Jordan Deitch has perseverance -- and ball movement that confuses batters

Commack pitcher Jordan Deitch throws during practice on Commack pitcher Jordan Deitch throws during practice on Wednesday April 23, 2014. Photo Credit: Richard T. Slattery

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Jordan Deitch took the mound, and the gray skies opened and hit him with their best shot.

He couldn't get a grip on the baseball in the rain, and when he got set to pitch -- to show the recruiters and scouts at the showcase what he had to offer -- he heard the umpire's walkie talkie squawk behind him. It said, "We'll stay just a little longer."

He battled that day, Deitch said. It wasn't near his best, "but I did pretty well for the weather."

His perseverance had SUNY New Paltz coach Matt Righter intrigued. But what he demonstrated in that moment wasn't even the half of it.

 

Born into a challenge

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Flash back about 10 years. Deitch is in second grade, recovering from his sixth surgery since he was 6 months old. His right hand is in a cast, but that doesn't stop him from picking up the glove. Neither does the fact that he has only one full finger, a thumb, on his left hand -- the one he throws with.

"My brother was 2 and he has a righty glove -- a little glove," he recalled, sitting on the dugout bench at Commack, where he is a reliever. "And I put his glove on my left hand with the cast on my right hand. I would field the ground ball, take the glove off and then throw it, because I just didn't want to stop playing."

Deitch, now 18 and set to pitch for SUNY New Paltz next season, was born with four fingers on each hand and four toes on each foot. On his left hand, he has a thumb, three-quarters of an index finger and a partial ring finger and pinkie that end around the knuckle. His right hand is much the same, except the full finger is a pinkie.

 

"Like a knuckleball"

Deitch, a self-professed "junk pitcher" who throws in the mid-70s, has turned what some might call a handicap into an asset.

"He's got this movement," said Mike Turo, Deitch's Long Island Tigers travel team coach. "The way he wraps his fingers around the ball, it's almost like he can't grip it completely, and his curveball has this very sharp break. When his fastball is moving and he keeps the ball low, he's hard to hit. He might throw 7 mph slower than what batters are used to, so they can't dig in against him."

Deitch said that at times, his fastball acts like a splitter -- dropping suddenly at the plate.

BJ Lopez, now a catcher with the South Bend Silver Hawks, the Arizona Diamondbacks' Class A affiliate, caught Deitch with the Long Island Tigers two years ago and knows all about how those pitches dance.

"It moved everywhere," said Lopez, who went to Grand Street Campus High School in Brooklyn. "I really didn't know what they'd do. And the coaches would always put him in with runners in scoring position and he'd get ahead right away with that fastball. It had a late break, but always for a strike. And then he'd throw the curve and no one would swing because they all thought it was a high fastball, and then it would just drop."

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That unpredictability makes his fastball "almost like a knuckleball," Deitch said.

"I'll throw a fastball and someone will be like, 'What pitch is that?' Fastball," he said. "And then I'll throw another. 'What was that?' Fastball. One pitch can be down and in and another can go straight down."

In competition with his travel team last season, Deitch pitched 42 innings, going 4-1 with two saves, a 1.49 ERA, 43 strikeouts and 10 walks. But that's not even the most impressive part.

"There's no fear," said Jon Mauchan, a recommending scout for the Cincinnati Reds and a sales representative for Rawlings. Mauchan said that although he knows Deitch isn't a prospect, he couldn't help but tail him throughout his career. He's seen him pitch at least 30 times.

"The first time, I told the coach, 'You got a crafty little lefty there,' " he said. "Then he shook my hand and I saw his fingers. I was taken aback.

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"He works so quick off the rubber and he plays off the batters' aggression. They're chomping at the bit to crush this kid and they sit out on the front foot and try to hit a home run."

And then?

"They swing right over it," Deitch said, smiling. "It just drops, and when they do hit it, they roll it over because of the movement or because they can't wait back on it long enough."

Getting hit hard doesn't rattle him, he said, even though his style of pitching leaves a very small margin for error. "I will throw any pitch at any time," he said. "If you want me to face your best, I will face your best."

Righter put it simply: "I told him, 'You're someone who's heard 'no' all his life and I think you enjoy proving people wrong."

 

Learning to pitch

Sometimes Deitch even heard "no'' from people who were looking out for his best interests.

When he was about 9, Deitch said he told his father, Evan Deitch, that he wanted to pitch. His dad, who coached his then-travel team, tried to dissuade him, perhaps with good reason.

"I was definitely not the best," Jordan said. "I was hitting the backs of guys."

Evan, rueful, recalled "the epic fights we used to have when he was younger.''

"He always wanted to pitch, and I'd say, 'Not yet; you can hardly hold the ball,' " Evan Deitch said. "But he always had this desire."

Eventually, Jordan's teammates on the Long Island Inferno -- many of whom now play for Commack -- talked Evan into pitching his son. Jordan would spend every day practicing his grip and motion until he trained his body to make the ball go where he wanted it to. Deitch said he was about 11 when it finally clicked.

"He would not give up," Evan said. "There is so much fight in this kid. It's amazing."

Deitch moved up the ranks and eventually was promoted to the Commack varsity in his junior year, but playing college ball seemed unlikely. Though there was interest from schools such as Ursinus and Union College, Deitch, an honor roll student and a pragmatist, was "just thinking about going to college to go to college," he said.

He got accepted to Penn State and visited the campus. "I bought like $100 worth of Penn State stuff," he said.

Deitch had made his decision. He would leave baseball on his own terms.

 

A change of heart

Evan took his son to Penn State on a Sunday last October but, though his decision was made, Jordan made the trip to tryouts at SUNY New Paltz the next day.

He faced 10 batters and struck out eight.

"Then I'm taking and I get the flip and step on first," he said. "And I just knew. This is my life. I can't give it up."

At 9:30 that night, Jordan went down to his parents, Evan and Lisa, and told him he'd changed his mind. Few were happier to hear that news than Mauchan, who had been encouraging him to stay in baseball, and Righter, a former Johns Hopkins assistant in his first year as head coach at New Paltz.

"He's going to be a leader on and off the field," Righter said. "It'll be my second year when he comes on and I'm thinking, 'Who do I want in my clubhouse?' If he rubs off on my guys, he's more than just a pitcher to me."

Deitch is raring for the chance. His dream is to eventually work in the Mets' front office, and playing in college will help pave the way. He also would like to coach.

His hands may be classified as a disability, Deitch said, but he doesn't view it that way.

"My parents always told me, don't let anyone or anything scare you off," he said, taking off his Commack cap. "Not even with just my hand. Being at a disadvantage and going through this and overcoming those circumstances and beating the odds, that taught me not to let anything stop you."

While he spoke, he pointed to the inside bill of his cap.

"It's written there," he said.

Inside, in marker, it says, "Respect all. Fear none."

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