Dennis Healy, Marist baseball’s former head coach, was looking for a catcher with experience handling a high-level pitching staff. Which high school backstop would have experience handling top-end talent that could translate to the Division 1 level?
Gabe Roman was a catcher, had been his whole life. When he started having knee problems midway through his high school baseball career, he got worried. How could he reinvent himself as a baseball player? Who could help him with that?
Tom Berg was a high school senior with dreams of playing college baseball. The problem was, he had no idea how to get the attention of college pitching coaches. Who could help him get noticed?
The answer to all of these questions?
Ben tragically lost his battle with COVID-19, the illness brought on by the coronavirus, on Monday, March 30. He was just 30 years old.
Ben was a fixture in the lineup of the best high school baseball team New Jersey has ever seen. The 2008 Don Bosco Prep team wreaked havoc on every team they played, finishing a perfect 33-0 and winning the national championship. Ben was one of seven seniors on that roster to make the jump to Division I after hitting a cool .500 and being named to the All-Conference First Team. Healy sent Chris Tracz, who was the assistant coach at the time, to scout Ben. Tracz liked what he saw.
“They had a ton, a ton of top-end talent, especially on the mound, and he caught them,” Coach Tracz, now Marist’s head coach, explained. “He had control over the game and the guys. He had everyone’s attention and respect, and he just played the game really hard and competed well. You could tell he was a real baseball player and fit everything that we needed.”
Ben’s ball-fox career didn’t go entirely as planned. He suffered a shoulder injury in his junior season that required surgery, which somewhat limited his ability behind the dish. He saw time at first base and designated hitter as he was rebuilding himself as a catcher. Coach Tracz made note of Ben’s work ethic during this challenging time.
“He was a tough kid, he figured out how to make his skillset work and just grinded to make it happen,” Tracz said. “He did everything he needed to do and everything he could do to maximize his ability and his time as a college player.
“On the field he worked really hard, and did a great job of leading by example,” Tracz added. “Off the field, he kept it light. He could read the room and if guys needed to loosen up a bit, he made it happen.”
When asked how Ben will be immortalized, Coach Tracz said there have already been discussions in the Marist baseball family and in the athletics department.
“Right now, there’s nothing to announce other than that we are going to do something to honor Ben,” Tracz said. “Part of it is, logistically… when can we get our players, the guys that Ben played with, back together? Then we can figure out the right way to honor him and his family. We definitely want to do something.”
After his time at Marist, Ben became a special education teacher and varsity baseball coach in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. Gabe Roman met Ben as a high school freshman when he made the team as a catcher. Ben worked with him to improve his catching skills, and as a sophomore, Roman threw out 10 would-be base stealers, an impressive feat over a short season.
Then, Roman started noticing his knees bothered him. How could he still play the game he loved while managing his knees?
Coach Ben moved him to the pitcher’s mound. Gabe would eventually get a college scholarship he never expected; not as a receiver, but as a hurler.
Perhaps the most telling moment of Roman’s experience with Coach Ben came off the field. They had an argument about something, leading to Roman storming off to the locker room. Coach Ben followed Roman and sat with him as he released his emotions. Roman always had trouble speaking up for himself, but that was something Coach Ben had helped him with. After a heart-to-heart conversation, they hugged. Roman never forgot that.
“He was like a big brother to me and the rest of our team,” Roman praised. “He was great with all the athletes and he made us all comfortable with each other and him. He was the best.”
Tom Berg had a different experience with Coach Ben. They met when Berg was in middle school, when Luderer tried to recruit him for the Cliffside Park high school baseball team. Berg chose to go to Bergen Tech instead, but he hoped he could play for Ben in the future.
Four years later, in his senior year of high school, Berg went to a basketball game where Bergen Tech played Cliffside Park. He ran into Coach Ben there and they started talking about baseball. Berg mentioned that he was trying to get recruited by colleges, but was having a hard time. Coach Ben offered to help him.
“He didn’t really work with me much on my pitching mechanics and such; he knew that I had the skill and capability of playing in college,” Berg explained. “It was just a matter of communicating with college coaches, which is where his expertise came in. He filmed me pitching from all angles and knew exactly what to send and what to say to the coaches, something that I wouldn’t have been able to do on my own.”
The southpaw received an offer from DeSales University, which he would accept. He played for Luderer’s club team over the summer to prepare, then enjoyed success in his freshman season with the Bulldogs. He made two appearances in the coronavirus-shortened season, pitching 7.2 innings with a WHIP of .69 and an ERA of 0.00. Only five runners reached base against him.
“It’s crazy that if I didn’t go to that basketball game, I wouldn’t have seen coach Ben, and I don’t know what would have happened with my recruiting process,” Berg said. “I’m so thankful for what coach Ben did for me… he was instrumental in my baseball career.”
Coach Ben decided to start a recruiting service for high school baseball players. He called it Top Tier Placement. The program was designed to handle everything, from evaluations, to recruiting videos, to placement. Several young men found college homes from this service.
Ben is survived by his wife, Brandy. They met when they attended Marist together. They even worked in the same school district. She’s a special education teacher as well, and she coaches basketball and volleyball. They drove to school together every day. “It’s very hard understanding where to go with this when you don’t have your partner in life that you did everything with,” Brandy told CNN. She is a member of the women’s basketball family, and her teammates set up a GoFundMe to support her and the Luderer family. You can donate here.
The legend of Ben Luderer will live forever. He had this innate ability to provide whatever was needed in the moment, whether it be a word of encouragement, a hug, or help in attaining a college scholarship. He impacted the lives of many with his words and actions. Undoubtedly, his impact will live on.
Edited by Will Bjarnar
Header graphic by Kristin Flanigan