It is January, and ban Diego padre pitcher Andy Benes is in uniform. Out of bed at 0500 hours, he has donned camouflage shirt and pants, pulled on combat boots and packed his air gun and Darth Vader mask. Now he prepares for battle. Sure, playing for the most miserable team west of the New York Mets last season was a survival game in itself, but try hiding all 6'6" and 245 pounds of fatigues behind some sorry excuse for a California redwood while the enemy stalks you with a paint-ball gun.
On Monday mornings of the off-season, Benes and a group of buddies—ranging from fellow major leaguers Howard Johnson, Phil Plantier, Kurt Stillwell and Jeff Gardner to the pastor of his church, "Dirty" Harry Kuehl—play war games in a canyon five miles from Benes's house in Poway, Calif. "They call me the Big Tree," says Benes, whose in-season moniker is the Big Train. The scouting report on the man with the lumberjack's body, according to Padre leftfielder Plantier: "An easy kill."
You can't blame Benes for trying to learn a few survival techniques. As if someone had painted a bull's-eye on his chest, it has been open season on the young pitcher since last August. He has been the target of so many trade rumors that he checks under TRANSACTIONS in the sports section every day just in case. Early in the hot-stove-league season, he was so hot you needed oven mitts just to talk to him on the phone.
In fact, Benes, a 26-year-old righthander who put up Cy Young numbers in the first half of the season, pitched in the All-Star Game and then collapsed in the heat of the Padres' Great Fire Sale of 1993, would welcome a trade. But San Diego general manager Randy Smith says trade talks have flickered since late November. "Andy Benes is our Opening Day pitcher," Smith says, to the relief of Benes's teammates and the club's dwindling corps of fans.
February 14, 1994
"The only time I want to see him on another team," says Plantier, "is when he's wearing camouflage."
The cost-conscious Padres started unloading high-salaried players late in the 1992 season, but the most dramatic budget cuts came last summer. Defending National League batting champion Gary Sheffield was traded to the Florida Marlins on June 24, slugging first baseman Fred McGriff was dealt to the Atlanta Braves on July 18, and eight days later pitchers Bruce Hurst and Greg Harris—Benes's two closest friends on the team—were packed off to the Colorado Rockies.
In the midst of those moves, Benes, who had a one-year contract, told Smith that he wasn't interested in signing a long-term deal with the club because he wanted to pitch for a team committed to winning. "Not to slight the guys here, but we don't have the experience," Benes says. "It was hard to look at the two expansion teams last season knowing that they had better teams. It's tough for a team with a $12 million payroll to be in the thick of things."
The Padres weren't going to move popular outfielder and four-time National League batting champion Tony Gwynn, so the media logically speculated that Benes—the only other valuable commodity left on the club—would be the next player out the door. And Benes was ready to go; but the Padres, it turned out, were done dealing for a while. Nevertheless, the repercussions from the team's traumatic downturn were devastating for Benes.
He was 9-6, was leading the league in ERA (2.57) and had struck out 107 batters in 136‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings before the All-Star break. At that time he was the only pitcher to rank among the top 10 in all three categories. But during the month of August, Benes gave up 31 earned runs in 35‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings. He lost his last five decisions to finish the season 15-15 with a 3.78 ERA. Still, not a bad season on the whole, considering he pitched for a team that wound up 61-101 with the league's second-worst defense, second-worst on-base percentage and most-inexperienced bullpen.
The Hurst-Harris trade was the point at which the pitcher began to unravel like a cheap sweater. The veteran Hurst had been a mentor to Benes, the first player picked in the 1988 draft, ever since Benes was called up to the Padres in August 1989. Harris pitched his first full season for the Padres that same year. The three were double-knit tight.
When Benes learned about the trade 10 minutes before a game against the Cubs in Chicago, he went into the Padre locker room and cried. As the scheduled starter for the next day's game, he was supposed to keep the pitching chart that night. Instead he took a shower and went back to the hotel. The next day Benes wrote Harris's number, 46, and Hurst's number, 47, on the back of his cap as a tribute, and in one of his best outings of the season—and one of his last effective starts in '93—he tossed a five-hit shutout.
Soon after, Benes lost that focus. "I was a basket case out there," he says. "I didn't get anybody out in September." He had lost three straight heading into a start against the Rockies in Denver on Sept. 22, and then something snapped—and it wasn't his losing streak. In the fifth inning Benes threw a pitch that hit Rocky centerfielder Alex Cole in the side. Without hesitation, plate umpire Bob Davidson ejected Benes. The pitcher started walking toward the Padre dugout, but when he reached the foul line, he turned and headed for Davidson before anyone could derail the Big Train.
"I always pitch Cole the same way, inside; I just wanted to explain myself," says Benes, who was suspended for five games by the league for throwing at Cole. "I was irritated at the ump, and I wasn't going to leave until he listened to me. I was shouting, which is out of character for me. My teammates don't expect me to lose control, but I guess the frustration from everything just built up. I was irritated."
Benes is one of those guys who is usually able to stay a few degrees below the boiling point. He had been thrown out of a game only once before, and that was when he played quarterback for the University of Evansville. In that game, an opposing linebacker kept barreling into him after Benes had released the ball. When the guy hit him late for the fourth time, it was the last time. Benes jumped up and wrestled him to the ground.
"I'm not a troublemaker," says Benes. "I'm not controversial. I'm not Howard Stern." A shock jock he's not, but Benes, who is also the Padre player representative, doesn't hesitate to speak his mind. Last June, when the Padres did not draft his brother, Alan, who was a junior at Creighton University, Benes said, "At least if they had drafted Alan, they would still have a Benes in the organization two years from now." (As it happened, Alan, also a righthanded pitcher, was picked 16th overall by the St. Louis Cardinals; it is only the third time that brothers have been first-round draft picks.)
Benes, who signed a $3 million contract for the '94 season on Jan. 26, will be eligible for free agency after the 1995 season. Even though the Padres were not shopping Benes in the off-season, Smith listened to offers from the Cardinals, the Boston Red Sox, the Montreal Expos, the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies. It figures that the Padres will keep Benes until late in the '94 season, then trade him before he walks away as a free agent.
"He's a good pitcher, a pitcher everybody would like," says Cardinal general manager Dal Maxvill. "He's a power pitcher that you want to see in baseball, somebody who might strike out 12 or 13 guys one night. Fans like that. There aren't many of those guys around."
Conventional wisdom says that under different circumstances Benes, who has a lifetime record of 59-54, would be a lock to win 20 games. Conventional wisdom also says he is one pitch away from becoming one of the game's elite pitchers. The quickness of his cross-seam fastball is Clemens-like, and his breaking ball is deceptive, but his changeup needs work.
On the other hand, Benes's path to becoming a power pitcher has been anything but conventional. The former high school shortstop truly learned how to throw off a mound only when he was on a football-baseball scholarship at Evansville. Because he came to the Padres after only four months in the minors, Benes is still developing into a major league talent.
"Andy's a horse. He goes out every fifth day and does his work no matter how he feels," says former Padre G.M. Joe McIlvaine, who is now with the Mets. "He can be as successful as any pitcher in the league. He has the ability to rise above the adversities that come to every pitcher."
"If you never go through adversity, you never gain strength," says Benes. "Last season made me a better person. For 25 starts I was as good as anybody. The last nine were pretty bad. Were they under difficult circumstances? Yes. But that's not an excuse. I feel I'm a lot better than a .500 pitcher, regardless of what team I'm playing for. I have no one to blame but myself. It's not the owners' fault."
On a recent Saturday, Benes and some teammates and coaches spent five hours in Tijuana, Mexico, meeting with Little League players and signing autographs as part of the Padres' goodwill caravan. While certain fans in the U.S. derisively call the Padres a Triple A team and while most of the San Diego players are as anonymous as White House sources, in Mexico on this day it seemed that only Fernando Valenzuela would have been welcomed more enthusiastically than these visiting Padres. "You know they must really love baseball if they're excited to see us," Benes said with a grin.
At one stop a thin boy in a red turtle-neck and a baseball cap gingerly approached Benes—whom Mexican fans call El Gigante—and presented six of the pitcher's baseball cards, each carefully wrapped in clear plastic, for him to sign. As Benes autographed the cards, he asked the boy his name.
"Carlos," the boy said
"What position do you play?"
"How old are you?"
Benes told Carlos that if he practiced real hard, someday he might play for the Padres. Benes failed to mention that San Diego could use a third baseman this season. Minutes later Carlos reappeared with his baseball jersey and glove.
"Do you want me to sign them?" Benes asked.
"No, they're for you," Carlos said. "You give us so much. I wanted to give you something of mine. Besides, I have an extra glove at home."
Benes smiled warmly and shook the boy's hand. And with that, the thought of pulling on a Padre uniform again didn't seem so bad.
Indeed, Benes insists that he's once again looking forward to pitching every fifth day, beginning with San Diego's season opener, April 4, against the Braves at Jack Murphy Stadium. "I'm much better equipped to handle things this year," he says. "It will be a lot easier. I'm more motivated than I have ever been in my career."
Perhaps Benes is simply learning what it takes to survive. After all, he has been practicing.