Nate Orf wasn’t supposed to be there on the Fourth of July at Miller Park in Milwaukee.
He had been a walk-on baseball player at Baylor, where he suffered an elbow injury that forced him to change positions. He went undrafted in 2013 and signed with the Milwaukee Brewers minor league system on a meager contract of a few hundred dollars. He spent five years grinding, waiting for the opportunity to play in the majors, and with one swing of the bat, he made it all worth it.
On that day, Orf became a legend, a fairytale version of himself. In what was his first major-league hit, he smacked a home run over the left field wall giving his team what would be the winning run in a close game. After he reached the dugout, the crowd demanded a curtain call. His teammates scooped him up and carried him out on their shoulders in front of the adoring fans.
“It’s every kids dream,” Orf said. “It was the best feeling I’ve ever had. It just made all the work and sacrifices pay off.”
Orf’s journey began at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he earned Freshman All-American honors. After his sophomore season in 2010, Orf played in a summer league with Baylor Bears Logan Vick and Cal Towey and suddenly felt called to Baylor. Just four days before classes started, he met with the Baylor Coach Steve Smith and asked to join the team as a walk-on.
“I started feeling uneasy and not really sure what was going on,” Orf explained. “I just prayed about it and prayed that if there was somewhere else that I needed to go, just show me. The next day I woke up, and I just felt moved. I had no doubt that I had somewhere else to be, so we made it happen.”
Orf signed up for classes the day that school started, and sat out the first year to meet NCAA transfer requirements. But even as a practice-only player, Nate quickly took on a leadership role with the team.
“Nate was determined,” said former Baylor Assistant Coach Steve “Hoot” Johnigan, who is now an Associate Director of Athletic Facilities & Operations. “He came to us with a vision, and he was going to do whatever it takes to see it through. And if you mix that type of mentality with a little bit of talent and ability, then you get something really special.”
Towards the end of his transfer season, Orf suffered an elbow injury requiring Tommy John surgery. Originally a catcher, Orf was forced to change positions. In his first full year at Baylor, he was primarily used as a designated hitter to avoid having to throw at all and later moved to the outfield.
Although he performed well at Baylor and earned All-Big 12 First Team honors as a senior, Orf wasn’t drafted in the extensive 40-round MLB draft.
“He’s one of those guys that you need to watch him play over a period of time to see what he does,” Johnigan explained. “He is not a guy that is going to hit it 600 feet or throw it 99 mph. He doesn’t have the ‘wow’ factor from a professional scout perspective. But he’s a great teammate and leader for your club. He makes everyone else around him better.”
In a now infamous incident, Milwaukee offered to sign Orf to a minor league contract for a small signing bonus. When they offered $1,000, he joked with them that he would have signed for a Snickers bar. When the final contract was sent, it was for only $500. “It wasn’t my best negotiating done,” Orf deadpanned.
That was more than five years before Orf would make it to the major league club. In the intervening time, Orf slowly worked himself up through the ranks. “It gets tough to keep telling yourself to hang in there, but I’ve had unreal support throughout my career,” he said. “I just feel like you only have one life, and I was gonna give it my all.”
After two years playing for the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox as an infielder, just on the edge of making the major league club, some fans began to demand that he be promoted. They started a social media campaign under the #FreeNateOrf hashtag as his batting average topped .380 in mid-May. Perhaps it was that extra buzz that eventually landed him in Milwaukee and completed his improbable journey to the majors at the age of 28.
To further underscore the unlikelihood, Johnigan compared it to winning the lottery. He explained that even players that are drafted rarely see a pitch in the major leagues. “You take a guy that wasn’t drafted, and that percentage plummets. It just doesn’t happen,” he said. “So for him to be able to play an inning, much less hit a home run is just a remarkable story. I knew the cards were stacked against him, but he is the type of guy that I’m never going to bet against.”
When Johnigan saw the clip of the home run and curtain call, he got chills. “The most frustrating thing about being a coach is that sometimes the hardest working kids, the greatest kids don’t get a chance because they just aren’t talented enough,” he said. “But for him to get that chance, I was just so happy for him. What a proud moment. Unbelievable.”
In Orf’s mind, the moment was always believable. He had imagined it his entire life, and he always believed he could play at the major league level. “When I was rounding the bases, it didn’t seem abnormal to me because I was able to see myself in that moment for a long time,” he said. “When I made contact, I thought it was going to hook foul. As I was running, I saw it carry over the wall. It was a dream come true. It was the moment that made everything pay off.”