied by one female employee, but during the internship it fit another desk -- not to mention a 6-foot-4, 245-pound professional athlete and a refrigerator with protein shakes.

"It would have been easy for him to come into a circumstance like this and for everyone to know who he was and what he did, but he was quite humble about the experience and was very serious about his work at USDA," Vilsack said. "He was able to balance his work at USDA with making sure he did his workouts in the afternoon. But he was very serious about his work, and he actually made a very serious contribution to a very important issue that we were working on."

Ohlendorf's work included the study of livestock movement and how disease is transferred when cattle migrates.

He researched the liability of a meat supply -- whether it's the cattle owner, the processor, the hauler or the grocer who bears responsibility.

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