UC Irvine coach Mike Gillespie has been a skipper for 20 seasons, won more than 800 games and reached the pinnacle of his career with a national title in 1998 while at Southern California. Amazingly, though, Gillespie might not even be the best coach in his program. That honor goes to senior shortstop Ben Orloff – or so says Gillespie.
When Orloff arrived at UC Irvine in 2006, expectations weren't high. Still, he finished the season with a solid .965 fielding percentage. Then, as a sophomore, he batted .324 with 33 RBIs and had a .953 fielding percentage.
Though his offensive production greatly improved as a sophomore, something more important than sheer numbers was happening with Orloff. Sure, he had become a consistent contributor at the plate. But most important, he had become the face of the program, its key leader – and he evolved into a coach-like player.
After arriving on the national stage as a sophomore, Orloff took another step forward as a junior last season by hitting .344 with 23 RBIs and going 19-for-28 in stolen bases. Orloff also finished the season with a .979 fielding percentage.
With yet another productive campaign added to his résumé, Orloff received a special opportunity last summer. The gritty infielder was offered a chance to play pro baseball after getting selected in the 19th round by the Colorado Rockies.
As tempting as it was to turn the page and move on, Orloff sensed he had more to prove at UC Irvine. He also remembered losing the last two games of the Baton Rouge Super Regional to LSU last season – something Orloff says he won't ever forget.
Orloff, as he has many times throughout his college career, once again put his baseball family before his future.
"It was really tough not to sign because I've always wanted to play pro baseball, but I just love playing college baseball too much and I love being at UC Irvine," Orloff said. "I remember the LSU series and I felt like I had a good opportunity to help get this program back to Omaha. I'm glad I came back. I honestly couldn't be happier."
Gillespie also couldn't be happier with Orloff's return and the fact he's having a stellar senior campaign.
Before Gillespie arrived at UC Irvine two summers ago, he had seen and heard plenty about Orloff from current Cal State Fullerton coach Dave Serrano. Everything he had heard about the 5-foot-11, 170-pound infielder was good.
Orloff even played the role of coach when Serrano left UC Irvine for Cal State Fullerton two summers ago and Irvine had yet to hire Gillespie.
Dealing with Orloff on a daily basis, though, has blown Gillespie away.
"Literally, from the first day I met him to the last time I saw him, the impression is that Benny is just a spectacular person," Gillespie said. "People that know and play with him, you can't even begin to put into words the impact he has on this program unless you've been with him for a long time."
There aren't many players to whom Gillespie can compare Orloff. But former Southern California standout Aaron Boone, who spent last season with the Washington Nationals and now is with the Houston Astros, is a good comparison. Orloff, Gillespie says, offers many of the same traits as Boone.
"Aaron Boone was the complete package in terms of production and leadership, and Benny is similar to him in terms of the intangibles and meaning to the program," Gillespie said. "As with Boone, Benny takes charge and leads the team. There's no ego or arrogance there. He's just the everyday Joe."
With Orloff in the midst of another special campaign as a senior this season, much attention once again has been placed on his stock as a prospective pro player. His smallish size and lack of power probably isn't making too many scouting directors drool over his potential, but it might be impossible to find someone with as much determination.
There's at least one MLB player who reminds Gillespie of Orloff.
"His tools don't just scream out at you, but you just get the feeling he'll be a good professional player," Gillespie said. "Saying he can't be a good pro player is like saying David Eckstein can't be a good player. As with Eckstein, Orloff is hands-on, game-savvy and has wonderful instincts. It's impossible to explain, but watching Orloff play is just special. It's like nothing I've ever seen."
Orloff's professional career likely will begin in three months, but he has more business to take care of at UC Irvine. The Anteaters sit atop the Big West standings, have an outstanding overall record and – barring a surprise – will be a national seed. That would mean the Anteaters have an opportunity to win the school's first national title.
Orloff, meanwhile, is carrying the Anteaters. He's hitting .357 with 14 RBIs, 10 stolen bases, and of course has another solid fielding percentage at .971.
His numbers may not include double-digit home-run totals and 50-plus RBIs, but there's another coach on the West Coast who would take Orloff over any shortstop or player in the country.
"I wish I could be the person that votes for the Golden Spikes Award because I'd vote for Benny Orloff," said Cal State Fullerton's Serrano. "I enjoyed coaching Orloff and, as fabulous of a player he is, he's an even better person."
When the last out of the Anteaters' season is recorded or they're hoisting the NCAA trophy at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., the Orloff era at Irvine will have officially come to an end. For four seasons, Orloff has been the program's poster boy. He's a hard-nosed leader and contributor. But most important, he lives by example off the field.
Replacing Orloff after this season won't be difficult. It will be impossible.
But somehow, the Anteaters will find a way to make do. Perhaps someday there will be another chapter to the Orloff era at UCI.
"I definitely want to be a coach when I'm done playing someday," Orloff said. "I will miss UC Irvine when this season finishes. It's just more to me than wins and losses. The relationships I've built with teammates and people at this school – it's special."
- UC Irvine