A Tribute To Mike Gillespie, College Baseball’s Beloved Mad ScientistColumns
You can make a strong argument that college baseball has never seen a more imaginative, more intelligent, more entertaining coach than Mike Gillespie. You just never knew when Gillespie was going to deploy some novel defensive alignment, when he was going to call for a double-squeeze (which he did successfully in a super regional against No. 1 national seed Oregon State in 2014), or when he was going to unleash some other new trick you’d never even considered before.
Famously, Gillespie called for a triple steal with two outs in the seventh inning of the 1998 national championship game, with his Southern California Trojans clinging to a three-run lead against Arizona State. The runner at third base was Morgan Ensberg — not exactly renowned for his speed — and he faked stealing on two previous pitches before making a legitimate break for it.
“We’ve actually done it before,” Gillespie told media afterward. “Despite the fact that it obviously makes no sense, it’s been remarkably successful for us.”
That moment — and that dry postgame quip — is a perfect encapsulation of “Skip” Gillespie, the college baseball Goliath who died Wednesday of complications from recent lung issues and a stroke at the age of 80. Gillespie was renowned for his derring-do, no matter how high the stakes might have been. His protégé-turned-successor as UC Irvine’s head coach, Ben Orloff, recalls Gillespie telling the story of Ensberg’s steal of home with a perfectly characteristic combination of wry wit and bluntness.
“I remember him telling the story of Morgan’s at third, and the guy’s in the windup, and (Gillespie) is having a conversation with himself that, ‘The play right here is to steal home, and if you don’t have the guts to do this right now then you’re a coward,’” Orloff said. “It took him two pitches to talk himself into it. He liked to say, if Morgan had been out, he would have been fired 10 years earlier at USC.”
In one of the greatest examples of AD malpractice in college sports history, Gillespie was forced into “retirement” following a losing season in 2006 (his 20th at the helm) by Mike Garrett, then the athletic director at USC. Gillespie was replaced by his son-in-law, Chad Kreuter — and the Trojans have been to just one regional since. The wound remained raw for years; in a long conversation I had with Gillespie in 2011, he referred to USC only as “where I was before” or “that other school I worked at.”
USC’s folly was Irvine’s gain. UCLA coach John Savage, who served as Gillespie’s pitching coach at USC before leaving to restart the Irvine program from scratch in 2000, recalls the moment in 2007 when all the pieces fell into place for the Anteaters and Gillespie.
“I remember being at UCLA and the UC Irvine administration called me and asked me about Mike. And I laughed,” Savage said. “I laughed in the sense that, this was the No. 1 free agent of coaching in the country, and it was a complete no-brainer to hire him. If you could get him, go get him today — not tomorrow but today. The timing for UC Irvine was unbelievable to have Mike Gillespie fall in their lap. Taking Irvine to Omaha and doing the things that he did again showed that he was a hall of fame coach, in every college baseball hall of fame room that there is. It showed that this guy is not done, he has not forgotten baseball, he still knows how to win at the highest level.”
Seemingly the entire West Coast baseball community celebrated when Gillespie took the Anteaters to the College World Series in 2014, following two excruciating super regional losses in 2008 and 2011. For decades now, people in the baseball world have spoken of Gillespie’s genius and his character in the most reverent tones imaginable. He was like the Vin Scully of the college baseball coaching world — universally beloved for the way his mind worked, and the way he expressed himself.
“Coach Gillespie’s WAR is like 16. He’s worth 16 wins per year,” one West Coast head coach told me in 2014. “He’s the highest on the West Coast—that’s a no-brainer.”
“With the White Wizard, he’s going to score runs,” a rival Big West coach told me that same year. “You do not have to hit in order for him to score runs.”
Even major league scouts — a group that is notoriously critical of college baseball coaches — had nothing but admiration for Gillespie.
“Gillespie’s still got the bag of tricks, he’s still one of the best coaches in the country,” one Southern California area scout told me in 2010. “That guy wins games from the coach’s box, and that’s hard to do. I think their best asset is Mike Gillespie. The Old Skipper knows what he’s doing. He just gets it done, and he’s done it for years. He schools some of these other coaches.”
Gillespie’s fearlessness as an in-game strategist made it thrilling to watch his teams compete, but that just scratches the surface of his baseball brilliance.
“I just think that he was a leader of a coaching fraternity that — this guy was all about baseball. He thrived in it. He thrived in the game, one of the best game coaches that college baseball will ever see,” Savage said. “I really think he was a master of baseball and he could see things coming two, three pitches away, an inning away. I mean, this guy was an elite presence that had such a feel for the game and for people … He just stood for all the right things. He had time for everybody. The biggest game of the year, I’d look over and he’d be talking to his college or high school teammate and they’d be laughing. He just had such a great sense of humor, he wasn’t too big for anybody, he wasn’t too big for the game. His presence was such a unique characteristic, on and off the field. I had meetings I felt like he was a high-priced lawyer. He could give you any sort of conversation. He was so well spoken, a very knowledgeable guy. His vocabulary was off the charts. He just had that innate presence about him, he always had time, he always cared about other people, always gave people credit. He never took the credit, always took the blame.”
Gillespie was probably never more uncomfortable than the time Irvine surprised him by retiring his No. 19 and plastering it to the wall at Anteater Ballpark during his final home series in 2018. As our Shotgun Spratling wrote at the time, Gillespie walked down the steps of the dugout after the ceremony and told Orloff with a rueful smile, “Screw you.”
Gillespie knew very shortly after taking over the reins of the program that Orloff — who was then Irvine’s starting shortstop — was going to be a great head coach some day. The only time Gillespie ever called me to complain about anything was after we omitted Orloff from the Baseball America All-America team in 2009, in favor of others who put up louder numbers. Gillespie was insistent that Orloff was the very definition of what a winning college shortstop should be, and he advocated for his player with eloquence and grace. Few college shortstops have ever taken better care of the baseball than Orloff, who was also a master of “skilling it up” offensively — all of which made him the perfect Gillespie player. Gillespie had no tolerance for the “Joe college cool,” as he once put it — the infielder who dropped his arm when he threw to first base, the guy who “Cadillacked it”, the guy who was “a cool breeze.” Gillespie believed in rock-solid fundamentals; when you field a ground ball, his mantra was “right-left, pick-it-up, right-left, throw.” And you throw from your usual high slot, and never lob the ball to a base.
“If it’s a particular part of infield play, I don’t have much of a problem saying, ‘Look, that is not right, we are not going to do that. This is the way it must be, so let’s go, let’s get after it,’” Gillespie told me in that 2011 conversation. “We’ve had a particular problem on the feed of the double play, we have a couple freshmen that want to do this backhand power flip to the shortstop. It’s sort of a big league deal that certain major leaguers do, but it’s an advanced skill, and I don’t like it. It’s gotten to the point I say, ‘No, you are not allowed to do that, it’s going to end up in left field.’ Well, they’re not on board with that. So I have to convince them somehow that what we believe about this deal is better than what they wanted to do.”
It’s fair to say that Gillespie usually won those disputes. He was a demanding coach, and he expected all of his players — from leadoff hitter to cleanup man to the last guy on the bench — to learn how to push and drag and hit-and-run and slash and just generally “skill it up.” He wanted things done his way, but that doesn’t mean he was unwilling to try new things. He was an unabashed mad scientist.
“I’ve been accused of getting carried away — it’s like trying to run the pistol offense and the Wing T and the I formation and you can’t execute any of it,” Gillespie said in 2011. “I’m one of those guys that’s had a million bunt defenses, but we really have four now. … Another guy who’s a real good coach out here is Jim O’Brien at LA Harbor College. He ran a bunt defense where they crashed the second baseman and kept the first baseman on the bag. I put that in, I thought that was cool. The players like those things, it’s like the pistol offense. So this one year, we put that play on, our righthanded pitcher fielded the ball and turned and hit the second baseman in the ear. If it wasn’t serious, it was hilarious. He was fine, but we quit running it after that.”
Gillespie could be hard on players — Savage said he would “test your mental toughness, but if you could get past that, then it was smooth sailing. There were some guys that couldn’t get past it and they struggled. But gosh, he could make that average player play so good, man.”
Gillespie was far tougher on umpires, as both Savage and Orloff recalled with laughter.
“He was ruthless on umpires. He had a way with umpires that, really you would have to be there to believe it,” Savage said. “I remember, I think it was a Tuesday night against San Diego State, we were winning, I think it was the eighth inning. Chuck Lyon I think was the umpire, and he was like, ‘Hey Chuck, c’mon, it’s Tuesday night, let’s go. It’s late, we’re tired, we’re hungry.’ It’s such a skip. As a pitching coach you’re like, ‘Oh great, we’re not going to get another pitch the rest of the night.’ He just had a way with words.”
Orloff tells a story of an umpire supervisor preparing his crew before a regional that Irvine was set to compete in.
“[The supervisor] told them, ‘Don’t try to argue with Skip. He’s smarter than you, he knows the rules better than you, just let him yell at you and then go back to the dugout,’” Orloff said.
Orloff remembers another umpire marveling that he would walk into Gillespie’s office before a game and Gillespie would be reading the rule book. “It’s his 50th year as a coach and he’s reading the rule book,” Orloff said. “I know I’m going to really miss, when you have a rule question, you call Skip. You had an issue with an umpire, you’d call Skip. You run into something you’ve never seen before, you call Skip. You have a good story to tell and you know it’s going to make him laugh, you get to hear that laugh, you call him.”
Orloff spent the last two years living one block away from Gillespie, and he spent plenty of time in Gillespie’s living room after Skip’s retirement, just having conversations about the game and about life.
“He meant so much to me,” Orloff said through tears. “I played for him for two years. To get a chance to play for a guy that’s among the best to ever do it in our sport, as a player, then to go out and play professional baseball and become friends. Then he gives me an opportunity to come work for him. I’d never coached before, and I worked for him. I have the job I have now because of him.
“I keep his name plate in his office — I don’t think it’s my office, I never will. I keep his name plate in my office as a reminder of what it’s like to be a coach, what would Skip do. Some of the stuff that stuck with me was the courage of your convictions. We all know he was unconventional and had zero fear of repercussions, zero regard for consequences. He always said, ‘You have to live by your own book, you can make a good decision and have a bad outcome or make a bad decision and have a good outcome.’ But the courage of his convictions, if he believed something, he was gonna do it, and had no fear of consequences. Now that I’m the one that makes those decisions, it’s hard to have no concern over outcomes.”
It took legendary boldness and confidence in his convictions to call for that triple steal in the 1998 national title game. But something that happened a few days before stuck with Savage even more.
“When we got beat by LSU, I think LSU hit eight home runs off Seth Etherton, the most ever in a CWS game,” Savage said. “We get beat by LSU, everybody’s head is down. He said, ‘OK, curfew’s at 10 o’clock, we’ll let you know tomorrow what we’re doing.’ Everybody’s walking out of the clubhouse and he said, ‘Stop. Is there anybody in this room that doesn’t feel like we can win this thing?’
“That’s all he said. You almost felt like running out of the clubhouse and playing another game. He gave you that sense of confidence, made you feel like, ‘Hey, we’ll be fine.’ Lo and behold, we went on to win it. Gosh, it was just remarkable leadership. More than what he said, it’s really what he didn’t say.
“He clearly believed in his players and believed in his team and believed we could come back. It’s something I will never forget.”