Discover more from JoeBlogs
Friday Rewind: Jason Benetti's New Frontier
Thirteen or so years ago, I went to dinner with a young Jason Benetti … well, we were all so much younger then. Jason was working as a broadcaster for the Syracuse Chiefs then. I was writing for Sports Illustrated. We were in Rochester, N.Y., for the oh-so-wild Stephen Strasburg ride; the Washington Nationals had just taken Strasburg with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and Strasburg was being called the greatest pitching prospect in the history of baseball.
Thirteen years. Wow. That’s a long time. It’s enough time to squeeze in Stephen Strasburg’s overcrowded baseball career. In 13 years, Strasburg went from unlimited prospect to brilliant young pitcher to injured young pitcher to ace who sat out the playoffs to protect his arm to strikeout king to excellent pitcher who could not stay healthy to World Series hero to $245-million free agent to injured older pitcher to heartbreaking retirement. A long time.
I don’t remember anything Jason and I talked about that first time we met, but over the years we’ve been in touch about any number of things … and here’s what has always impressed me most about him: He, like Alexander Hamilton, has never been satisfied. By that, I mean he has always been hungry to get better, to push the limits of baseball broadcasts, to challenge himself as a broadcaster across sports, to shape the future of how announcers call the games people play.
He’s just a little bit different in that way. I’m lucky enough to be friends with lots of excellent sports broadcasters — some of them Hall of Famers — and every one of them takes their work seriously, they look to improve, they do the work, they study the craft and so on.
But Jason … there’s a different kind of drive in Jason, I think. He would surely tell you that much of that drive comes from living with cerebral palsy; no feeling gnaws at him more than when people treat him differently, even if they’re well-meaning. He doesn’t want reflexive sympathy. Such sympathy offends him. He doesn’t want special favors. Favors offend him. He doesn’t want people to tell him he did a “good job.” The word “good” offends him.
Jason studied sportscasting at Syracuse. He got a law degree from Wake Forest. He worked his way up to become the baseball announcer for his hometown team, the Chicago White Sox, and one of the most beloved voices in the game.
He is driven for greatness, always and completely.
“Make the work so outstanding,” he says, “that people can’t say no.”
On Thursday, Jason announced that he is leaving the White Sox to become the television broadcaster for the Detroit Tigers. Already, I’ve received numerous emails from White Sox fans who are heartbroken.
“How do you let this guy go?” one wrote. “How do you push a talent like this out the door as opposed to letting him spend his entire lifetime providing the background music of summer to a sports community, and then building him a statue outside the ballpark when he retires?”
Local baseball broadcasters are sacred to us. They shape our connections to our teams, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year — and this is especially true for someone like Jason, who is so good at what he does and, yes, a lifelong Chicagoan. You would indeed think that the White Sox would do anything and everything in their power to keep him happy …
… but, and this is the hard part, to do that you have to KNOW what will keep him happy. And, speaking entirely as someone on the outside — I have never talked to Jason specifically about this — I’m not sure the White Sox ever did know.
A few cracks in the Sox-Benetti relationship have leaked out through the years. Some in White Sox management didn’t seem happy about Jason leaving the team during the season for various national broadcasting gigs. Some in White Sox management probably wanted Jason to be more “positive.”* Some in White Sox management probably just took him for granted, considering they gave him a big break when they made him their broadcaster while easing out Hawk Harrelson seven years ago.
*It should be said that Jason was and is a very positive announcer; that’s why I put “positive” in quotations. What many people in baseball management want is a happy-talk cheerleader who will gush about the team no matter the circumstances, and it’s a stupid wish, because most fans have no interest in that.
I’m sure all of those and other internal White Sox things played in Jason’s decision to leave, but I’m betting there’s something else, too. It’s something I picked up on in Jason’s explanation. He compares joining the Tigers to when he went to Syracuse to study broadcasting.
“The reason I went to Syracuse,” he told the Detroit Free Press, “is because I wanted to be surrounded by people who love what I loved at the time, and that was being a student of play-by-play … And this time, I got on a plane to come here because in the interview process, I felt — and knew, it wasn’t just a feeling — that I was surrounded by people who want to be so extraordinarily great and forward-thinking and do this in a smart, analytical way that is just beyond the scope of anything I would have expected in terms of what they also want from their television announcer.”
I think your answer is right there: The Detroit Tigers understand Jason Benetti. They understand that he wants to do a baseball broadcast unlike anything that has been done before. He wants to bend some rules and break some others. He wants to make the broadcasts more analytical — remember Jason was the play-by-play guy for ESPN’s experimental and much-missed Statcast™ broadcast with Mike Petriello and Eduardo Perez — but he also wants to make them more fun and surprising and of-the-moment.
I know for certain that he wants that, because we’ve been talking about it for years.
Happy Friday! The Rewind is free so everyone can enjoy it. Just a reminder that Joe Blogs is a reader-supported newsletter, and I’d love and appreciate your support.
Detroit is the place to make that happen. Detroit is trying to build something, and the announcing booth has been a mess since their two broadcasters got into a fight in the booth, and the Tigers are in search of an identity. You hire Jason Benetti and tell him to experiment and try things and fail and succeed. It’s a beautiful friendship.
And the White Sox? Being honest, I just don’t think they could have given Jason what he needs. I mean, sure, maybe they could have given him more, but no organization that hires a 76-year-old Tony La Russa as manager and a 79-year-old Tony La Russa as a consultant, is interested in breaking the mold in the broadcasting booth. Plus, I suspect that they can never quite get beyond the quaint notion of Jason as a Chicagoland kid who grew up to become the announcer of his hometown team. I’m sure there are plenty of people there who don’t understand and will never understand why that wasn’t enough.
For Jason to do what he really wants to do, he probably had to go elsewhere. And, Detroit, you’re going to love this guy.
That doesn’t make it any easier on White Sox fans, who will no longer get to listen nightly to one of the great voices in sports. That’s the hard part. Losing your baseball announcer is, in so many ways, like losing a friend.
Hey, if you feel like it, I’d love if you’d share this post with your friends!
JoeBlogs Week in Review
Monday: I looked at this year’s Gold Glove winners compared to those from 40 years ago.
Tuesday: Browns Diary, Week 9: A never-a-doubt win over Arizona.
Wednesday: Craig Counsell’s move to the Cubs prompted the question: What makes a manager?
Thursday: I wrote about Ron Washington’s improbable return to manage the Angels.