Whether it's true or not, Mets fans like to think they have the lion's share of Closer Trauma. In the 25 years or so since major league teams decided the ninth inning is a sacred frame, all the men who've handled that inning for the Mets have driven their fans completely bonkers. I imagine many fanbases feel the same way, but most fanbases don't have ageless wonder Mariano Rivera on the other side of town to provide an unattainable ideal the back pages can point to every day.
When you look at the one-inning closers in Mets history, all of them are remembered far more for their failures than triumphs. John Franco gave fans agita for an entire decade; the only reason he didn't inspire more anxiety is because, for most of that decade, the Mets were terrible. Braden Looper pitched hurt for most of his time with the Mets, a move that could be interpreted as either selfless or just plain stupid. Billy Wagner's meltdowns and injuries contributed to the ignominious ends of three straight seasons. Frankie Rodriguez grampa-punched his way into infamy.
Even among this rogue's gallery, no Mets closer is more reviled than Armando Benitez. I've never spoken with a Mets fan who likes him, and even if I lived to be 1000, I doubt I ever would. And if you've followed this team at any point over the last decade-plus, no explanation for this POV is necessary. We all hate him. It is as much a part of a Mets fan's DNA as Gets By Buckner. If he was a film, his Rotten Tomatoes rating would be somewhere between Jack and Jill and The Room.
Hate isn't a very constructive response to anything, of course, but I do find it interesting to look back at how someone came to be so hated, and see if that level of hatred is in any way justified. I would like to do this with a number of figures in Mets history, but who better to start with than the most hated moundsman in team history?
Benitez never would have come to the Mets if another team hadn't given up on him. He racked some impressive strikeout totals with Baltimore, averaging 12.3 K/9 in 1997 and 1998; in the latter season, he fanned 87 batters in only 68 1/3 innings of work. He had a wicked splitter and his fastball was downright scary, made all the more so by a violent, seemingly uncontrollable delivery.
Like many hard throwers, Benitez was in love with his own fastball. When he threw it too often, it tended to get launched. And when his offerings were launched, he did not handle it well. He set his own rep early in his rookie year (1995), when he almost instigated a bench-clearing brawl against Seattle by drilling Tino Martinez in the shoulder immediately after allowing a grand slam.
Three years later, on May 19 at Yankee Stadium, he committed the same offense against the same innocent party, hitting Martinez in the back right after ceding a go-ahead homer. Benitez stalked after Martinez as he took his base, clearly trying to pick a fight, then dropped his glove, ready to rumble. He got what he asked for; the entire Yankee bench and bullpen emptied, all of them out for blood. Benitez was particularly roughed up by reliever Graeme Lloyd and ex-Met Darryl Strawberry, who both landed several punches before Benitez somehow escaped with his life into the visiting clubhouse.
This ugly incident earned Benitez an eight-game suspension. Pointedly, almost none of his teammates came to his defense, either during the brawl or after it. Baltimore manager Ray Miller even apologized to the Yankees, saying that Benitez’s action "totally misrepresents the Baltimore Orioles’ tradition of good play and sportsmanship."
In between these two ugly incidents, Benitez's propensity to give up the longball resulted in some damaging ones in the playoffs of 1996 and 1997. (He was also partly responsible for the Jeffrey Maier "homer"). Between the homers and the anger management issues, the Orioles decided he would never be a major league closer, and so a three-way deal with New York and Los Angeles shipped him north. This was the same deal that sent disgruntled catcher Todd Hundley to the Dodgers and brought Roger Cedeno to the Mets; the Orioles got catcher Charles Johnson for their trouble.
His new employers tried to spin his pugnaciousness as "fire" and "spirit," qualities the Mets were said to lack. Regarding the brawl he instigated at Yankee Stadium, Bobby Valentine insisted "Cal Ripken thought it was the most manly thing he's ever seen a guy do." When queried about this alleged opinion, Ripken called Benitez "gutsy" but denied saying anything else about him to Valentine or anyone else. (Valentine subsequently retreated to "no comment.")
Once Mets fans (and writers) got a consistent look at Benitez's stuff, they immediately demanded he take over the closer's role from the much-maligned Franco. Valentine stuck with the veteran until fate intervened. Franco suffered a strained tendon in his pitching hand, an injury that knocked him out for two months. Benitez stepped into the role he vacated, and remained the Mets' closer until a midseason trade with the Yankees in 2003.
On the rare occasions the Mets do business with the Yankees, it indicates that they don't particularly mind seeing the player in question toiling in the same media market; all that matters is he's no longer their problem. Benitez had definitely worn out his welcome by the time he was traded, but it was not always so. For much of 1999 and even 2000, he was seen as a godsend, especially when Franco went down. Steve Phillips received many pats on the back for three-way trade that brought him (and Cedeno) to New York. And at a time when nearly every Met wilted at the sight of a Braves uniform, he did not allow a single Atlanta batter to reach base during the regular season in 1999.
If you look at his numbers during his four full seasons with the Mets (1999-2002), they are quite impressive, even when placed alongside those of the top closers of the era. It's a hardly comprehensive list of relievers culled from my memory, but I still think it's a good indication of where Benitez ranked against them on a purely statistical basis. (WAR totals cumulative, all others average).
I was surprised to see how good these numbers were, both comparatively and on their own. But of course, with Benitez, it was never just about numbers.
If you read accounts from back in 1999, even as he is mowing down National League hitters left and right, his teammates and manager seem to go out of their way to praise Benitez for his maturity and calmness, to a degree that is borderline condescending. With his history to that point, it almost seems as if they're afraid of upsetting him and triggering a blow up. Over the years, rumors of his continued immaturity trickled out of the clubhouse and eventually made their way into the press.
The most obvious evidence of his immaturity, however, was the fact that despite possessing a good splitter, he continued to believe he could get over by trying to throw every single pitch through a barn door. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it did not, and it seemed to work least when he needed it most.
After a stellar regular season, the 1999 playoffs brought a few glimpses of his downside. Late in game four of the NLDS against Arizona, he served up a meatball that Jay Bell turned into a two-run double and a 3-2 Arizona lead. Todd Pratt eventually bailed him out, but Benitez was not so lucky in game six of the NLCS, when his mastery over the Braves suddenly deserted him. In the bottom of the 10th, after the Mets had gone ahead for the second time, Benitez allowed a walk and two singles to permit the Braves to tie things up yet again. Kenny Rogers did the rest.
These incidents were small potatoes, however, compared to what awaited in 2000. He held down the closer duties for the entire season and was, more often than not, nigh unhittable. October was another story. In game two of the NLDS in San Francisco, he allowed a three-run homer to JT Snow in the bottom of the ninth to turn a 4-1 win into a tie game. Then, after the Mets retook the lead in the top of the 10th, he allowed a leadoff single in the bottom half, ironically forcing Valentine to turn to Franco to save his bacon. (He did.)
He also had a few shaky moments against the Cardinals in the NLCS, but no appearance was more brutal, more fraught than coulda-woulda-shoulda than game one of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. To be fair, the entire Mets team made some terrible mental mistakes in that game, particularly on the basepaths, but Benitez's leadoff walk to Paul O'Neill in the bottom of the ninth came to be seen as the worst mistake of all. O'Neill eventually came around to score the tying run, the Yankees won in 12, and the matter of them winning the series seemed largely academic from that point forward.
While that O'Neill walk haunts the dreams of every Mets fan who saw it in real time, for my money, the tide really turned against Benitez at the tail end of the 2001 season. The Mets went on a tear in September, winning 11 of 12 to open the month to keep their playoff hopes alive. They beat the Braves in the first two games played in New York after 9/11, and stood just 3.5 out of first on September 23. That day, they brought a 4-1 lead into the ninth, thanks to eight great innings from Al Leiter. He handed the ball to Benitez, who managed to get two outs before suffering a total meltdown. Two-run homer to Brian Jordan. A walk to pinch hitter Dave Martinez, then singles to Andruw Jones and the ancient B.J. Surhoff to tie the game. The Mets went on to lose in 5-4 in 11 innings.
They still had a sliver of hope when they arrived in Atlanta week later, but unfortunately, that's when Benitez had a truly thermonuclear meltdown scheduled. Once again, Leiter contributed a stellar outing, and the Mets had a 5-1 lead in the bottom of the ninth. In two-thirds of an inning, he managed to cough up three hits, two walks, and three runs before giving way to Franco. Franco gave up a walk, then a walkoff grand slam to Brian Jordan, and the Mets' playoff hopes were all but dead.
By sheer coincidence, I am sure, Benitez's fall from grace roughly coincided with revelations about his clubhouse behavior, which could be described on childish or diva-ish depending on your mood. We found out that his ego needed almost constant smoothing, that he would often sulk at the hint of any slight, that on the day of the aforementioned Todd Pratt game, he told Bobby Valentine he couldn't pitch because he'd had a fight with his girlfriend (!).
From there forward, Benitez was a full fledged pariah, his ignominious exit from Queens a mere matter of time (though it took a lot longer than anyone involved would have liked). Fans washed their hands from him, and so did the team itself; while Franco has been officially rehabilitated, you won't find any such move for Benitez. Nowadays, the only Mets Classic involving Benitez in any way is the game from 2007 where Jose Reyes causes him to balk twice.
Benitez unquestionably had a negative impact on the Mets at the worst possible times in 1999-2001. But he was no small factor in the fact they were competing for championships in those years. Is it fair to give him absolutely no credit for that? Is it fair to judge him solely based on the Mythical Status we have arbitrarily assigned to the Ninth Inning? My inclination is to say no, it's not fair, and to afford him a modicum of respect for what he did accomplish.
And then I wake up in the middle of the night with terrifying visions of the O'Neill walk, or the Jordan grand slam, and I think, no, I can extend you no mercy.
HATE VERDICT: Justified