Family baseball ties help inspire Meyer

Ben Meyer has established himself as Minnesota’s best starter this season.

Gophers pitcher Ben Meyer pitches during a game against Nebraska at Siebert Field on April 13th.

Patricia Grover

Gophers pitcher Ben Meyer pitches during a game against Nebraska at Siebert Field on April 13th.

by Betsy Helfand

Ben Meyer rocked back into his windup Saturday afternoon at Siebert Field and fired a fastball into the strike zone.

Swing. Miss.

Meyer pitched eight innings, didn’t allow a run and struck out a career-high eight batters in one of the best outings of his collegiate career.

Meyer’s comfort on the mound was evident, as it should have been. He was born to do this.

He’s not the first to play college baseball and won’t be the last. His father and grandfather were collegiate pitchers, and soon his younger brother will be, too.

With a family history like his, it’s no shock that Meyer gravitated to the sport.

At 6 feet, 5 inches, his tall, lean frame suggests he could be a basketball player.

And, for a while, he was. He was better at baseball, though, which is a good thing for the Gophers.

In 11 starts this season, Meyer has been the Gophers’ most effective starter, posting a 4-2 record and a 2.42 earned run average.

When he’s on the mound, the Gophers know he’ll give them a chance to win.

“He’s a fierce competitor,” pitcher Jordan Jess said. “You know you’re going to get the best out of him every [start].”

Family ties

Gophers head coach John Anderson sometimes refers to the lanky junior as “Bob.” Ben’s father, Bob Meyer, pitched for the Gophers in the 1980s, around the time Anderson was starting out as a coach with the program.

“Ben has some mannerisms … and some of the things he says sometime remind me of his dad,” Anderson said.

These days, Anderson is seeing the resemblance more and more.

When Ben first came to the Gophers, he was reserved.

“His first couple years, you forgot he was on the team a lot of days,” pitching coach Todd Oakes said.

His demeanor has since changed.

“This year, he’s talking all the time,” Anderson said. “He’s a jokester. He’s in the middle of all the activity going on in the dugout,”

Ben was born in Minnesota, but the family moved south for Bob’s job when Ben was a child. He spent the bulk of his youth in central Texas, growing up surrounded by Texas Longhorn fans.

Still, Ben had his eyes set on the school up north where his dad once played.

“I always wanted to play Gopher baseball because my dad did, so it was kind of a big goal of mine growing up,” Ben said.

Ben’s younger brother, Reggie Meyer, will follow the same path next season.

Reggie signed a National Letter of Intent to pitch for the Gophers on April 16, and both brothers said they think it’ll be fun to be
teammates.

When Reggie joins the team, he’ll continue the long string of Meyers who have become collegiate athletes.

Bob’s five brothers — Ben’s uncles — played college baseball. Ben’s twin sisters, Jamie and Jody, played basketball at Abilene Christian University, and his cousin Erica Meyer currently plays for the Gophers softball team.

Ben and Erica, also a junior, graduated from Totino-Grace High School in 2011. Now, as Gophers, the two try to catch each other’s games when possible.

Amid unavoidable scheduling conflicts, there are always a “ton of Meyer fans in the stands at our games,” Erica said.

That includes Bob, who Anderson said continues a tradition that Ben’s grandfather started.

“When Ben’s father was pitching here, his dad, Ben’s grandfather, used to sit in the stands and get all over the umpires,” Anderson said. “Bob sounds just like … his father did.”

Road to the U

Ben started playing baseball in kindergarten, but didn’t like it at first.

“You’d have to drag him up there to the tryouts because he’d cry the whole way there,” Bob said.

But as Ben grew, the sport grew on him.

In third grade, he became a pitcher, just like his father and grandfather. When he was in high school, his family moved back to Minnesota and he spent three years pitching for Totino-Grace.

Anderson said Minnesota didn’t have a chance to track Ben’s progress well until the Meyers moved back.

Oakes saw Ben pitch at a showcase in Minnetonka after his junior year of high school, and the staff monitored his progress throughout the summer and fall.

“They already had a lot of righties coming in, so it just kind of depended on how things fell into place,” Ben said.

Ben was looking at St. Thomas as his backup plan, but once a spot on the Gophers roster opened up, it was an easy choice.

Meyer on the mound

Oakes distinctly remembers watching Ben during his senior high school season.

“He had a really good foundation to work with,” Oakes said, citing the movement on Ben’s fastball and the fact that he wasn’t afraid to be aggressive with the pitch.

Ben came into college as a three-pitch pitcher. He’s still a three-pitch pitcher, but he’s spent the last couple years honing a slider and circle changeup to replace two of the pitches he came in with.

“I’ve got a lot better feel for both of those pitches and I’ve been throwing them for strikes a lot more,” Ben said.

With better control of his off-speed pitches combined with strong fastball command, Ben has moved into a full-time starter role this season.

Ben made midweek starts as a freshman and filled in as a weekend starter last year when DJ Snelten injured his elbow.

He was second on the roster with five wins as a starter last year, but this year he’s been a starter since week one.

Anderson said Minnesota recruited Ben without financial aid, but his success has brought him a partial scholarship.

“[We] promised him an opportunity [and] felt like eventually he could develop into a front-line pitcher,” Anderson said. “I’m not really surprised [at] his evolution here as a player.

“I thought it was there. … It was just a question of how long it was going to take.”

Oakes said he thinks Meyer has a chance to pitch professionally, based on his development.

“Whether it’s after his junior year or after his senior year, I don’t know,” Oakes said. “If I’m a professional scout … he’s the type of kid that would certainly fit the bill for me as a guy that you’d want to give a chance to.”

The Gophers did, and now it’s paying dividends.

But that shouldn’t come as a surprise — after all, it’s in his blood.