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Fevered Pitch
Tom Verducci
June 01, 1998
With one ill-advised fastball, the Orioles' Armando Benitez ignited a brawl, lost his closer's job and damaged a once-promising career
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June 01, 1998

Fevered Pitch

With one ill-advised fastball, the Orioles' Armando Benitez ignited a brawl, lost his closer's job and damaged a once-promising career

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The telephone kept ringing, but there was no way Baltimore Orioles righthander Armando Benitez was going to answer it. The message light was a furious red quasar that could go on blinking forever for all he cared—even if the most insistent callers were his mother and Carlos Bernhardt, the Orioles coach who had discovered Benitez when he was 14. A trip for a bite to eat, even a stroll to the lobby, was out of the question. This was how the most notorious pitcher in all of baseball would attempt to deal with the consequences of one sorry, stupid pitch—by sequestering himself in his 15th-floor room of the New York Grand Hyatt. Solitary confinement with 24-hour room service.

Well into his second day of isolation, Benitez finally opened his door last Thursday. During a visit with Bernhardt, he broke down and cried. Then Benitez met with his agent, Mike Powers; his financial consultant, Joseph Geier; Baltimore general manager Pat Gillick; and assistant general manager Kevin Malone. The men arranged themselves in Benitez's room like five dots on a die, with the disgraced reliever at the center, sitting on the edge of his bed with his head in his hands.

"He just wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear," Malone says. "He didn't want to see anybody, and he didn't want to talk to anybody. He was very sad."

And this was the man who the Orioles thought was ready to nail down the toughest outs for the team with the highest payroll in baseball. "A young, immature kid," Orioles manager Ray Miller called him. Hardly the most desirable quality in a closer.

Benitez treats Camden Yards as if it were the county fair, straining to reach triple digits on the scoreboard radar readings with the machismo of a teenager trying to win a Kewpie doll for his date. He calls his mother in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, virtually every night—sometimes as late as 1 a.m.—and they talk for as long as two hours. He is 25 years old. "Twenty-five," says one of his teammates, "going on 15."

Benitez never seemed so immature as on the night of May 19 at Yankee Stadium. In the opener of a three-game series with the first-place Yankees. Miller gave him the ball in the eighth inning to close out a win the slumping Orioles desperately needed. With a 5-4 lead, two outs and two runners on base, Benitez threw a terrible slider to Bernie Williams, as awful as the ones that the Cleveland Indians' Marquis Grissom and Tony Fernandez had hit off Benitez for game-winning home runs in the American League Championship Series last year. The pitch to Williams arrived lazily on a flat plane on the inside half of the plate. Williams blasted it into the upper deck, the seventh home run off Benitez in 23⅔ innings dating from the postseason.

Uh-oh, Baltimore coach Sam Perlozzo thought. I hope he doesn't hit the next guy.

First baseman Rafael Palmeiro thought about walking to the mound to calm Benitez. To his regret, he didn't.

Pitching coach Mike Flanagan figured that Benitez was fine, that he'd learned a lesson three years ago when a grand slam by the Seattle Mariners' Edgar Martinez provoked him to hit the next batter, Tino Martinez, on the shoulder with a pitch, causing both benches to empty. After that game Benitez cleaned out his locker and threatened to run home to the Dominican Republic. The Orioles sent him to the minors instead.

Or surely Benitez had learned a lesson last year, when against the Boston Red Sox on April 27 he again followed a gopher ball with a brushback pitch, prompting his ejection. But his 17 walks in 17⅔ innings this season notwithstanding, Benitez's major problem is not control—it's still self-control. After Williams connected, Tino Martinez came to the plate, having drawn the short straw a second time. Benitez fired the baseball right between the 2 and the 4 on the back of Martinez's jersey with such obvious intent that umpire Drew Coble threw him out of the game, Coble says, "almost before the ball got there."

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