(Long Island, N.Y.) There was a time when the opponent showed great concern when the bullpen door opened and Armando Benitez entered with the game on the line. The fireball-throwing closer had an imposing stare and even more imposing 6’4″, 200-pound frame and performed his job admirably.
But the last time that happened was in 2004.
At 39 years of age and nearly four years removed from his last major league appearance, the former New York Mets reliever is attempting a comeback with the Long Island Ducks of the Independent Atlantic League. After taking a year off from baseball, Benitez decided to give it one last go and do it in a place where he was very effective for a period of time.
“Armando Benitez is a well-known name to the baseball fans of the Tri-state area,” Ducks President/General Manager Michael Pfaff said. “He has had success in this league and at the big league level previously, and we’re confident he will contribute positively to our club’s championship mission.”
In 2010, the native of the Dominican Republic pitched well enough for the Newark Bears (2-1, 12 saves, 2.86 ERA, 52 strikeouts and 12 walks in 34.2 innings) to earn an assignment to the AAA affiliate of one of his former big league clubs, the Florida Marlins. He pitched in only eight games at New Orleans in the Pacific Coast League and didn’t show the same control that he did earlier that summer. Although he had four saves, Benitez surrendered six hits and five walks in 6.2 innings.
During his tenure in Flushing, Benitez teased the fans with stretches of dominance, but then would blow an all-important save opportunity. None bigger than Game 1 of the 2000 World Series against the cross-town Yankees when the Mets held on to a slim one-run lead in the ninth inning before Benitez allowed the Bombers to tie it up and they eventually won it in extra innings. No one knows what would have happened if the Mets stole the first game in the Bronx of the Subway Series, but the fan base never seemed to forgive their closer for not sealing the deal that Saturday night in the Bronx.
Oddly enough, Benitez wound up a Yankee by 2003 and also pitched for the Seattle Mariners that season. He then signed a one-year deal with the Marlins in the winter and proceeded to have his best year, leading the National League with 47 saves and a 1.29 ERA.
The following offseason, Benitez signed with the San Francisco Giants and his stats and effectiveness dwindled year to year until the Marlins picked him up for a song in May of 2007. He was subsequently released by three organizations since then and now is trying to do the unlikely.
He will join Jon Meloan in the Ducks’ bullpen, and the 27-year-old has seven saves in the first month-plus of the season. Long Island owns the Atlantic League’s best record at 21-10 and look to clinch a postseason berth by winning the Liberty Division in the first half. They haven’t won a championship since 2004, even though the Ducks have been a perennial playoff team. If Benitez can even help them out for a few weeks, then it will have been worth it.
And maybe those same worries will be on the faces of hitters in the Atlantic League when Benitez comes jogging out to the pitcher’s mound this summer.