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Fox Trots to Future

Lefties typically stick out like sore thumbs when playing second base; Fox made it look easy, turning a double play at one point.

Jordan Fox will never play another game as an Anteater, aside from future alumni games. The number 43 has always been a natural fit above Fox’s belt buckle and between his shoulder blades.

There comes a time when every graduating senior has to turn in his uniform at season’s end. Last Friday (June 1) was Fox’s date to turn in the number that has grown on him.

“I’ve spent probably 1,000 hours out here,” Fox said of UC Irvine’s baseball diamond, spending his final 90 minutes in uniform reminiscing. “This means a lot to me. I’m going to miss it.”

Fox’s life is currently at a crossroads. For four years, he sprayed the ball to all fields, hitting baseballs onto the open outfield lawn like a gardener spreading water, evenly dispersing the wealth.

On June 15, Fox will graduate with a degree in business economics as a scholar athlete.  Fox isn’t currently worried about the job market. He hopes to follow his father’s footsteps as a financial analyst and has no doubts that he’ll find his way.

But Fox isn’t ready to hang up his cleats just yet, although he might have to after tomorrow evening. On June 6, Fox’s fate will be determined by hundreds of scouts who have clocked his foot speed to first base, observed his level swing that consistently produces singles, doubles and triples, and have seen his smooth hands pluck baseballs off of the infield dirt with ease. Scouts likely see his lack of size as an obstacle and his absence of considerable power as a negative, but Fox hopes that an immeasurable quality will lead to his selection in the Major League Baseball Draft — his heart.

Marlon Castillo/New University

When you think of first basemen, you typically think of a 6-foot-4-inch, 240-pound masher. Fox isn’t your prototypical first baseman. Standing just 5-feet-8 inches high, Fox also isn’t the widest target to throw to for infielders, which is one reason why he projects as an outfielder at the next level. His Anteater infielders always know to miss low, not high. If they kept it in the dirt, they knew Fox would gobble it up for the out.

In addition to being vertically challenged, Fox doesn’t hit the ball a country mile. After having his No. 43 retired at Bishop Amat High School in Hacienda Heights, Fox entered UCI swinging for the fences. As a senior in high school, he poked six homers and was named the 2008 CIF Player of the Year. So Fox was confused when UCI Coach Pat Shine yelled at him for taking a looping swing early in his freshman season at Cicerone Field.

Shine took Fox aside and made it clear that in a ballpark that features a thick marine layer and high walls, Fox was expected to drive the ball in the gaps and flatten out his swing. The team player that he is, Fox listened, but some didn’t.

Fox’s former roommate, Jordan Leyland, transferred to NAIA’s Azusa Pacific University this year after hitting four home runs and hitting .294 in 2011. Leyland hit 22 home runs and drove in 74 runs at APU. Leyland was, however, facing sub-NCAA quality pitching, and hitting in a ballpark with a short porch in left field, which measures 20 feet shorter and half the height of Cicerone Field’s fence.

“Everyone wants to hit home runs, but I’ve been part of a team that hosted a Super Regional,” Fox said. “Lefties get screwed out here. I’ve crushed a few balls that haven’t gone out. But I wouldn’t trade my experiences here for X amount of home runs.”

Instead of focusing on power numbers, Fox has always stuck to getting on base and producing runs. The only numbers he cares about are win totals and his superstitious affinity for the No. 43.

Ever since Fox started playing travel ball as a kid, he’s been wearing No. 43. Fox’s father, Robert, suggested the number because it was different and because it was NASCAR driver Richard Petty’s number.

“I told him that there are lower numbers available,” Gillespie said, laughing at his star player’s odd choice in digits. “He could have had a normal number like 6 or 9.”

Robert instilled discipline in his son, always going the extra mile to hit Jordan groundballs or feed him soft-toss after practices. Along with humoring his father’s Richard Petty request, Jordan also selected a country walk-out song chosen by his father. Montgomery Gentry routinely serenaded Fox with, “I’m slowing it down, and I’m looking around, and I’m loving this town, and I’m doing all right. Ain’t worried about nothing, except for the man I want to be” when the lefty would approach the batter’s box at home games as Super Fan shouted, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox!”

Gentry’s lyrics fit Fox’s stable stance at the plate and the comfort he has always felt in Irvine. With one glance, he’d look into the stands to make sure his parents were in attendance while loosening up in the on-deck circle, showing them that he appreciated their support.

“I don’t think my mom (Ann) missed a game, ever,” Fox said. “My dad always worked a lot of hours and told me his biggest regrets were the games he missed.”

When former UCI first baseman Jeff Cusick graduated in 2010, it cleared a starting spot for Ann and Robert Fox’s son to start for the Anteaters.

As a junior in 2011, Fox tore it up, hitting .323 with 25 RBI. Despite a lack of pop, Fox was moved into the No. 3 spot in the lineup. A spot typically designated for a power hitter, Fox didn’t clear the wall once in his collegiate career. Needless to say, manager Mike Gillespie fell in love with his lefty’s ability to put the ball in play, and to hit for average.

Fox struck out just 35 times in 515 career at-bats — that’s once every 14 times. In comparison, the rest of the Anteaters struck out, on average, every six at-bats in 2012. Fox was the fourth toughest hitter in the nation to strike out in 2011, striking out just six times in 186 at-bats.

While Gillespie always knew Fox was a natural fit to be drafted as an outfielder, he used his team-player where he needed him ­— at first base. But when senior Tommy Reyes missed a few games midseason, Gillespie placed the soft-handed Fox in the starting lineup at second base.

“It was the greatest thing I ever saw,” junior pitcher Evan Brock said of Fox playing second base.

In baseball, lefties are typically handcuffed. It’s rare to see a left-handed catcher, second baseman, shortstop or third baseman, but Gillespie always asserted that if Fox were right-handed, he’d be a Gold Glove shortstop.

“All the guys get a kick out of it when we put him over [at second base],” Gillespie said after a game in which Fox turned a double play up the middle with fellow senior D.J. Crumlich.

Always thinking on his toes, the southpaw approached Crumlich before his first game starting at second and alerted him that if there was a fast runner, he’d toss a ball up the middle to him because Crumlich would have momentum on his side, while Fox would have to slow his momentum, plant and throw off of his back foot.

In baseball, whether you hit the ball 400 feet or 140 feet, an out is an out; that’s why Fox’s bat control is so valuable. This year, he hit 11 doubles, and a team-high five triples, while reaching base in 40 percent of his plate appearances.

Fox hit just one ball over the fence in his collegiate career, but he never hit a home run. At Cal State Northridge in May, Fox hit a ball inches away from clearing the wall that stayed in the park for a double. The next day he clobbered a ball over the wall, but was robbed by a Northridge outfielder, who brought the ball back with him from over the fence.

Though Fox grew up a Dodgers fan, a former Anaheim Angel — Orlando Palmeiro — might be one of the more comparable players to Fox’s game. Palmeiro made the most of his limited 5-foot-11, 155-pound frame, hitting just 12 home runs, but surviving 13 seasons of Major League Baseball as a reserve after being selected in the 33rd round of the 1991 MLB Draft. Like Fox, Palmeiro was a pain to strike out. Palmeiro struck out just 230 times in 2335 career MLB at-bats, swinging and missing at just 7.9 percent of his rips. It’ll take the same heart and hustle that undersized players like Palmeiro, Dustin Pedroia, and David Eckstein have shown for Fox to become a successful professional baseball player.

The level-headed senior has prepared himself for this day. Growing up undersized, he always knew that his stature, not his skills, could hold him back.

“I’d feel great if a [major league] team took a chance on me. I wouldn’t let them down. It’d be cool to be the next Pedroia, but in the outfield, or even at second base, I don’t mind,” the lefty said, laughing.

Fox is one of only two graduating seniors to hit .300 and exceed a 3.0 grade-point-average. And of the five graduating senior hitters, he has the highest career batting average (.313).

In his final collegiate at-bat, Fox drilled a one-hopper off the right field wall at UC Davis in the seventh inning of the team’s 10-1 win. Standing on second, he hoped that he wouldn’t get up to the plate again in the ninth.

“I wanted to end on that one,” Fox said.

After the game, taking off his jersey was difficult.

“I hope I made a lasting impression on the coaches and teammates,” said an emotional Fox. “Skip (Gillespie) used me this year as an example of playing the game the right way. I hope he keeps using me. Looking at [Cicerone Field], I realize that it’s the best field I’ve ever played on. Whether I’m drafted or not, I’m never going to play on another field that means this much to me.”

UCI may never feature another No. 43 quite like Jordan Fox. You can’t teach size or heart, but Fox makes up for the former with an extra dose of the latter.

“[Whoever wears my number in the future], I hope that he could play the game the right way,” Fox said. “I want him to represent the number like I hope I did. I was always running out groundballs and standing up on the rail to support my teammates. I hope he respects the game.”