Of course, rogue pitchers such as Benitez, Garner's own Jeff Juden and San Francisco Giants righthander Julian Tavarez proved in the past week that baseball's frontier justice sometimes ranges far wide of acceptable. The Brewers faced chin music of their own last week, when the Giants' Tavarez continued a three-year quest to give Mike Matheny another shave he believes he owes him. Tavarez touched off a brawl in 1996 by buzzing Matheny's head, hit him in the back with a pitch in late April and brushed him back again on May 19.
The day before that, in the fifth inning of a horrible outing against Colorado, Juden airmailed a fastball between the shoulder blades of pitcher Pedro Astacio, whose bat-brandishing response prompted Juden to give the universal sign for "O.K., meathead, bring it on."
The next night Benitez would come off the mound in Yankee Stadium and issue the same invitation. Given Benitez's hardscrabble upbringing, his lack of baseball etiquette and social skills is understandable. He started playing baseball so late that, at 14, when Bernhardt scouted him in the town where they both lived, San Pedro de Macoris, Benitez was still learning how to catch. He was 6'2" but weighed 140 pounds. Three meals a day? A treat. Benitez's parents had separated when he was very young, leaving his mother to raise four children with money she scraped together by hand-scrubbing clothes.
When he was 17, in 1990, Benitez's fluid, loose-armed throwing motion was drawing so much attention from scouts that Bernhardt's wife, Janet, called Carlos one day at spring training in Florida. "You'd better do something," Janet said. Bernhardt couldn't leave Florida, so he faxed his wife a standard player's contract and put an X where Benitez should sign his name. Janet closed the deal.
Four years later Benitez was in the big leagues. He made his first appearance when Johnny Oates, Baltimore's manager at the time, pulled ace Mike Mussina, leaving Benitez to face Albert Belle with two runners on. Benitez struck Belle out. By last season Benitez had become such a dominating middle reliever that he inherited 44 leads and protected all but one of them. Still, he met his infrequent spells of adversity with a mix of petulance and rage.
"As long as things are going well, he's a great kid," says a teammate. "But if he's going bad, you don't know if he'll talk to you. If you give up a three-run homer, don't take it out on your teammates. He does."
Says Bernhardt, "He's not a bad kid. He supports his whole family. You have to understand that if he goes down, his whole family goes down."
Already, Benitez is playing for his fourth manager and fourth pitching coach. In his first full season of being entrusted with ninth innings, he is trying to replace Randy Myers, only one of the alltime great closers. (Myers blew one of 46 save opportunities last year.) All around Benitez, the team—which features 12 potential free agents, each wondering who will be signing next year's checks—is disintegrating. Until a 9-1 win over the As last Saturday, the Orioles had lost nine straight games for the first time since their historic 0-21 start in '88, dropping them to 17 games behind the Yankees in the loss column. Even Miller, a pleasant man who sometimes appears overmatched by his promotion from pitching coach to manager, suffered a meltdown.
"I'm about two days from asking [owner] Peter Angelos to get me every 20-year-old who can throw the ball over the plate," he shouted in an obscenity-laced tirade after a 9-5 loss to Oakland last Friday. Miller then fired his belt against his office wall, waved toward the players and said, "Go ask those c - - - suckers what's going on."
What's going on with Benitez is anyone's guess. Gillick and Malone explained to him in that hotel room why he was wrong and how important it is to move on. Benitez did apologize profusely to them, as well as to Martinez, Miller and Angelos. "Everybody makes mistakes," Benitez said. "This is harder than Cleveland. Much harder."