Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Phillie (Briefly), and Now a Jackal, but at Age 37, Still a Boy of Summer

Published: July 22, 2007


A lot has happened to Joel Bennett since he was chosen by the Boston Red Sox in the 21st round of the 1991 baseball draft.

There were the brief stops in the bigs in 1998 and 1999 with the Orioles and Phillies. Could they have been longer? Doesn’t matter now.

There was the Arizona Fall League in 1994, where he played on the same team as Michael Jordan (on Sundays, Mr. Jordan rented out a gym so they could all play basketball); the 221 Carolina League strikeouts in 1993, behind only Randy Johnson and José Rijo in all of organized baseball; his Kevin Costner moment in the New Jersey Jackals’ miracle championship in 2004.

At 37, Joel Bennett is not Roger Clemens. In the end, he’s just a phys ed teacher from outside Binghamton, N.Y., who pitched 19 innings in the majors, with a 2-1 record and an 8.53 earned run average.

Still, if (big if) this turns out to be his last season in baseball, how many players have had a nicer run than Mr. Bennett, a reminder that, at least in the minor leagues, there’s still some truth left in those dappled “Field of Dreams” images.

“He said last year was the last one, and he said it the year before that, but he starts doing his version of spring training with the high school kids, and then here he is,” his wife, Jennifer, said as she watched the Jackals beat the Can-Am Grays, 12-5, on Thursday night. “It’s in his blood.”

It’s a long way from the majors to Yogi Berra Stadium at Montclair State University, where the Jackals play in the Can-Am League, which used to be the Northern League and the Northeast League. It’s an independent league, so the players tend to be former college athletes who didn’t get drafted or veterans hoping to get a second or third or fourth look in someone’s minor league system. Grabowsky Development advertises on the foul poles; Catholic Cemeteries, Archdiocese of Newark, on the outfield wall. A couple of thousand fans is a nice crowd. No one is getting rich.

But then Mr. Bennett’s sons, Jonah, 9, and Jesse, 7, come to all the home games as the Jackals’ ball boys. He gets to travel to Canada to play against the Quebec Capitales, where the fans spend the game singing in French. His family — the boys, his wife and their daughter, Jaylen, 6 — come along for the more desirable road trips, like the one this weekend against the Brockton Rox in Brockton, Mass., where they went whale watching last year. He’s lost a little on his fastball, which seldom got to 90 m.p.h. anyway, but he was always a curveball pitcher and can still strike people out. And in a league where players tend not to last more than a year or two, he’s a venerable star sought out for autographs.

He’s seen minor-league friends — Tim Wakefield, David Eckstein, Nomar Garciaparra — end up rich and famous. Like most of us in whatever we do, he shakes his head at some he saw in the minors who made it big but didn’t seem any better than he was. If he got to pitch more with the Phillies, where his appearances were few because Curt Schilling started every fifth day, who knows? But Mr. Bennett, who takes his Christianity seriously, just shrugs.

“Of course, it gets to you at the time,” he said. “You go from being in the big leagues to no one being interested in you. But I think it was a reward for work done well, and the Lord wanted me to have that pedestal to stand on for my life around kids now. You try to figure it out, but like my wife says, the one thing you know about baseball is that you never know.”

When he caught on with the Jackals in 2001, it must have seemed like a last shot, but six years later, an eternity in the minors, he’s still there. His greatest moment came in 2004, in the league championships against the North Shore Spirit of Lynn, Mass.

The Jackals lost the first two games of a five-game series. School, the real world, was starting back home. He had pitched Game 2. He figured the season and maybe his career was over, said his goodbyes.

But the Jackals won Games 3 and 4, and his manager begged him to come back to pitch Game 5. He said he couldn’t because it was the first day of classes, but he finally got permission from his principal.

He and his wife got up at dawn on a Monday and drove the six hours from Binghamton to Lynn, and he pitched seven innings on three days’ rest. The Jackals won 5-3.

“When you’re playing for the championship, it’s the best feeling in the world, no matter where you are,” he said back then.

“I don’t care if I’m in the major leagues, Triple A, Double A or Single A or independent ball. Every championship is a special feeling.”

Then they drove through the night, got home at 5:30 in the morning, and he left for school an hour later.

So some things don’t change. Box seat: $9.75. Hot dog: $2. Taking that championship from the North Shore Spirit: priceless.