|Thursday, July 17
Updated: July 26, 8:56 AM ET
Sooner or later, Yankees will regret acquiring Benitez
By Buster Olney
ESPN The Magazine
The Armando Benitez train wreck is inevitable now. The whistles are blowing, the bells are clanging, the disaster is imminent, but apparently, this is the course the Yankees have chosen. Maybe it'll happen in Fenway Park, or during the playoffs, perhaps in late October. But the crash is coming.
The Yankees should know better, after Ed Whitson, after Kenny Rogers, after Mark Wohlers. Benitez is an elite reliever, he's saved a lot of games, and in the right place -- San Diego or Florida or even Chicago -- he might even repair the frayed internal wiring that always shorts under pressure. But he is going to pitch for the Yankees, where fragile psyches, like that possessed by Benitez, are shredded faster than Enron documents.
The Yankees plowed ahead anyway, because Benitez was the best reliever available -- a man among boys in the group of relievers being marketed around baseball, said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. And statistics support Cashman's contention: almost all of the available relievers, from Pittsburgh's Mike Williams to Billy Koch of the White Sox, bear gaudy earned-run averages.
But the Yankees should know, from recent experience, that there is more to success in big games than numbers. They won championships, prevailed in pivotal moments, because they had big-game soul, the intangible that fills the likes of Derek Jeter, David Cone, Tino Martinez, Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera. They were not afraid, their level of concentration rose, and they succeeded.
And Benitez's long history is filled with big-game failure; however you want to define the intangible, that part of Benitez fractured a long time ago, before he came to New York. The first crack appeared during the '96 playoffs while he was with Baltimore, when Albert Belle beat him with a monstrous home run in a playoff series against Cleveland, and was fractured for good the next year, when Tony Fernandez beat him with a decisive homer that propelled the Indians into the World Series.
The problem has only worsened since he joined the Mets, the litany of big-game failure including the '99 playoffs, the 2000 World Series and the 2001 late-season pennant drive. Just a few weeks ago, Benitez completely melted down against the Yankees, on an ESPN Sunday night broadcast. The larger concern wasn't that he blew a save chance, but that Benitez absolutely lost his composure, like a frightened 20-year-old rookie. He is 30 years old, has been a closer for the better part of a decade, and Benitez appeared frozen by the prospect of failure in a pressure situation -- and this was merely a Subway Series game without any long-term implications.
The Yankees probably convinced themselves that because Benitez will pitch in the seventh and eighth innings, rather than in the ninth, he will somehow be relieved of pressure. The presence of Mariano Rivera might comfort Benitez, the Yankees might think. They are dead wrong, if that is what they expect. The pressure on Benitez will be enormous now that he is going to the Yankees, because of his flawed history with the Mets, because of his reputation -- and he has no chance of building any good will with the fans who will judge him.
Benitez could throw scoreless innings from now and until the end of September, and it won't matter. It's all about the postseason with the Yankees, all about what you do in October, and until then, Benitez will bear the burden of his postseason failures, taking them to the mound in his first playoff appearance. These are the haunting voices from his past, and it's evident -- from how he has pitched in the postseason, to how he pitched against the Yankees a few weeks ago -- that he hears them when he pitches, fears them, and his aggressiveness is affected.
The Yankees made a similar decision during the 2001 season when they traded for Wohlers. He was throwing hard, pitching well, and it appeared he was over the throwing yips he developed earlier in his career. But once Wohlers joined the Yankees, he was terrible, his control escaping him again. A good guy, yes -- like Benitez, who is a genial sort. Wohlers was well-liked by teammates, deeply respected by Yankees manager Joe Torre -- and Wohlers was completely useless in close games during the postseason.
The Yankees needed a right-handed set-up man, unquestionably, to allow them to use Antonio Osuna in the middle innings, to give Torre an option other than Rivera in the eighth inning (It will be interesting to see if Torre actually trusts Benitez in October, or if he merely works around him, as he has done with other relievers in the postseason).
But the Yankees would have been better served adding somebody who does not have an established history, as Benitez does. Now they are committed to Benitez, the human train wreck who always runs on time.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.