Hall of Fame vote stirs memory of Armando Benitez

Hall of Fame vote stirs memory of Armando Benitez
January 8, 2014, 11:30 pm

Thank whoever it was that cast one Hall of Fame vote for Armando Benitez for bringing back the memory of one of the more frustrating Orioles of the 1990s.

Benitez spent five seasons with the Orioles and 15 years total in the majors, last in 2008. He was a hard-throwing reliever known to be enamored of watching his fastballs get posted at 100 mph on the stadium radar gun. He gave up two game-winning home runs to the Indians in the 1997 American League Championship Series. Benitez actually turned in several outstanding seasons as a closer, saving more than 40 games twice for the Mets and once for the Marlins. He was a two-time All-Star. He finished his career with 946 strikeouts in 779 innings.

But with the Orioles from 1994 to 1998, he was lamented for his immaturity. In his last season with the O’s, one teammate described him to Sports Illustrated as “25 going on 15.”

And that lack of maturity led to the incident for which Benitez is most remembered. On May 19, 1998, pitching against the Yankees, after Benitez gave up a home run to Bernie Williams, he drilled Tino Martinez in the back with a fastball. Benitez was tossed from the game nearly before the ball hit the ground, but he already had ignited a wild, bench-clearing brawl.

The fight featured a defiant Benitez seemingly ready to take on the whole Yankees team. Wild punches were thrown, most of them not connecting. Two Yankees in particular went at Benitez as the brawl spilled into the visitors dugout at Yankee Stadium — pitcher Graeme Lloyd and outfielder Darryl Strawberry.

Video of the event shows incensed Yankees all over. Martinez yelled about how this wasn’t the first time Benitez had nailed him. Joe Girardi, then still a catcher, was being held back by Orioles coach Elrod Hendricks, of blessed memory. Manager Joe Torre had to climb into the dugout and extricate Strawberry, who had been clocked by O’s pitcher Alan Mills.

Benitez was suspended for eight games, and his teammates were apparently just as glad not to have him around. They couldn’t support him for a gross violation of baseball behavior.

"He embarrassed the whole organization,” one anonymous Oriole told SI. “… It reflects badly on all of us. He may be ready physically to be a closer, but he's not ready mentally."

After the season, the Orioles traded Benitez to the Mets for catcher Charles Johnson.