NEW YORK -- Stunned by the overwhelming criticism that has followed him since Tuesday night's bench-clearing brawl with the New York Yankees, Orioles reliever Armando Benitez emerged yesterday afternoon from an hourlong meeting with club officials to apologize for his role in what he called a "bad situation."
"I want to apologize to the owner, the manager, my teammates and the fans," Benitez said. "I feel real bad about this. I'm sorry it happened."
The remorseful Benitez, accompanied by agent Mike Powers and consultant Joseph Geier, met with general manager Pat Gillick and assistant general manager Kevin Malone at the Grand Hyatt before the rest of the team took a bus to Yankee Stadium for last night's series finale.
Benitez remained at the hotel during the game but was to take a limousine to Newark (N.J.) Airport in time to board the team charter for Oakland, Calif.
"This will never happen again," Benitez said. "I've learned from this."
Benitez created a firestorm when he hit Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez with a high fastball immediately after surrendering a three-run, upper-deck homer to Bernie Williams during
Tuesday's eighth inning.
Though Benitez steadfastly denies intentionally drilling Martinez between the shoulder blades, he has convinced few, least of all American League president Gene Budig. Budig suspended Benitez for eight games Wednesday after reviewing tapes of the incident and speaking with the managers and general managers from both teams.
"I try to throw inside. I tried to scare him a little bit," Benitez said. "I'm sorry about that."
Yesterday, flanked by his representatives sitting in a hotel restaurant, Benitez said he intends to send an apology to Martinez.
"I feel very bad for everything that happened. I disappointed my friends, my manager, my general manager and the owner. I feel very bad for hitting Tino," Benitez said. "I'm not a bad guy. I don't want people to think I'm a bad guy."
Despite his contrition, Benitez and his representatives are nonplused by the disparity between the Orioles' reliever's suspension and those given to the Yankees' Darryl Strawberry, Graeme Lloyd and Jeff Nelson.
Strawberry, who extended the melee by slugging Benitez from behind, and Lloyd received three-game bans. After sprinting in from the bullpen, Lloyd threw the fight's first punch. Another reliever, Nelson, received a two-game suspension. Orioles reliever Alan Mills was suspended three games for punching Strawberry.
Replays of the brawl show Benitez's reaction to hitting Martinez as dropping his glove, extending his arms and flicking his fingers if challenging the entire Yankees dugout to a fight. Benitez said his gesture was made specifically to Strawberry, who had begun to leave the dugout and was challenging him.
"I wasn't calling out all those guys. I was looking at Strawberry. He said he was going to kick my [butt]. I said, 'Let's go.' I'm going to defend myself. What else am I supposed to do, turn around and give him my back?"
Blindsided by Lloyd and sucker-punched by Strawberry, Benitez argues he did not instigate the fight. "I didn't throw the first punch," he said. "The other guy [Lloyd] threw the first punch."
Benitez has become a branded man in New York. Tabloids have ripped him and concern over a media frenzy led him to remain in the team hotel during the series' final two games. Among his teammates, Benitez said he had spoken only to Joe Carter and Mills since Tuesday's game.
Yankees owner George Steinbrenner had pressed for a month- long suspension of Benitez and insisted he might appeal the sentence if Martinez's injuries proved more serious. That likely won't occur. Doctors have diagnosed Martinez's injury as nothing more serious than a deep bruise. While Steinbrenner second-guessed Budig for giving Benitez a slap on the wrist, the hulking right-hander was jolted by its severity.
"People told me it would be four or five games. When I got eight games, I said OK. If they think eight games is right, I'll take eight games," Benitez said.
Benitez reaffirmed that he will not appeal Budig's ruling, which included a $2,000 fine.
Benitez, criticized publicly by many within the organization for throwing at Martinez, said he also intends to apologize to manager Ray Miller and his teammates during a clubhouse meeting before tonight's game against the Athletics.
Miller has called the act "cow- ardly" and appeared hurt by Benitez's on-field display. The manager has served as a mentor to Benitez since arriving as pitching coach before last season and had repeatedly cited his closer's greater maturity.
"He is an immature, young kid. He was out of control," Miller said Wednesday.
Although clearly displeased with Benitez's role in the fight, Gillick and Malone offered whatever assistance Benitez might need. "I don't think this has to be a punitive thing from our standpoint. I would hope it would be educational," Malone said.
As to suggestions that he might have forfeited his role as closer with Tuesday's display, Benitez remained circumspect.
"I'll pitch whenever they like," he said. "If they want me to pitch in the seventh and eighth innings one night and the ninth inning the next night, that's fine with me. I just want to pitch."
Pub Date: 5/22/98