SARASOTA, Fla. -- First impressions are everything, and no rTC one seems to forget the first time they saw Armando Benitez, the Orioles' rookie reliever who throws fastballs in the mid-90s.
Manny Alexander remembers.
It was 1989, and Alexander was taking batting practice with a couple of friends in San Pedro de Macoris, in the Dominican Republic. He noticed a gangly teen-ager playing catch on the side of the field, wearing shorts, a T-shirt and spikes.
And his hands. Alexander couldn't believe the size of his hands, his body. Armando Benitez. The kid must have been about 6 feet 2, and he had this nice, easy motion. He wasn't throwing very hard -- Alexander guessed about 70 or 75 mph -- but it didn't look like he was trying. Give the kid a few years and he might be something, Alexander thought.
Alexander walked over and introduced himself, although surely Benitez knew who he was; Alexander had signed with the Orioles the year before.
Benitez seemed taken aback, particularly when Alexander asked if he had talked to any scouts. No, Benitez said, scoffing. Well, I know someone you should talk to, said Alexander, who sensed that Benitez thought he was being teased.
Another thing Alexander discovered about Benitez: He was only 16 years old.
Benitez told Carlos Bernhardt, the Orioles scout who signed him, about Benitez.
First impressions. Carlos Bernhardt remembers.
Soon after Alexander told him about Benitez, Bernhardt found the teen-ager pitching a youth league game. Right away, he saw what Alexander was talking about. Real tall kid, very skinny. He needed some weight, no question about that.
But his motion was so effortless, and the kid was throwing about 75 or 80 mph. If Benitez signed with the Orioles and went to the United States, Bernhardt thought, he would fill out, and then maybe he would be something special.
Bernhardt had to fly to the United States the next day, but the more he thought about Benitez, the more potential he saw, the more excited he became, the more nervous he felt. He felt sure no other scout would see Benitez -- but not 100 percent sure.
So Bernhardt called his wife, Janet, and asked her to go into his office and find a contract and drive over to Benitez's home, 10 minutes away, and sign the kid. He had taught his wife how to do this, just in case, but this was the first time he had asked her to actually sign somebody.
Janet Bernhardt, carefully following instructions, asked Benitez's mother for permission to sign her 16-year-old boy, and asked for a birth certificate. Armando Benitez signed with the Orioles for a bonus of $2,000. The No. 1 pick that year, Ben McDonald, signed, after prolonged negotiations, for a $350,000 bonus.
'He wasn't even sweating'
First impressions. Greg Zaun remembers.
Spring training of 1993. He had just been sent down from major-league camp to the minor-league camp and a coach told him, hey, grab a glove and catch this guy.
Big guy. Big shoulders, big legs. Zaun didn't know who he was, but figured this was an older pitcher, maybe in his mid-20s. He could throw a decent fastball; about 85 mph, Zaun thought. But it looked like he wasn't even trying.
"He was pretty much whizzing the ball," Zaun remembers now, "and he wasn't even sweating."
The guy didn't have much of a breaking pitch. But the fastball seemed to explode out of his hand. It wasn't until later that he learned the big guy's name was Armando Benitez, and he was only 20 years old.
Pitching for Single-A Albany (Ga.) and Frederick that year, Benitez struck out 112 in 67 innings. He was a prospect.
Plenty in reserve
First impressions. Elrod Hendricks remembers.
July 28, 1994. Benitez had just been called up to the big leagues. The Orioles were playing Cleveland at Camden Yards. In the seventh inning of the first game of a doubleheader, the phone rang in the bullpen. Get Benitez up, pitching coach Dick Bosman told Hendricks.
Hendricks bent down to catch Benitez, and the first warm-up stunned him, a pitch about 85 mph.
"Hey, take it easy," Hendricks said, figuring the big guy was just nervous and overthrowing. No sense in throwing his arm out in the bullpen.
Hendricks was wrong. "I kind of found out as he kept throwing," he said, "that he had a lot more to give."
Regan saw debut
First impressions. Phil Regan remembers.
That same day, when Baltimore faced Cleveland, Regan, the Indians' pitching coach, was talking to his pitcher in the dugout and never really noticed the big, intimidating reliever.
Benitez, by then, was 22, 6-4 and 220 pounds, one of baseball's best prospects. He had struck out 106 in 71 2/3 innings at Double-A Bowie.
But Benitez quickly caught Regan's attention, as he pitched to Albert Belle. Throwing mostly fastballs, Benitez struck out the slugger. Belle, Regan says now, never gives too much credit to the opposing pitcher, but as he walked back to the dugout, there was something in his body language and demeanor.
Belle, Phil Regan was sure, was very impressed.
First impressions. Armando Benitez.