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8 Upper

'Mando Trasho

By Tom Scocca | Posted 12/9/1998

The recent Great Orioles Reshuffling should keep us sports pundits busy for weeks to come. I will leave the Albert Belle question, for now, to the guys from The Sun, who seem to be alternately baiting the mercurial slugger and cringing before him. I've got plenty of time to deal with Albert Belle. He'll be around for awhile.

But Armando Benitez will not. All-Star catcher Charles Johnson--he of the symphonic defense and the piccolo bat--has arrived, via a nifty three-cornered trade, and Benitez has been sent to the New York Mets. Getting Johnson to fill the void behind the plate was a great move, in the abstract (though in the here-and-now, the Orioles had a few too many .230 hitters already). It was a much better trade than some others the O's had proposed.

But that said, all of those proposed trades involved dealing Benitez. A consensus had long ago developed that the young Dominican pitcher had to go.

This was not the no-brainer the consensus would have it be. Armando Benitez turned 26 years old last month. He is tall and bull-necked and sturdy. Most important, he can throw a baseball, with a smooth, easy delivery, 99 miles per hour. Through five seasons, more batters have struck out against Benitez than have gotten walks and hits off of him, combined. His career earned-run average is a solid 3.62.

What was wrong? The big complaint was he had not developed into a dominant major-league closer.

Well, with all due respect to the Baseball Professionals at the warehouse, past and present, that was a criminally dumb-ass reason. Not being a BP myself, I don't know what makes a team pick out a young pitching prospect and decide to train him from the cradle to be a closer. All I know is it never works.

Yes, there are sharp young closers out there--the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, the Expos' Ugueth Urbina. But wait and see. Remember Gregg Olson? As a rookie, the O's wunderkind was a top closer--and after six years he'd wrecked his arm, lost his composure, and landed on the scrap heap. His National League counterpart, Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams, flamed out just as fast. Then there's Atlanta's Mark Wohlers, who last season suffered a psychological breakdown and lost all ability to pitch, hurling the ball either into the dirt or over the backstop whenever he took the mound.

Time after time, young closers fall apart, physically or mentally or both. Or else they just fade away, the way O's management evidently thought Benitez was fading. The reason young closers fail is simple: A closer--the modern closer, groomed for the job from the beginning--never learns to pitch. He shows up with one or two great pitches, such as Olson's knee-buckling curve ball or Benitez' searing fastball-slider combination, and is sent out to blow hitters away, one inning at a time. There is no Plan B, no chance to experiment with new skills or tactics, and, as Benitez learned, no margin for error.

That is, sometimes there's no margin for error. Much of the time, though, the modern closer's job is to finish off a team that has already lost, that would just as soon take three quick outs and get the hell back to the hotel. He comes in on a Wednesday night in August with a three-run lead and punches out the Tigers' number-six, number-seven, and number-eight hitters, and that's a "save." This is supposed to prepare him to get the last three outs in a one-run game against the Cleveland Indians, with the pennant on the line?

To date, Benitez hasn't handled the high-stakes games well. Why would he? His major-league résumé, on the basis of which the Orioles dumped him, covers 2132/3 innings. Total--over five years in the majors. That's less than five full games' worth of baseball a year. Mike Mussina pitched 8941/3 innings in his first five seasons; Dennis Eckersley, one of the modern eras greatest closers, pitched almost 2,500 innings as a starter before going to the bullpen.

More numbers: Benitez has given up--in five years--149 hits, 91 runs, and 27 homers. Those are trivial totals. Sidney Ponson, coming off of his rookie year, has already given up 157 hits, 82 runs, and 19 homers, and no one would dispute that he's barely gotten his feet wet.

Benitez got no such grace period. From his first batter as a rookie setup man--Albert Belle, who struck out on four pitches--his on-the-job learning was strictly limited by the team's needs. Pitching under the narrow conditions of short relief, he never got to study and adjust.

Consider his bean-balling. Young Armando is now known as a hotheaded thug because of his habit of drilling the poor batter who's up after a home run. Terrible, cowardly behavior, everyone agrees. His manager and teammates deplored it.

But who was Benitez supposed to throw at? He never got to see the same batter twice in a game. A short fuse and a little judicious headhunting have, in combination, helped pitchers from Bob Gibson to Pedro Martinez win the Cy Young Award. Yet nobody for the Orioles ever saw Benitez's temper as an asset, or helped him turn it to the team's advantage.

And as far as I can tell, nobody consulted with Armando Benitez about much of anything. Most of the time his coaches and managers couldn't even speak his language. They just ran him out there to pitch, on their terms. And when that didn't work, they ran him out of town.

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