Ben Orloff: The Face of the Program

Nick Vu | Staff Photographer

Nick Vu | Staff Photographer

“He is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete,” said UC Irvine Head Coach Mike Gillespie of senior shortstop and team captain Ben Orloff.

Coach Gillespie uttered those words just before the first game of his first year at UCI in 2008. However, Gillespie’s words carry more weight after you look at his 20-year resume. Gillespie led USC to 15 postseason appearances, four College World Series appearances and a national title in 1998. He has coached over 25 major leaguers, including five who were voted to the All-Star game in 2003 (Mark Prior, Barry Zito, Brett Boone, Aaron Boone and Geoff Jenkins).

Therefore, calling Orloff a once-in-a-lifetime athlete would be appropriate in every sense.

As a freshman, Orloff led the nation with 26 sacrifice hits, was 34th in the country in the “toughest to strike out” category and was voted the team’s Best Defensive Player. As a sophomore, he was selected to the All-Big West second team and was second in the squad that went to the College World Series in hits with 79. As a junior, he was an All-Big West first team honoree, posting a .344 average with 17 doubles and 19 steals. He also was named to the Lincoln Regional all-tournament team.

This season, Orloff is third on the team with a .350 average with a team, leading 180 at-bats and has a .417 on-base percentage, all while being a vacuum cleaner at short with a .971 fielding percentage. He became the all-time runs leader at UCI earlier this season with 159 and holds the record for most games played at 223.

While his bat has grown every season at UCI, it was his defense that attracted former UCI head coach and current California State University, Fullerton Head Coach Dave Serrano. Serrano raves about Orloff until this day. He recently told that he would vote Orloff for the Golden Spikes Award, the most prestigious award in college baseball, if he could. The media caught on to the Ben Orloff story this past week, as the leader of the top-ranked team in the nation was named to the initial watch list for the Brooks Wallace award, the honor of best shortstop in the nation, and as the only California representative for the Lowe’s Senior Class Award, an award that highlights classroom, community, character and competition. The vote is based on online fan voting.

What separates Orloff from the rest of the elite in college athletics is his extraordinary character. When Serrano left UCI and the team had no coach, Orloff made it his mission to keep the team together in the tumultuous time for the program.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to who throws the strikes and hits. We had to keep the team together,” Orloff said.

He led fall practices almost as well as any coach would. His practices were disciplined and structured, and kept the squad together. No one on the team transferred. Instead, that squad made the Super Regionals.

“His baseball IQ is through the roof. You hear about him, but meeting him is a whole different story,” said freshman third baseman DJ Crumlich. “You learn so much about baseball from him.”

“He is the leader of the infield, he knows everything and he helps with everything. He makes everyone in the infield’s job easier. Above all, he is the best defensive shortstop I have ever seen,” said double-play partner and second baseman Casey Stevenson.

Even undergraduate assistant Chris Lopez, who is always filled with jokes, responds without having to joke or think.

“He is the best teammate I have ever played with,” Lopez said.

Orloff even passed up playing for the Colorado Rockies to come back for his senior year and erase the bitter feeling left after UCI’s collapse in last year’s Super Regionals at Louisiana State University, when the ‘Eaters were three outs away from the College World Series only to see LSU rally a furious comeback, scoring five runs in the top of the ninth to defeat UCI 9-7 in Game 2.

“No regrets coming back. This is the most fun you can have with a team playing baseball,” Orloff said. “We have a good chance to get back to the College World Series and do something there. This season is the most fun I’ve had here.”

Putting his major league dreams on hold to do something special here at UCI should come as no surprise to anyone affiliated with the UCI baseball program. He is the face of the program; his small-ball expertise, hustle and mentality have been the epitome of Anteater baseball over the last few years.

While his on-field and locker room qualities are what get the most attention, it is his attitude off the field that separates him from his fellow elite.

He has resisted all the temptations that come along with being a good-looking, recognized athlete in the collegiate level. He isn’t big on the party scene, even having lived in Newport. He has never drank or smoked, or even gone crazy with the ladies. He is humble and compassionate. You never get the sense that he is better than you when talking to him, and he treats everyone with the utmost respect. He has volunteered at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC), and most recently at a local middle school. He laughs at the thought that the younger kids think he is “so cool.”

“It’s awesome to see the kids pumped up, whether I’m helping them with math or playing basketball. I’m not that cool,” Orloff said. “But I guess I remember looking up to the high school and college stars when I was their age. It’s funny having this perspective now.”

One can’t help but ask, “How is Ben such a good kid?”

Orloff grew up in Van Nuys, CA, and is the son of Mike and Karen Orloff. Ben’s interest in baseball can be attributed to his father, who won gold medals in 1985 and 1989 with Team USA fast-pitch softball team in the Maccabi Games, also known as the Jewish Olympics.

“He would get out early in the morning and just throw the tennis ball against the garage door until we called him. Then he’d come home from school and do it again,” Mike said.

Orloff began doing that at around the age of three. However, baseball was not the only thing he excelled at. Orloff began playing the piano at the age of 10, and became an expert eight months later. He was so talented that his instructor wanted to make him his protégé and went as far as asking Ben’s parents to take him out of baseball due to risk of injury to his fingers. Mike refused because Orloff showed obvious talent and passion in baseball as well.

“After eight months, he had learned all theory. He was a sponge with how he absorbed knowledge. He was a protégé. Watching his hands on the keyboard was like art,” Mike said.

However, Orloff stuck to baseball. The constant presence of his parents molded his character and talents.

“Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money. I think that really taught us work ethic and the true value of money. I don’t spend money on anything,” Orloff said.

His mother Karen, a former nurse to whom Mike credits the majority of his children’s success, checked her three children’s homework every day, and even ran her own version of summer school at home for them. Orloff graduated Simi High School with a 3.9 GPA and a few AP classes under his belt. Stanford University expressed some interest.

Mike, an architecture photographer, spent as much time as he could with his kids out on the street on their cul-de-sac, launching tennis balls high into the sky and hard on the ground with his tennis racket for his two boys and neighborhood kids.

He immediately knew Ben was a special kid. From watching him in the garage and on the piano, he saw his talents, but his son’s personality is what really caught his eye.

“I can’t remember one time punishing or ever raising my voice to Ben. Some kids messed around with matches, bugged dogs; Ben never did any of that,” Mike said.

While good-natured from day one, Orloff doesn’t go a day without appreciating God for giving him the life he has. Orloff was raised on Judeo-Christian values, and is a big follower of the example of Jesus. He even leads Bible study with current teammates.

However, he doesn’t exude any of the negative vibes that come from in-your-face preachers or missionaries. Instead, he preaches his beliefs through his example. He doesn’t bring up religion unless someone asks, and one can’t help but ask how one of the top collegiate athletes is so level-headed.

“He wants to make good decisions. And he really thinks about what he does,” Mike said as he was fighting back tears. “He cares enough about how he views himself more than about how others view him. I feel really blessed that he has turned out the way he has. It’s beyond belief to see who he is. I am very proud of him.”

As Coach Gillespie said, it is impossible to explain the impact this single individual has had on the program.

As much success as Orloff has had at UCI, scouts still question his potential to reach the major leagues. He doesn’t hit home runs and doesn’t collect many RBIs, but most big-league shortstops don’t do those things anyway because of their roles as leadoff hitters. Orloff’s size is the biggest question. Listed at 5 feet 7 inches and 170 pounds, he is considered small for his position, and that will be the reason why he won’t be a high draft pick in June.

But anyone who has seen Orloff play in person knows that this kid has got game. The numbers don’t lie. His quick hands make up for any speed he may lack with the emphasis on “may.” He is most often compared to two-time World Series winner and MVP David Eckstein, a sentiment that was allegedly first stated by the infamous sports agent Scott Boras.

“He has heart, he has the tools. He reminds everyone of David Eckstein, and look what he did. Benny can do it,” Crumlich said.

The team that selects Orloff may not get the physique that is desired at the shortstop position, but whoever takes a chance on this prophet-esque athlete will get qualities that will more than make up for a few inches or pounds.

They will get a proven college shortstop who can hit and defend, a teammate who will spark the best through his hustle and mentality, a human that can bring nothing but good out of anyone he crosses, and most importantly, a combination that no one has ever seen before in his or her lifetime.