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LeBatard on Benitez


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MARLINS | ARMANDO BENITEZ

 

For Marlins' Benitez, laughter a cure for all

 

Marlins closer Armando Benitez has learned to relax and enjoy himself, leaving behind the moodiness and broodiness he was once known for.

 

By DAN LE BATARD

 

dlebatard@herald.com

 

Follow the laughter.

 

It can lead you to some fun and unexpected places and fill your world with light.

 

It can even open your eyes, if you let it.

 

You can hear it during stretching in front of the dugout, a smiling Dontrelle Willis and Darren Oliver and Josh Beckett gathered all around it, literally laughing until on their backs. You hear it whenever the jiggling giant arrives in the clubhouse and is greeted by whatever the Spanish equivalent is for the shout that engulfed Norm upon entering the familiar comfort of Cheers. And you hear it from the man himself now, at the center of what has fast become his clubhouse, as Armando Benitez uses the musical carte blanche given by teammates -- always a sign of respect in these circles -- to crank that godforsaken Michael Jackson from his locker yet again.

 

''I love it here,'' Benitez shouts over the music, leaning back in his locker seat, bare feet outstretched, arms behind his head.

 

But the conversation keeps getting interrupted.

 

First by manager Jack McKeon, who drapes an arm around Benitez, leans into his ear and shouts a joke before walking off with a cackle. Then by pitcher Carl Pavano, who reaches into a gift bag, pulls out a pair of tuxedo-like Speedos and asks a laughing Benitez if he'll wear them. And finally by reliever Matt Perisho, who gives physical manifestation to what the Marlins are feeling for this man by slapping a hand over the giant's mouth and pretending to kiss him hard.

 

Armando Benitez?

 

Really?

 

Wasn't he, according to the New York tabloids he never knew how to read, brooding and sour and difficult?

 

Is this the same guy who once cornered two Baltimore Orioles teammates in a shower with a bat as a rookie because he was so mad they had stolen his clothes as a hazing prank?

 

Wasn't Benitez supposed to be negative?

 

Isn't that part of why, despite having one of the best save percentages in the past decade, he was available to the Marlins for $3.5 million this All-Star season?

 

Benitez, as is custom as a Marlin, laughs.

 

''The beautiful thing is how this offseason made me hungrier, stronger, more enthusiastic,'' says Benitez, 31. ``What have I done to be treated like a criminal, like a bad person? I can't obligate baseball to think I'm a good person. But I can ask that you not judge me if you don't know me.''

 

He sweeps a hand over the clubhouse and says: ``They've gotten a chance to know me.''

 

HIS BEST YEAR

 

It is said that a man reveals himself most in times of trouble. So maybe Benitez is just happy now because he has been so successful.

 

Or maybe he has been so successful because he is just happy.

 

Benitez has never had a year as dominant as this one -- 2-0, 30 saves, 0.98 ERA. He is the one who gets the party started, standing at the epicenter of the feel-good when he finishes triumphs and his teammates gather to congratulate him during baseball's most intriguing postgame handshake.

 

Benitez delights in talking about the different ritual he has with each Marlin. Alex Gonzalez gives him a shoulder. Juan Pierre jumps into his chest. Benitez bumps elbows with Luis Castillo and bows with Hee Seop Choi. There are a lot of cultures coming together in celebration, finger taps, chest bumps and heart touches all around. Willis just stretches his arms wide and hugs the big man.

 

''I fit here,'' Benitez says in Spanish. ``This is a good union to share. A healthy youth.''

 

Papi, they call him.

 

It means ''Daddy'' in his native tongue.

 

The booing in New York? Being unwanted this offseason? These things wounded Papi, even though he is too stubborn and proud to show you his pain.

 

''They want me to feel bad about it,'' he says. ``I will not give them that. I will show them all they were wrong out there.''

 

He points toward the field and uses a Spanish expression.

 

Galleta sin mano.

 

It means he will slap them without using his hand.

 

That hand is occupied with other things. A man of the land, he hunts by bow and arrow. He raises and sells cattle in the Dominican Republic. He enjoys planting and sweating so much that, when he returns home, you'll find this millionaire on his hands and knees, filthy, tending to vegetables he sells.

 

And, of course, he uses that right hand to throw a baseball so hard that he has never had a major-league season in which he didn't strike out at least one batter per inning. During the past 11 years baseball has hit .186 off him.

 

But he was never loved in New York. His biggest crime? He wasn't Mariano Rivera. The tabloids mocked him, but he couldn't understand them. His English is fine, but he learned it in clubhouses, not classrooms. He'd write down words in Spanish and ask bilingual teammates to say them in English for him. So he couldn't read when writers labeled him mentally frail in big moments.

 

''I don't like big moments?'' he says. ``All my moments are big. I have a grand responsibility. I make a mistake, we lose.''

 

He shrugs those massive shoulders.

 

He recites his career numbers from memory, defiant, telling you how he saved 43 and blew only three games in 2001. He tells you about the year he saved 21 one-run games, too. He cares so much that, when he once blew what would have been Mike Mussina's 20th victory in a season, he sat in front of his locker and sobbed.

 

PRESSURE AND PRIDE

 

Benitez has blown six saves in playoff or World Series situations, too many, but when you ask if he is ever nervous approaching the mound, he looks at you as if you'd asked to borrow his underwear.

 

''Pressure is part of my business,'' he says. ``It's not an easy pressure, but I enjoy it. Pain or no pain, give me the ball. When I come in, home plate is mine.''

 

He is a proud, proud man. That's why, with the team bus waiting, Rafael Palmeiro was once sent back to the locker room to get Benitez, who simply wouldn't put on the ridiculous clothes all rookies are supposed to wear home as part of baseball hazing tradition. Palmeiro found Benitez in the shower, waving a bat at two backpedaling teammates, demanding his clothes back.

 

''I will not be disrespected,'' he says now.

 

And that's why he flew home that night wearing his dirty uniform pants, dirty undershirt and sanitary socks.

 

It hurts him, not being respected. ''Five years in New York, they never applauded me,'' he says. ``Only boos. If they had applauded once, I would have been the most surprised person there.''

 

Disliked and underappreciated? Those feelings are far away now.

 

Benitez is in a better place, surrounded by teammates in celebration, all of them laughing in a way that echoes from here to New York.

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When I met Mando a Photo Day, I simply told him to keep up the good work. His words were, "I will" with a smile on his face. On Sunday, he did just that and pitched great like always.

 

I am really happy we have Mando here. He's great.

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Great article and Perisho should be spending more time working on his mechanics rather than goofing off.

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He's a human being..not allowing him to fake kiss other men would just be cruel.

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Not being able to hold a lead is cruel to the starting pitching and us, the fans :banghead

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