Making The Save
April 21, 2009
By Larry Watts
Ben Reeser has worked his way into a starter's role on the University of Illinois pitching staff, but his work in relief has probably brought the 6-foot-3 senior right-hander his most satisfaction.
For the past four years, Reeser, along with twin brother Collin and an assorted group of friends, has taken advantage of the winter break to travel south to assist relief efforts in the destruction caused by hurricanes Katrina and Gustav. Their travels in early January have taken them to Pass Christian, Miss., New Orleans, Mobile and Galveston, Texas.
"Collin took the first trip in the summer of 2005 while I was busy preparing for baseball at Illinois," Reeser says. "He came back and told me what a great experience he had, so the following January we got a group together and went back down. It was for about 8-10 days and we spent half the time in Pass Christian and the other half in New Orleans."
The next two trips were to Mobile and this past January they headed down to Galveston.
"We had the free time, the weather is much nicer and it was a chance to get outside and do something," Reeser says. "We might take one or two nights off just to go into town or to the beach, but mostly it was helping out in the relief effort."
Raised on a farm in nearby Bloomington, Reeser says the opportunity was too good to pass up.
"I've always been a hands-on person," he says. "I always liked getting my hands on power tools and machinery, where I could tear stuff down and build it back up.
"Finding the opportunity to do something was easy because there are a lot of web sites matching service teams with projects. You just go on there, find something you are interested in and make a few phone calls. There's a core group of three or four of us and we usually take four or five new people with us each year."
Aside from expenses on the trip down and back, shelter and food was usually donated. They would sleep in libraries, churches, homes or tents.
According to Reeser, the lower ninth ward of New Orleans was one of the hardest hit areas they observed on the first trip.
"The water had risen to seven or nine feet on a lot of those homes," he says. "With the older houses in that area, the plaster walls can be really messy and heavy from being so wet. It could take several days just to work on one house.
"There were X's on the doors of homes which were no longer livable. In each quadrant of the X was a different number with the top quadrant signifying the number of dead found in the home. Fortunately, the top number was never more than zero on any of the homes we saw. As widespread as that hurricane was, it made you appreciate everything we have up here in Illinois."
The two trips to Mobile were spent working for a Methodist church. The main body of their work was rebuilding an old house and fixing it up to house teams for future hurricane work.
Back in Champaign, Reeser has been enjoying his best season yet for the Fighting Illini baseball team. After working as the team's closer last year, when he made 23 appearances (ninth most in school history) and collected five saves, he has become a weekend (Big Ten) starter. Through seven starts, he has posted a 3-0 record with a 2.61 earned run average.
"I've been pretty happy with the way things have been going," he says. "I felt like I learned a lot as a closer last year. You feel like more of a position player because every single day you come to the field you've got a chance to play.
"Although being a starter means you will probably only go once a week, I think the pros outweigh the cons."
Reeser says he relies on three pitches in his arsenal -- fastball, changeup and slider. When it comes to a curve ball, he defers to his brother Collin, who pitches for the University of Illinois club team.
"Collin has a really good one, but he won't share the secrets with me," he says. "I might flip one over the plate every once in a while just to show people I have it. To be an effective college pitcher, you need to get three pitches over the plate. And if you have a fourth, that's a bonus."
Reeser says it has taken him three years at Illinois to develop an effective slider, which has become his "out" pitch.
"I've probably changed my grip four or five times, but it's not as much as the grip as it is your arm slot," he says. "If you use the same slot as your fastball, the deception gets hitters out. The slider is a little harder for hitters to recognize because it doesn't rise initially since it's a tighter pitch with later movement."
Coming to Illinois seemed to be a natural fit for Reeser. Both of his parents along with some of his grandparents went to the University of Illinois. His mother worked for the university and his two older sisters were both entering their final year in Champaign.
But he had been fielding offers from Illinois State, Bradley, Iowa and Michigan State as well. It wasn't until shortly after Collin made his decision to head to Champaign that he decided to follow suit.
Majoring in supply chain management and marketing, Reeser will have to return in the fall to finish his last semester. Beyond graduation, he hasn't given it much thought.
"Since I am a hands-on person, I'd probably enjoy going somewhere to be around operations or on a manufacturing floor working on the process," he says. "I like working with people, so put that all together and it would be ideal for me. And if someone gives me the opportunity to play baseball, I wouldn't rule that out either."
After all, he has already built up quite a resume in doing relief duty.