Ali Modami was in a batting cage last week, as he is almost every day eight months out of the year, when he was approached with a question he gets often from someone he never imagined would ask.
“Hey, do you want to throw?” Ken Griffey Jr. asked.
Of course, Modami said, trying hard to hide his excitement as he played catch with Griffey, Team USA’s hitting coach and a Hall of Famer that Modami, along with millions of other kids, idolized in the 1990s.
“My 12-year-old self would’ve s— myself,” Modami said jokingly. “And then him and Mike were in there talking. I would’ve paid millions of dollars to hear that conversation. Two of the greatest players to ever play. I’m just blessed to be here.”
Mike, of course, is Mike Trout. The superstar center fielder and left-hander Aaron Loup are the two Angels on Team USA’s roster for the World Baseball Classic. But they aren’t the only people representing the organization on the American squad.
Modami also left the Angels last week to join Team USA as a batting practice pitcher, which, by definition, makes him one of the best at what he does in this country, too.
“Guys love the way he throws it in there,” Team USA and Dodgers third base coach Dino Ebel said. “And he’s left-handed. That’s rare.”
Modami, 42, is a former ballplayer himself. Born in New York City, he moved to Scottsdale in high school and played baseball at Oklahoma State. He batted .267 with a home run in 86 at-bats his senior year. A short indy ball career followed. His playing days ended in 2005.
“I played hard,” Modami said. “Loved the game. Short on talent. I was good, but I couldn’t forget an 0 for 4. My 0 for 4 would be an 0 for 12.”
To stay in the sport, he started regularly going to a training facility in the Phoenix area, where he ended up throwing batting practice to major leaguers. One was Pat Burrell, a slugger with the Philadelphia Phillies at the time. Eventually, Modami found out the Phillies needed a batting practice pitcher. He flew out there for a tryout and was given the job.
He spent five years with the Phillies before Jayson Werth, who left Philadelphia for the Washington Nationals, brought him to Washington. Modami threw thousands of pitches for the Nationals for nine years. In 2021, with a push from Anthony Rendon — who had left Washington the previous year — Modami joined the Angels.
“I don’t like hitting left-handed BP throwers,” said Team USA shortstop Trea Turner, who spent parts of five seasons hitting pitches off Modami in Washington. “Him and [former Nationals hitting coach] Kevin Long are the only two left-handers that I’ve ever really liked hitting off of.
“It’s just a perfect four-seam and he wants to be great out there. He wants to prepare you and he puts in the effort. So, it’s nice when you have somebody that cares. And he’s a good dude. Everyone loves him.”
Modami said all that time spent with players leads to trust. He’s not their hitting coach, but he sees thousands of swings. He can tell if something is wrong so he’s frequently asked for input. It becomes part of the job. One day, he said, he would like more responsibility — maybe as an assistant hitting 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 rehabilitation time in the cage with Modami. A friendship was forged. They stayed in contact over the next decade.
Last year, DeRosa, an MLB Network analyst in his first-ever stint as a manager, pushed for Modami to be invited to join Team USA. In November, Modami got the call from Team USA general manager Tony Reagins.
“He was unbelievable,” DeRosa said.
The game has evolved during Modami’s time in the majors. Players’ gameplans are more tailored than before, and they step into the box with specific requests. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever so hitters want more velocity in batting practice to prepare. That means Modami moving closer to simulate the speed or players opting for a throwing machine.
“But some guys don’t like the machine because of the timing factor,” Modami said. “They like to see the arm stroke. So it’s just a little bit of both. Some days you throw a couple hundred pitches. Some days 300. It just depends.”
All those pitches — thousands and thousands over 15 years — have taken a toll. Modami said he didn’t need any arm care until 2017. His arm never hurt. Then it did. So trainers gave him a program he still uses. He lifts light weights or bands one day and ices his arm the next throughout the season. It’s erased the pain.
“It’s funny,” Modami said. “I played first base. We don’t throw at all, and my arm hurt every day. Now it never hurts.”
Modami has thrown to some of the biggest stars in the sport. Bryce Harper and Shohei Ohtani have put on batting practice shows with his pitches. Others used the pregame sessions to hit the ball to particular areas. Ryan Howard liked hitting groundballs to shortstop. Daniel Murphy always tried to rip one line drive up the middle.
His consistency and durability led to an opportunity he never imagined possible, throwing batting practice for the greatest group of American position players ever assembled for an international event and a certain superstar he grew up revering. He’s been a member of two World Series teams in his career — one each in Philadelphia and Washington. Another championship is within reach this month.
“To wear this uniform,” Modami said, “is a dream come true.”