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Jason Benetti: From International League to big leagues, one great voice, one dream come true

For Jason Benetti, it was time for a change in a pattern. He wrapped up his first season Sunday as a play-by-play announcer for Chicago White Sox baseball games. In the old days, when he was doing games in the International League, Benetti’s colleagues in the booth always knew what was coming:

The season would end. Benetti would tell his listeners exactly how long it would be before the next opening day. Then he would sign off and start crying, swept away by the goodbye. He was a minor league broadcaster in Syracuse, another guy with a dream as the bleachers emptied out. The very nature of the minors is about change, transition, passage.

Benetti knew he’d just spent a year with coaches and players and ballpark regulars he might never see again. In those tears were both appreciation and farewell.

This year, with the dream come true, he did not weep.

“Honestly, it’s strange,” Benetti said, “but it feels like it’s the beginning of something.”

Most of us have a secret, almost casual, fantasy: The phone vibrates, we answer it, and it is the call we want to receive above all else, the one that will change our lives. For Benetti, it happened a year ago this month. He learned through a friend the Chicago White Sox needed someone to split games with Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, who was scaling back after many years as a television announcer for the club.

A few months later, Benetti got the job. It is impossible to overstate what that means to him: Benetti was a kid from the Chicago area who grew up following the White Sox, of baseball's American League. “I know what the ballpark smells like,” he said, recalling the aroma of hot dogs, beer and popcorn as he walked through the gate, recalling all the games he attended with his parents. By high school, he already envisioned himself in the booth for big league games.

He left town to study at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications. He graduated, caught on as a broadcaster with the Chiefs. Somehow, he found time to earn a law degree. He created a backup plan if the great quest did not come true.

Still: As cicadas sang on August nights in cities like Pawtucket and Toledo, he dreamed about the majors.

Another column from Sean Kirst: The untold tale of Jim Dyson, the man who named the Buffalo Bills

Benetti, 33, has a rich, melodic voice. His hardest season in Syracuse was a year the Chiefs did only Internet broadcasts, but Benetti soldiered on – and in the process he grew to love and appreciate baseball in Buffalo, a frequent destination.

He and his broadcasting partner, Kevin Brown, used to make the drive along the Thruway, from Syracuse. Benetti would often eat at the Walden Galleria mall. He was entranced by the passionate mania of “Star Wars Night,” and Coca-Cola Field became an integral part of the minor league cycle: Benetti remembers finishing up “an extra inning game in Buffalo and immediately (driving) to Allentown to start a series with Lehigh Valley.”

Jason Benetti, just finished with his first season as a Chicago White Sox television announcer, at Comiskey Park. (Photo courtesy Ron Vesely)

Jason Benetti, who just finished his first season as a Chicago White Sox television announcer. (Photo courtesy Ron Vesely, White Sox photographer)

They got stuck in traffic for a Sabres game, and they reached Allentown so late the only hotel room they could find was a smoking room that stank of cigarettes. Brown and Benetti  had to go out searching, into the night, for a decent place where they could sleep.

That was life in the minors. Now Benetti is in a world where he brings his bag to the clubhouse, leaves it on the floor - and the next time he sees it, it awaits him in a fine hotel. Now he will be walking along a street in Chicago and strangers will recognize him and say, “I love what you do,” referring to his voice, to his presence, to the difficult “SoxMath” challenge he puts out to fans during games.

So yes: The dream he has held since he was a child, when he’d imagine doing baseball broadcasts, has come to be. That is significant unto itself, but there is an even deeper breakthrough, one that turned his hiring into a national story. Benetti himself will not emphasize it unless you bring it up, because to make this point runs against his self-effacing grain:

He lives with cerebral palsy, a developmental disability that has caused him to limp since he learned to walk. He will tell you how his emphasis on his voice, on its clarity and power, was a way of coping with that reality during childhood, when he was sometimes the target for ridicule at school. He knows there were people who underestimated his intellect, his abilities, because of their own lack of understanding.

Benetti is pleased at the idea that he represents possibility to children born with disabilities, the boys and girls who sometimes stop to visit at the ballpark, the ones who realize – when they see him – that they can achieve great things.

But he also emphasizes one clear truth: “I’m glad this happened at a point where I don’t need an introduction in terms of my disability.”

In other words, Benetti is thriving because of his presence, decades of hard work - and his voice.

With the White Sox finished for the year, he will do college football and basketball for ESPN while he awaits the spring and a return to baseball. As for Chicago, the fabled Cubs have a chance for their first championship since 1908 - a vigil that is certainly understood in Buffalo. Benetti appreciates the passion people feel for the city’s National League team, the very definition of a sports underdog. Yet he is a journalist, and he has been a White Sox guy since childhood ….

Safe to say, Benetti said, “there won’t be a Cubs foam finger in my apartment.”

His first year corresponded with the final season of an unparalleled broadcasting legend, Vin Scully, 88, the voice of the Dodgers since the team was in Brooklyn, generations ago. In Los Angeles, earlier this season, Benetti stopped by to see Scully in the booth. “I just want to tell you,” Benetti said, “how I appreciate your love for the English language.”

Scully was gracious, and Benetti saw poetry in what happened in Scully’s last home game at Dodger Stadium, when Charlie Culberson’s game-winning homer in the ninth gave Los Angeles a pennant-clinching victory over the Colorado Rockies. It happened within the same 24 hours that Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident, a tragedy that claimed one of the great and vibrant spirits in the game.

“It says everything about baseball,” Benetti said, “how on the worst day the game has had in a long time, something can still happen to lift you up, to make you happy after something that made everyone so sad.”

Benetti learned recently that when Scully first started broadcasting games, Connie Mack – born during the Civil War, in 1862 – was still managing a big-league team. In Benetti's own first year, he had the chance to shake the hand of a guy who did play-by-play for Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Peewee Reese. It left him thinking about the great arc of baseball, how the past becomes the template, how each new season needs that link:

The beginning of something.

As autumn comes, within that circle, Benetti sees no need for tears.

Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist for The Buffalo News. Email him at seanpeterkirst@gmail.com or read more of his work in this archive

 

 

 

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