On his first day as a professional, Jim Benedict was a knockout. Literally. After signing in August of 1983 with the Kansas City Royals, the former Valley College relief pitcher got his first work throwing batting practice during spring training.
On the mound, Benedict didn’t look much like himself that day. Noted for his side-arm delivery and variety of off-speed pitches, Benedict was standing--and throwing--straight.
Maybe too straight.
“I was just throwing them right down the gut, and this guy hit a ball--a real seed--that hit me in the forehead and bounced all the way back to the plate,” Benedict said.
He was unconscious for a day and seeing stars for the better part of a week.
Benedict figures he was lucky.
“Hey, I should have been dead,” he said. “So what the hell.”
By the time Benedict was back throwing pitches that spring, his fortunes had changed.
In 10 innings of work, he didn’t allow a hit or a walk.
The comeback earned Benedict an assignment to the Royals’ top Class-A farm club at Ft. Myers, Fla. There, he compiled a 5-1 record with a league-leading seven saves in 20 games.
He was promoted to Double-A at Memphis at midseason and finished with a 5-3 record, five saves and a 2.54 earned-run average.
In the process, Benedict went from down and out to up and coming.
It wasn’t the first time his career had taken such a turn.
A center fielder from Chatsworth High, Benedict went to Valley College to play for Coach Dave Snow. He was cut. At 17, his baseball career was temporarily on hold.
Although Benedict showed little promise, Snow kept him as a batting practice pitcher.
“It became pretty obvious that he didn’t have much of a future throwing overhand,” Snow said.
So Snow changed Benedict’s delivery--and his life. From an overhand fastball pitcher, Benedict became a side-arm, late-inning reliever with a variety of off-speed pitches.
The next year, he made the team. In a winter league game against Pepperdine, Benedict threw 12 pitches and notched four strikeouts.
“I went down under--way down under--and the ball started moving all over the place,” he said.
Benedict went on to post 10 saves at Valley in 1981. The next year, he earned California Player of the Year honors when the Monarchs won the state community college title.
“All good things were happening to me,” Benedict said. “I could have gone anywhere I wanted.”
Then it all came crashing down again on Jim Benedict.
He chose to attend Arizona State a month before Snow announced he would leave Valley to become pitching coach at Cal State Fullerton. Had Snow made his choice earlier, Benedict would have followed. Maybe.
“I also wanted to see if I could pitch without Dave Snow,” he said. “I couldn’t.”
At Arizona State, Sun Devils Coach Jim Brock wanted Benedict to throw fastballs, but Benedict wanted to stick with the finesse style that got him there.
By the end of the season, he was unused, unliked and unwanted in Arizona.
At rock bottom again, Benedict got a gift. Snow was coaching a semi pro team in Alaska and he was willing to give him another chance.
“He really didn’t have the credentials that would make you think he belonged pitching at that level,” Snow said. “But I still had a lot of confidence in Jimmy. The first half of the summer he spent just trying to get his confidence back. The last part, he pitched very effectively.”
Snow then contacted Rosie Gilhausen, the Royals’ West Coast scouting supervisor and the same man who signed Dan Quisenberry.
A contract was put in the mail and Benedict opted for a shot in the pros over an unhappy return to Arizona State.
This time, he made it without Snow at his side.
Benedict is no longer down and out. He has followed his outstanding rookie season with another set of sound numbers.
In instructional league last fall, he was 2-0 with four saves and a 0.91 ERA. Back at Memphis this season, he’s 6-7 with 15 saves and a 2.39 ERA.
There are some problems, however. Benedict’s back hurts. His team is fighting to play .500 ball. He’s dropped four of his last five decisions and his ERA is up a full point.
But, there is no sense of panic from either Benedict or the Royals.
“My back has been bothering me, but I’m not making any excuses,” Benedict said. “When you go out there, you still have to do the job. And I haven’t been doing it.”
Benedict’s manager, Tommy Jones, said the reliever’s problem is a matter of location. “It’s definitely correctable,” he said.
“He throws this slow slider that just paralyzes the hitter. Last year, he was hitting the corners with that pitch 95 percent of the time. This year, he’s missing outside by two or three inches, and he’s getting behind on the count,” Jones said.
More often than not, however, Benedict gets his man. His out pitches are a sinker and slider, with his fastball serving merely as a set-up pitch.
“When you evaluate Jimmy, in baseball vernacular, his fastball is short (80 m.p.h. tops) and his breaking stuff isn’t outstanding,” said Dick Balderson, director of minor league personnel for the Royals.
“But he’s just very effective with his control. He flirts with the hitters and gets them out by utilizing different speeds.”
The analysis has created comparisons with Quisenberry, one of the top relievers in the major leagues. Both throw unconventionally--Benedict side-arm, Quisenberry submarine style--and both rely on off-speed pitches.
Benedict has heard the comparisons and he doesn’t mind.
“I think it’s a compliment,” he said. “Some say we throw similarly, and I think that could help me in the long run with another team.”
Another team? Benedict hasn’t even made it to Triple-A yet, but he realizes Quisenberry’s presence in Kansas City leaves no room for him in the bullpen.
“He’s not my competition,” Benedict said. “He’s there for life and he’s a mainstay.”
And that doesn’t bother Benedict. He wants to play in the major leagues and knows he probably won’t get there by out-pitching Dan Quisenberry.
But he knows, too, that he can be a major league relief pitcher and there are others who back that belief.
“He’s fearless in any situation,” Jones said. “It’s important, not only for me but the club, the sense of confidence he brings out of the bullpen with him.”
Said Snow: “He’s an intense competitor, and his make-up has always been outstanding. I know he’s pretty intent on a big league career and I give him a heck of a chance just because I know what’s inside of him.”
At 23, Benedict is on the verge of getting his shot in the big leagues. But he knows there are no sure bets.
His best friend, former Valley College shortstop Doug Baker, is back in the Detroit Tigers farm system after being a member of the world championship team last year.
“He was just in the right place at the right time,” Benedict said. “But I think he’ll be back up.”
Benedict is still a believer in comebacks. He thinks he has learned from his personal setbacks.
“The failures, like at Arizona State, will help me in the long run,” he said. “I can catch things now before they happen.
“And if anything happens, I know I’ll get back up.”
Of that much, Jim Benedict is sure. He’s been down, but never out.