By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2010; D05
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.
"That's not an easy thing for a non-lawyer to understand, much less somebody who throws a 90 mile per hour fastball for a living," Vilsack said of Ohlendorf, whose identity as a pro athlete eventually slipped out.
Spending most his time at work or at the gym, Ohlendorf arrived at the USDA each morning between 8 and 8:30. He lived in Southwest near L'Enfant Plaza, a 20-minute walk from his office. He usually took the Metro in the morning and walked home.
Between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., Ohlendorf retrieved his car and drove to a gym on River Road in Bethesda to train. Before he learned about Rock Creek Parkway, it would take 30 minutes to one hour to return from the gym.
His only extended time in Washington previously had been three-game series against the Nationals, so Ohlendorf immersed himself in the area when he had the chance. He visited the National Archives, the Air and Space Museum, the Library of Congress and took a tour of the West Wing. While the weather was still nice, Ohlendorf passed by softball games when jogging through the National Mall.
"I was impressed with the city in general," Ohlendorf said. "There were so many great buildings, a lot of stuff to do. And a lot of free things, too. A lot of money has really gone into the buildings. They're really pretty buildings."
The pitcher encountered fellow Princeton alums, including first lady Michelle Obama at Hollin Meadows Elementary, where Obama and Vilsack co-hosted an event to promote physical activity and nutrition. When Ohlendorf played basketball at the White House, participants wondered if the USDA had brought a ringer to the game, Vilsack joked,
Ohlendorf also met Sen. Robert P. Casey (D-Pa.) and Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), a Hall of Fame pitcher who once pitched for the Pirates. Vilsack believes Ohlendorf possesses the qualities to similarly transition from the pitcher's mound to politics.
He does not yet know if he'll return to Washington for a similar experience, but his mind continues to wander. Whatever he does, his teammates have not been surprised. And the USDA was happy to have him, with outsiders wondering who the intern was with the big league fastball.
"Folks in Washington might not always appreciate the breadth of what we do at USDA," Vilsack said, "and it was an opportunity for us to put the spotlight on USDA."