Ali Modami was in a batting cage last week, as he is almost every day for eight months of the year, when someone he would never have thought approached him with a frequent question.
“Hey, you want to throw up?” Ken Griffey Jr. asked.
Of course, said Modami. She tried hard to hide her excitement for Griffey, the Hall of Famer Griffey, the USA team player that Modami, along with millions of other kids, idolized in the 1990s.
“My 12-year-old self would do it,” Modami joked. “And then he and Mike were there talking. I would pay a million dollars to hear that conversation. Two of the greatest players to ever play the game. I am happy to be here.”
Mike, of course, is Mike Trout. Superstar center fielder and left fielder Aaron Loup are the two Angels on Team USA for the World Baseball Classic. But they are not the only people representing the organization on the American team.
Modami also left the Angels last week to join the USA team as a batting practice pitcher, making him, by definition, one of the best at what he does in this country.
“Guys love the way they throw it,” said Team USA and Dodgers third base coach Dino Ebel. “And he’s left-handed. That’s strange.”
Nationals batting practice pitcher Ali Modami carries second baseman Brian Dozier during a rally after a parade to celebrate baseball’s World Series victory over the Astros.
(Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)
Modami, 42, is a former footballer himself. Born in New York City, he attended Scottsdale for high school and played baseball at Oklahoma State. He batted .267 with one home run in 86 at-bats his senior year. A short Indy ball career followed. His playing period ended in 2005.
“I played hard,” Modami said. “I liked the game. Without talent I was fine, but I couldn’t forget 0 for 4. My 0 for 4 would have been a 0 for 12”.
To stay in the sport, he began regularly attending a training camp in the Phoenix area, where he threw batting practice to major leaguers. One was Pat Burrell, a slugger for the Philadelphia Phillies at the time. Eventually, Modami learned that the Phillies needed a pitcher for batting practice. He flew there for a trial and was given the job.
Jayson Werth, who spent five years with the Phillies, left Philadelphia for the Washington Nationals before being traded to Washington. Modami threw thousands of pitches for the Nationals over nine years. In 2021, with the encouragement of Anthony Rendon – who had left Washington the previous year – Modami joined the Angels.
Ali Modami joined the Angels in 2021 as a batting practice pitcher.
(Morry Gash/Associated Press)
“I don’t like hitting lefty BP pitchers,” said USA shortstop Trea Turner, who spent parts of five seasons hitting Modami’s pitches in Washington. “He and (former Nationals pitching coach) Kevin Long are the only two lefties I’ve ever really liked.
“It’s just a perfect four-seam and it wants to be great. He wants to prepare you and makes an effort. So it’s nice when you have someone who cares. And he’s a good guy. Everyone loves it.”
Modami said that time spent with the players builds confidence. He’s not their hitting coach, but he watches thousands of swings. He can tell if something is wrong, so he often asks for input. It becomes part of the job. One day, he said, he would like more responsibility, perhaps as an assistant pitching coach.
Team USA manager Mark DeRosa first met Modami as a player in 2012, his only season with the Nationals — the 15th of his 16-year career. Injuries limited DeRosa to 48 games and plenty of rehab time with Modami in the cage. A friendship was born. They stayed in touch for the next decade.
Last year, DeRosa, in his first stint as analyst director for MLB Network, asked Modami to join Team USA. In November, Modami received a call from Team USA CEO Tony Reagins.
“It was unbelievable,” DeRosa said.
The game has evolved during Modami’s time in the majors. Players’ game plans are more tailored than before, and come with specific requests in the box. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever, so hitters want more velocity in batting practice to prepare. This means that Modami has come close to simulating speed or whether players choose a shooting machine.
“But some guys don’t like the machine because of the time factor,” Modami said. “They like to see the arm slapping. So it’s just a bit of both. Some days you throw a hundred pitches. Some days 300. That’s all.”
All these fields—thousands and thousands over 15 years—have made an impact. Modami said he didn’t have to take care of his arm until 2017. His arm never hurt. Then he did. So the coaches gave him a program that he still uses. He lifts light weights or uses strength training bands one day and ices his arm for the rest of the season the next. The treatment eliminated the pain.
“It’s funny,” Modami said. “I played first base. We don’t throw at all, and my arm hurts every day. Now it never hurts.’
Modami has cast some of the sport’s biggest stars. Bryce Harper and Shohei Ohtani have put on batting practice shows with their pitches. Others used pre-match sessions to target the ball to specific areas. Ryan Howard liked to hit balls at shortstop. Daniel Murphy was always trying to rip a line through the middle.
His consistency and persistence led to an opportunity he never imagined, taking batting practice to the largest group of American position players ever assembled for an international event and a certain superstar he grew to respect within minutes of the journey. He has been a member of two World Series teams in his career, in Philadelphia and in Washington. Another tournament is on the horizon this month.
“Putting on this uniform,” Modami said, “is a dream come true.”