Benitez fighting image, not Yanks O's reliever insists 'I'm not a bad guy'

June 15, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

TORONTO -- The incriminating image lingers. Arms outstretched, fingers beckoning and Armando Benitez facing the New York Yankees' bench seemingly looking for a fight. The result: 10 minutes of chaos on the Yankee Stadium infield and visitors dugout.

Four weeks after the fact, Benitez says the image is still distorted. Yes, he smoked Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez between the shoulder blades one pitch after surrendering a game-losing, three-run home run to Bernie Williams. But, no, it wasn't intentional. And when he dropped his glove and faced the Yankees' dugout, Benitez, no fool, was beckoning only to trash-talking Darryl Strawberry, not the entire bench.

While the image lingers, the Orioles perceive a chastened Benitez. They have counseled him, demoted him and briefly considered trading him.

"If it had been me, I would have been irate. Not just because of the way it looked but because it happened with Tino once before," manager Ray Miller said. "But again, no one knows except the person who has the ball in his hands."

Even if no one will believe him, Benitez insists he never meant to hit Martinez, but the Yankees first baseman had no use for his letter of apology.

"I wanted to make it right with everybody," Benitez said. "Everybody said I was a bad guy. I'm not a bad guy. I just play the game."

His on-field antics have become less pronounced, but Benitez remains the same pitcher -- overpowering but missing confidence in any off-speed pitch, susceptible to first-batter home runs, a work in progress, but not visibly scarred.

"I think he's pitched his best all year since it happened," Miller said. "He seems to be more focused and is just going about his business."

Benitez had allowed runs in one of six appearances this month going into last night, winning one game and saving another. In eight appearances since his eight-game suspension he has struck out 11, walked five and absorbed a 3.86 ERA while converting both save chances.

On-field gestures and glares that infuriated not only opponents but also umpires and his own bench have subsided. A 25-year-old who began the season as his clubhouse's youngest member is growing up the hard way.

"I don't think about it. I don't want to go through it all over again in my mind. I pitch. If the situation comes up for me to pitch, OK. I'm ready," Benitez said. "I'd like to put it behind me and just pitch. I don't want to hurt nobody."

Miller did not sugar-coat his criticism after the Yankees' incident, calling the pitch to Martinez "cowardly" and insisting it went "totally against the tradition of the Baltimore Orioles."

"He is an immature young kid. He was out of control," Miller said in the aftermath.

Coming from Miller, a father figure who shepherded Benitez through an outstanding season as Randy Myers' setup man before serving as counsel after Benitez's collapse in the American League Championship Series, the words stung worse than any suspension or incidental $2,000 fine.

Although Miller endorsed Alan Mills' right cross to Strawberry's head, he could not rationalize what virtually all perceived as a powerless act of immaturity and frustration. Pitcher and mentor went nearly three days before speaking at length.

Benitez's explanation for the event combines hitting and pitching styles with unfortunate timing. According to Benitez, he only tried to pitch the Yankees first baseman inside. Martinez, he says, typically dives down and into a pitch. When his first offering sailed off the plate, Benitez contends that Martinez had nowhere to go.

Martinez suffered a deep bruise that sidelined him for most of a week. He has driven in 49 runs in his past 45 games.

Miller acknowledged early last week that he hoped to avoid a Benitez-Martinez matchup. However, his depleted pitching staff hardly offers him such maneuverability.

"I have to pitch like I pitch. If that means pitching inside, I pitch inside," Benitez said. "He's a great hitter. He's going to try to hit. I have to pitch."

Embarrassed and stunned by the scope of the reaction, Benitez never argued with his penance. He and his agent, Mike Powers, met for 90 minutes with general manager Pat Gillick and assistant GM Kevin Malone two days after the incident. He exchanged letters with owner Peter Angelos, who did not tack on a club fine; he apologized to Miller upon arrival in Oakland; he requested a clubhouse meeting May 22, the day after the zTC Yankees series ended, in which he apologized to teammates.

Yet Benitez can't help but notice the disparity between his eight-game suspension and those meted out for a subsequent brawl between the Kansas City Royals and Anaheim Angels. In an incident precipitated by hit batters on both sides, no pitcher received more than a four-game suspension.

"Nobody talks about those guys. They kept going after each other, but nobody got eight games," he said. "But this happened in New York. Everybody sees it. So I get eight games."

Though the organization does not concede the correlation, the power pitcher anointed as the heir to Myers' closer role might also receive a ticket out of town.

Benitez says he is not bothered by trade talks that had him ticketed for Los Angeles in return for Hideo Nomo, since traded to the New York Mets.

"Whatever happens, I have to be prepared. If they want me to go pitch somewhere else, I'll go," he said. "I'd rather stay in Baltimore. I like the city. I like the fans. But some things I can't control."

Intended or not, Benitez understands lack of control is just how the image developed.

Pub Date: 6/15/98

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