Benzinger efforts A-game
By Bill Koch • firstname.lastname@example.org • May 11, 2009
DAYTON - It’s about 3:30 on a rainy afternoon when Dayton Dragons manager Todd Benzinger shows up for work.
His first order of business is to field a phone call in his office from a Chinese restaurant employee calling to tell him the credit card one of his players used to order takeout is not valid. Benzinger has to find the player and tell him that his food won’t be coming.
“Sometimes you say I didn’t sign up to do this,” Benzinger said. “But yes, you did.”
Benzinger, a nine-year veteran of the major leagues, played for the Reds from 1989 to 1991 and caught the final out of the Reds’ 1990 Word Series sweep of the Oakland A’s. The New Richmond High School graduate has coached girls basketball in high school and last year coached the Cincinnati Steam of the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League.
But this is his first job in professional baseball and he’s managing a Reds Class A affiliate that is not loaded with top prospects.
His team is off to a 8-22 start, but Benzinger loves the job. He enjoys interacting with kids who are just beginning their pro careers because he remembers what it was like during his first full year of pro baseball at Class A Elmira in 1982 after he was drafted in the fourth round by the Boston Red Sox in 1981.
Normally, Benzinger would leave his West Chester home at about noon and arrive at Fifth Third Field no later than 1:30. But because of the rain today, there’s no chance to get on the field and work on the bunt plays and timed pickoff plays he had scheduled.
As he dresses for the night’s game against the Clinton LumberKings, he points to a pile of cash on his desk.
“There’s $240 there,” he said. “Ten dollars from every player.”
Two nights earlier, upon the team’s return from a road trip to South Bend Benzinger found the bus littered with trash after the players got off. He helped the driver clean up the mess, then addressed his players about it the next day.
“A team that’s going to be 19-6 instead of 6-19, I just think their bus has a better chance of being clean after being on a road trip,” he told them. “What we’re talking about is caring and being something bigger than just your stats and you, you, you.”
He asked his players what he should do about it and they suggested that he fine them. So he did. Every one of them came through with the money that Benzinger plans to use for a team meal on the road later in the season.
More importantly, he hopes he taught his players what it means to be a professional. Most of these kids played last year in Rookie League at Billings after they were drafted but are now in their first full year as pros, many experiencing failure in baseball for the first time.
In addition to developing their baseball skills, Benzinger says it’s his job to help them through what can be a very difficult time.
“You’re talking about off-the-field habits, sleeping and eating, just being mature and not chasing girls around,” Benzinger said. “They’ve all got to go through it. I tell them it’s not a theory of mine. I went through it. My first full year of A ball, I hit .219. I wasn’t hurt. I was in low A. That’s all I hit. I was overwhelmed. I know where you guys are coming from. It’s going to be a process. That’s why you’re here.”
The players are respectful and listen to what he has to say. They understand that he played for a long stretch in the big leagues. They want to get where he has been.
“The most important thing that we’ve got to remember is that not too many guys have played a 140-game schedule before so that’s a huge piece of it,” said catcher Kevin Coddington. “You’re obviously going to have your ups and your downs. It’s a matter of staying the course and Todd talks about that. It’s a good refresher for us all.”
Benzinger, 46, retired after the 1995 season at the age of 32 and thought he was finished with baseball. He got into coaching girls basketball because his daughter was playing. He has coached at Seven Hills and Loveland and this year will be the head coach at Lakota East.
Two years ago he was invited to spring training along with some other former Reds to work with the young players. That was all it took for baseball to get a hold on him again.
He managed the Steam last year to a league title and when the Reds asked him if wanted to manage in Dayton this summer, he said yes, believing he had something to offer the team he grew up following.
“I’m not doing this to move up any kind of ladder,” he said. “There’s very few people on earth like me. I grew up in Cincinnati. I went to twenty-some games a year with my dad. We sat in the top six in the red and watched the Big Red Machine.
“I played for the Reds. I won a world championship with the Reds and after I retired I live here and I’m a big Reds fan. I’m very lucky that I have a chance with my background to be asked to do something like this and really have a chance to make an impact on the Reds in a pretty good way.”
Two hours before the scheduled start of the game Benzinger still hasn’t posted a starting lineup. He’s waiting for the arrival of two new players, just signed to take the spots vacated by two players who have gone on the disabled list.
One is outfielder Stephen Chapman, who’s coming from extended spring training. Based on the 24 home runs Chapman hit two years ago in the South Atlantic League and on the fact that he was the Brewers’ sixth-round pick in 2004, Benzinger believes he can help his struggling team and wants him in the lineup.
At about 4:45, Chapman shows up in the clubhouse. Benzinger asks him if he’s available to play tonight and Chapman says he’s ready to go. Chapman asks him how his arm is and if he can play first base.
Ten minutes later, Benzinger posts the lineup with Chapman batting sixth and playing first.
Benzinger says he tries to take a little something from every manager he played for – Pete Rose’s enthusiasm, Lou Piniella’s intensity, Tommy Lasorda’s love of the game and Hal McRae’s studiousness and low-key support.
But he has already figured out that in this job he has to develop his own style. He has to learn by instinct when to correct players after they’ve made a mistake and how to approach them because each one reacts differently.
The most important concept he tries to instill in them is that they are being evaluated every day. Even if they have a bad night on the field, they have to do something off the field that Benzinger can note in the reports he makes to the Reds front office after every game.
Again, he refers to his first year as a pro.
“I had a rough year,” he said. “I had nothing on the field to show for keeping me around. I think the only thing I had was a good attitude. I worked really hard and I was really quiet and I wanted to get better. I think that did something for the talks that they had about me.
“I point out to the guys that we talk about you every single day…You’ve got to give them something good to talk about. Show them that you work hard. You get here early and you really listen, that you’re trying your hardest to get better. You’ve always got to show them something.”
The rain subsides in time for the game to start an hour and 10 minutes late at about 8:10. By 11:26, nearly three and half hours later, the Dragons have won their seventh game of the season, rallying for four runs in the seventh to wipe out a 5-3 deficit and post a 7-5 victory.
Chapman, the new kid, goes 1-for-3 in his Dayton debut, with two walks and a stolen base. It’s a good start.
Before the game, Benzinger quickly dismisses the notion that this could be the first step on a trail that might one day end with him managing the Reds. That’s not why he’s here, he says. He’s here to develop players for the Reds and nothing more.
“I don’t really worry about anything except this year,” he said, “doing as good a job and somebody saying we’re glad we hired him because he did a good job. I’m a long way from that.”