A kid's game, played by overgrown children


ARMANDO Benitez? If you've seen a Little Leaguer weep his way back to the bench after striking out, then you've seen Benitez. If you've seen a big baby teen-ager tremble to ask the prettiest girl in school to the sophomore hop, then you've seen Benitez. You say he's a poor sport and a bad role model? What, this is news? Armando's an overgrown child waiting for his composure to show up, only he's trying to do it in a major league baseball uniform.

So now the Orioles' embarrassment of a season becomes Benitez's newest hour of disgrace. He's done this before. Stung by a New York Yankee home run Tuesday night, the Orioles' alleged relief ace fires his next pitch at Tino Martinez and sets off the following:

A) Pandemonium at Yankee Stadium where, even on its most gracious days, it has been noted that "sitting in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium is like waking up in a Borneo death cell."

B) Yankee owner George Steinbrenner's declaration that "I've never seen anything like that in 25 years. ... He's got no class." This from a man suspended from baseball after he slipped illegal money to the Nixon White House during the Watergate era. This from a man suspended from baseball's executive council last year and then dropped by the law firm representing him when he tried to sue baseball. This from the man who wants to abandon Yankee Stadium, the most hallowed ballpark in American sports. And George Steinbrenner wants to talk about class?

C) A mass brawl in which the Yankees' Darryl Strawberry, veteran drug abuser, veteran wife abuser, veteran IRS cheat, veteran suspensionee from baseball, throws a sucker punch at the back of Benitez's head as he's being rushed head-on by a swarm of other Yankees, whereupon the Orioles' Alan Mills, considerably smaller than Strawberry, throws a right cross into the Yankee slugger's face.

Is this an apology for Benitez? Of course not. Merely a gesture of perspective. Baseball is a game for children played by adults who act like children. The catcher yells, "Way you chuck 'em in, hon," to the pitcher, who stands on a little hill and scratches himself in public. The batter attempts to hit a ball with a club formerly used in the Cro-Magnon period. The base runner, attempting to break up a double play, slides with spikes high into the second baseman, who pivots and throws side-arm to first, so the ball seems to come at the runner's eyeballs. The debutante ball, this ain't.

What happened at Yankee Stadium was an act of stupidity committed by young men who make their living at an animal occupation. There was $140 million in salaries on that field, and these guys were dumb enough to risk throwing it all away. Why? Because, at its best, baseball's a game of controlled passion. And at its worst - the Orioles frustrated by their inabilities this season, and Benitez taking out his embarrassment in the immature coward's manner - the passion loses its way.

Armando Benitez is still trying to convince himself he's a man. When Bernie Williams' home run disappeared into the right-field bleachers, Benitez's manhood was taken from him, and he attempted to get it back by throwing as hard as he could. A man throws hard, a man causes pain to his enemies, who will know better than to hurt him again. It's the thinking of a child in a moment's rage and defensiveness.

In Baltimore's season of humiliation, Benitez thus becomes the wilted centerpiece. A year ago, the most valuable player on the pennant-winning Orioles was relief ace Randy Myers. But a team with a $70 million payroll, the highest in baseball history, let Myers slip away. The team saved a few dollars but forgot the game's central fact: Victory doesn't go to the team that scores the most runs, it goes to the team that gives up the fewest.

Pitching rules. You do not slough off the game's most dependable reliever and turn the job over to a kid who's just given up - as Benitez did, in last year's playoff series with Cleveland - a dramatic season-ending home run to a popgun hitter.

These Orioles are reminiscent of the mid-'80s teams that followed the World Series champs of 1983. Those dismal clubs brought in big-name stars - Fred Lynn, Don Aase and others - but they'd passed their prime.

This year's club is big on starry names but small on pitching, hitting and speed - and passion. Five years ago, the Orioles had a similar dust-up, with the Seattle Mariners. They were previously lifeless, but the Seattle brawl seemed to light a fire under them.

Maybe this year's team will now catch fire. At the moment, they're merely catching hell. They deserve it - but, let's remember, this is a child's game.

! Pub date: 5/21/98

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