‘Mr. Georgia Tech’ looking to lead Yellow Jackets back to the postseason

Tech reliever Ben King headed to medical school after baseball career ends this year
Georgia Tech pitcher Ben King in action against Radford on Feb. 16, 2024 at Russ Chandler Stadium on the Tech campus. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Credit: Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech

Credit: Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech pitcher Ben King in action against Radford on Feb. 16, 2024 at Russ Chandler Stadium on the Tech campus. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

The date was April 7, 2023, one of many significant occasions on Ben King’s baseball and life journey to this point.

On that day, at Russ Chandler Stadium, King came out of the Georgia Tech bullpen and threw 2-1/3 scoreless innings and struck out a pair of North Carolina hitters. He knew right then that his baseball career definitely had not ended.

“Just had such a feeling after that game of like this is where I need to be, God still has a purpose for me here coming back next year,” King said.

A little more than a year later King knows for certain that these next few weeks and final handful of games, starting at 6 p.m. Friday when Tech (25-14, 9-9 ACC) welcomes Miami into town for a three-game series, indeed will be his last. When pressed about even the slightest possibility of being drafted or signed by an MLB club over the summer, he shakes his head adamantly with strong conviction that he believes that just won’t happen.

Besides, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound right-hander explains, there’s a wedding to plan, medical school to prepare for and a fulfilling surgical career to begin.

“I love baseball. It’s been a huge part of my life up to this point. I’m very proud of the career that I’ve been able to have. But it doesn’t come anywhere near defining me as a person,” King said. “I’m really excited about the next chapter of my life. I don’t really have any interest in playing for minimum wage and riding the bus (in the minor leagues). I loved being a college baseball player and playing at Georgia Tech, and I’m happy this is what my career has been.”

King, known as Mr. Georgia Tech around the clubhouse, always has been one to have a plan, especially from the moment he stepped on campus as wide-eyed freshman in 2019.

Born in Augusta and raised in Calhoun, King grew up 70 miles north of Atlanta and blossomed into a top athlete both on the football field and baseball diamond. His first scholarship offer for any sport was from Columbia to play offensive line for the Lions.

But baseball always had been his main love, and even after surgery in 2017 to repair his ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing arm, he had his sights set on playing college baseball. Columbia, Harvard and Yale all showed interest in King as a baseball player, as did Virginia, Wake Forest and Tech.

“If any of those (ACC) schools give me a (scholarship) opportunity, I’m gonna jump at it,” King said he remembers thinking. “(Tech) coach (Danny) Hall gave me the opportunity here, and it was just absolutely a no-brainer. An hour away from home, great school, great baseball program, love Atlanta. Very thankful that it has worked out.”

The ironic twist here is that King grew up a passionate fan of the Georgia Bulldogs. The school in Athens is his mom’s alma mater, and the King family often spent fall Saturdays at Sanford Stadium. King admits that June 25, 2008, another date circled in the annals of his life, devastated him: that’s when Georgia’s baseball team lost the College World Series final to Fresno State.

A decade later, however, King was giving away most of his red and black, or shoving it in boxes to be long forgotten in the basement of the family house, as he prepared to begin his academic and athletic career at Tech. He felt he pitched well in the fall of his freshman year in 2019 and was full of confidence ahead of his rookie season in 2020.

King threw a scoreless inning against Saint Peters. Another scoreless inning against Ohio State. Then, another date to mark down: Feb. 29, 2020. King’s name was called to face, as fate would have it, Georgia.

“That was probably one of the lowest moments of my life,” King said. “I went out in the ninth inning, it was bases loaded, go 0-2 on the first hitter, walk him, walk the next guy, walk the next guy. So I’ve walked in three runs at this point … and then I give up a grand slam. I needed to get one out. I developed a whole new level of hate for Georgia at that point.”

To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in the weeks that followed. King had to stew on that outing for an entire year.

In the meantime, he worked with his father on his game. King broke down his mechanics and built them back up anew, going from a sinker-first pitcher who topped out at (maybe) 87 mph to a hard-thrower with a 93 mph fastball.

The results on the field in 2021 indicated King was on the right track. He allowed only one earned run in his first five outings of the season over three innings. But then he gave up a pair of runs to Wake Forest and two more to Notre Dame, on April 10, 2021, in South Bend, Indiana. And something didn’t feel right. His UCL had been injured once again, requiring yet another surgery.

King missed the entire 2022 season while rehabbing his right arm.

“I was never really thinking I would just totally give up. I was just thinking I’ll ride this thing out, play my four years. If I come back and throw a couple innings as a senior, that’s great,” King said. “Even at the beginning of the year last year I was only supposed to be a right-handed specialist and come in and face righties out of the bullpen. For whatever reason I pitched well. We had some struggles, the rest of the pitching staff, so my role kind of grew throughout the rest of the year and had a really great year.

“I had never dreamed that that could be how things would go on the field for me. It was really just a blessing from God and a testament from my coaches for never giving up on me to the hard work of coming back from the surgery. I never expected after throwing six innings my first three seasons that I would throw 70 something to this point through my last year and a half.”

King went 6-2 with a 3.73 ERA in 2022, struck out 55 hitters, held hitters to a .212 batting average and pitched 50-2/3 innings in 2023. In a full-circle moment, March 5, 2023, he tossed three scoreless innings at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville against Georgia to exorcise the demons from way back when.

The numbers this season for King haven’t been incredibly impressive, but his presence for a Tech team created through traditional recruiting and via the transfer portal has been immeasurable. First-year pitching coach Matt Taylor recalled a game at Pittsburgh in which he witnessed King take freshman pitcher Michal Kovala aside and coach up the young hurler.

“As soon as I got the job here, he was the first phone call to a player that I made. He had a really good pulse just with the team last year, being one of the leaders that stepped up,” Taylor said. “He had a good pulse on where the pitching staff was at, some things he felt obviously we could improve and get better on. He’s really self-aware just with himself and as a player as well. For me, coming into a new program, he’s just kind of understands the ins and outs of so many different pieces of Georgia Tech.”

Off the diamond, despite a strong aversion to blood for much of his early life, King decided to follow his father’s career in orthopedic surgery even before he enrolled at Tech. After his collegiate baseball career ends, and after his wedding this summer, he’ll head across town to attend Emory’s school of medicine, where his focus will turn toward becoming a surgeon.

“To go through that experience of having something that I love that was taken away from me by an injury and then given back to me by the skill of a surgeon, I was like I can’t think of something that would be a more meaningful thing to do with my life than to be able to do that for people,” King said.

But for now, King and the Jackets have unfinished business toward returning to the postseason after a 2023 hiatus. Tech is in good shape in that regard as a team nearing the 30-win mark with an RPI of 50 and at least nine games left against teams inside the top 25 of the NCAA’s RPI.

And if the Jackets are to extend their season at least into June, that certainly would be a fitting end for King’s baseball career.

“Regardless of what’s gone on to this point in the season we’re still fighting,” King said. “Everybody in that locker room still thinks that we can have a great year and is still, every single pitch, is going to battle.”