"He either didn't get counseling or he ignored it," O'Neill says of the Pac Bell Park incident. "[If he did get therapy,] it obviously didn't do him any good. I guess what I'm worried about is whether the Mets really want him to be able to manage his anger. I think they encourage that in him. He was supposed to be intimidating on the mound, so I would think they wouldn't want his mentality to change. The other team is supposed to fear him. That's what a closer is about. He told me he was supposed to scare people. I told him not to scare me. Be intimidating at work but not at home. Be like an actor and leave it behind. He couldn't do that. He was Armando the Intimidator all the time. That's part of what he said made him successful."
When asked about O'Neill's description of his difficulty accepting failure, Benitez cuts off the question with a wave of his hand and says, "I don't want to say anything bad about the woman. I wish her well. My mind is clear, and I am happy. All my troubles are gone."
Benitez does say he appreciates the support of his teammates, especially bullpen mate John Franco's, manager Bobby Valentine's and equipment manager Charlie Samuels's. With their assistance, he says, he is learning to recover quickly from defeat. "It's tough because nobody likes to lose," he says. "But the important thing is to forget about it and come back tomorrow."
When asked how he puts bad games behind him now, Benitez says, "I sit around and watch cartoons to relax."
Jay Horwitz, the Mets' vice president of media relations, says O'Neill's concern that the club facilitated Benitez's anger "couldn't be further from the truth. We're concerned about Armando as a person first and as a ballplayer second. We don't encourage being 'on edge.' "
Benitez is 6'4" and listed at 229 pounds. He is a large man with the shoulders of a linebacker and the scowl of a prison guard way too long on the job. He throws 96 mph worth of wicked fury on a pitching mound. The sensation of burying his heater past the best hitters in baseball to lock down a victory for New York—the fans standing, cheering and pleading, with the knowledge that he alone, not some scoreboard clock clicking off seconds, has the power to suck the last breath of life out of the opposition—that sensation has been known to make this bear of a man dance with joy like a pixie. He might quickly lift one knee, as if he had stepped barefoot on a hot sidewalk, or give a dismissive wave with his right hand. He knows that Franco, his mentor, hates it when he reacts like that ("Never give the other guy extra incentive to beat your ass," Franco likes to tell him), but such is the overwhelming power of the moment.
After those triumphs O'Neill knew exactly what Benitez wanted to do first when he returned home in Queens, N.Y. Armando Benitez would click on the TV to surf for highlights, so he could watch Armando Benitez close the game all over again. "Almost like he had to see it again to believe it," O'Neill says.
On the bad nights, when the crowd did not cheer and the bear did not dance, the television stayed off. O'Neill says that Benitez might pour himself a glass of Grand Marnier and retreat to another room in the apartment, his only companions the drink and a poisonous feeling he wanted to be rid of. Says O'Neill, whose three-year relationship with Benitez ended last November, "I feared for myself after a loss, because stupid things could send him over the edge." After a succession of poor outings, O'Neill adds, Benitez might perform a Santerian ritual in which he would bathe by candlelight in a mixture of water, milk, alcohol, herbs and flowers to rid himself of bad luck.
Benitez did convert all nine of his save chances through the first 10 weeks of this season. He has run into trouble in other situations, such as when he yielded a home run to the Philadelphia Phillies' Pat Burrell that broke a tie on May 28. Benitez refused to speak with the media after that game. Is he Hoffman or Rojas? It is too soon to know. This much is certain: There is only one active closer who saved even one game before 1991, the Chicago Cubs' Tom Gordon.
"Closers have a short shelf life because it takes an awful lot out of you," says Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti, who saved 252 games. "It's the only job where you're not allowed to go into a slump. Some guys can't get over the bad games, and that's why they don't become full-time closers. Some guys put up a facade to protect themselves from the demons, but that usually doesn't last long. If you don't have the stomach for it, you'll be discovered before too long. You just have to be mentally tough and shrug it off no matter how much it hurts."