It is January, and ban Diego padre pitcher Andy Benes is in uniform. Out of bed at 0500 hours, he has donned camouflage shirt and pants, pulled on combat boots and packed his air gun and Darth Vader mask. Now he prepares for battle. Sure, playing for the most miserable team west of the New York Mets last season was a survival game in itself, but try hiding all 6'6" and 245 pounds of fatigues behind some sorry excuse for a California redwood while the enemy stalks you with a paint-ball gun.
On Monday mornings of the off-season, Benes and a group of buddies—ranging from fellow major leaguers Howard Johnson, Phil Plantier, Kurt Stillwell and Jeff Gardner to the pastor of his church, "Dirty" Harry Kuehl—play war games in a canyon five miles from Benes's house in Poway, Calif. "They call me the Big Tree," says Benes, whose in-season moniker is the Big Train. The scouting report on the man with the lumberjack's body, according to Padre leftfielder Plantier: "An easy kill."
You can't blame Benes for trying to learn a few survival techniques. As if someone had painted a bull's-eye on his chest, it has been open season on the young pitcher since last August. He has been the target of so many trade rumors that he checks under TRANSACTIONS in the sports section every day just in case. Early in the hot-stove-league season, he was so hot you needed oven mitts just to talk to him on the phone.
In fact, Benes, a 26-year-old righthander who put up Cy Young numbers in the first half of the season, pitched in the All-Star Game and then collapsed in the heat of the Padres' Great Fire Sale of 1993, would welcome a trade. But San Diego general manager Randy Smith says trade talks have flickered since late November. "Andy Benes is our Opening Day pitcher," Smith says, to the relief of Benes's teammates and the club's dwindling corps of fans.
"The only time I want to see him on another team," says Plantier, "is when he's wearing camouflage."
The cost-conscious Padres started unloading high-salaried players late in the 1992 season, but the most dramatic budget cuts came last summer. Defending National League batting champion Gary Sheffield was traded to the Florida Marlins on June 24, slugging first baseman Fred McGriff was dealt to the Atlanta Braves on July 18, and eight days later pitchers Bruce Hurst and Greg Harris—Benes's two closest friends on the team—were packed off to the Colorado Rockies.
In the midst of those moves, Benes, who had a one-year contract, told Smith that he wasn't interested in signing a long-term deal with the club because he wanted to pitch for a team committed to winning. "Not to slight the guys here, but we don't have the experience," Benes says. "It was hard to look at the two expansion teams last season knowing that they had better teams. It's tough for a team with a $12 million payroll to be in the thick of things."
The Padres weren't going to move popular outfielder and four-time National League batting champion Tony Gwynn, so the media logically speculated that Benes—the only other valuable commodity left on the club—would be the next player out the door. And Benes was ready to go; but the Padres, it turned out, were done dealing for a while. Nevertheless, the repercussions from the team's traumatic downturn were devastating for Benes.
He was 9-6, was leading the league in ERA (2.57) and had struck out 107 batters in 136⅓ innings before the All-Star break. At that time he was the only pitcher to rank among the top 10 in all three categories. But during the month of August, Benes gave up 31 earned runs in 35⅓ innings. He lost his last five decisions to finish the season 15-15 with a 3.78 ERA. Still, not a bad season on the whole, considering he pitched for a team that wound up 61-101 with the league's second-worst defense, second-worst on-base percentage and most-inexperienced bullpen.
The Hurst-Harris trade was the point at which the pitcher began to unravel like a cheap sweater. The veteran Hurst had been a mentor to Benes, the first player picked in the 1988 draft, ever since Benes was called up to the Padres in August 1989. Harris pitched his first full season for the Padres that same year. The three were double-knit tight.