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from joe capozzi / palm beach post:

Relaxing atmosphere


By Joe Capozzi, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Friday, February 27, 2004


JUPITER -- Spring training is only a week old, and already Armando Benitez misses his farm in the Dominican Republic.


"I've got livestock, plantains, sweet potatoes. I was there (last) Friday. I got muddy and everything,'' Benitez said about the 4,200-acre ranch he owns in Quisqueya, about 10 miles from his hometown of San Pedro de Macoris.


"I come back from eight months of baseball, I want to go to a place where nothing bothers you, where you can be at peace. That is the big reason I stay at my ranch. I feel relaxed.''


He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Every morning, I like to breathe the air. For me it's good. It keeps me healthy and I don't have to think all the time about baseball.''


Benitez, 31, had plenty to think about after a 2003 season that went down as one he'd rather forget. There were the nights he was booed out of Shea Stadium, the "Barber of Sheaville" tabloid headlines about what he calls an erroneous allegation he cut a teammate's hair during a game, his trades to the Yankees and Seattle Mariners.


The Marlins signed Benitez to a one-year, $3.5 million contract in December on the belief that the serene setting of South Florida will help him regain his touch as one of baseball's premier closers.


"It's like a gift God gave me to be on a team like this,'' Benitez said.


"Last year was real tough and real bad for me. In one year, I played for three different teams. Sometimes it affects your head. I didn't do good because of my situation. People say that it's very hard to be in New York. Hey, I'm ready to go. I'm more relaxed because here it's very nice.''


In reality, teams shied away from Benitez because of a disturbing pattern of faltering in critical games.


"He's got great stuff and there's no reason to believe he won't do fine,'' Mets manager Art Howe said. "Oh, our whole team struggled. It's not fair to point at one player.''


Howe wasn't managing the Mets in 2000 when Benitez squandered the lead in Game 1 of the World Series, considered the turning point in a championship won by the Yankees.


Benitez has 197 career saves, 33rd all-time and sixth among active relievers. He converted 89 percent of his save opportunities (139-of-157) in his first four seasons with the Mets, including 41 saves in 2000 and 43 in 2001.


Last year, he blew a career-high eight save chances but still wound up 4-4 with a 2.96 ERA and 21 saves for the season.


The Marlins signed Benitez after passing up opportunities to re-sign Braden Looper (who went to the Mets) and Ugueth Urbina (who is still unsigned).


"I think Benitez has more experience,'' Marlins manager Jack McKeon said. "I know when I faced him before, he was more intimidating than Looper.


"I don't think there's anything wrong with him. He was classified as a premier closer, but some guys have a tough time pitching in New York. New York can be tough. Over here it's a little more quiet. Fans aren't quite as tough.''


In the past, there were concerns about Benitez's temper. As a member of the Baltimore Orioles, he was involved in an ugly altercation when he threw at former Yankee Tino Martinez. And his former girlfriend accused him of assault, although the charges were subsequently dropped.


Benitez laughed when asked about his demeanor on the mound.


"When we come in the game, we don't got no friends. When you cross the line, you play baseball, you play the game, you do your job.''


Benitez, who has four children and is not married, remains close with his family. His mother and sister and younger brother help look after his business interests. His father and another brother help look after the dozens of workers for the ranch.


Last year, Benitez realized another personal dream when he spent $40,000 to build a baseball field across the street from the house where he grew up. "My kids,'' as Benitez calls the children who use the pristine diamond, "call it Field 49.'' Benitez wears No. 49, in honor of one of his first mentors when he came up with the Baltimore Orioles, Lee Smith.


"When we were kids and started to play baseball, we didn't have anything like that for us,'' he said. "I told myself, 'If you become a big guy in the big leagues, you'll make a field for the little players.' I got the opportunity and I made it.''


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