Jeff Bennett’s senior year at Gordonsville High School coincided with the opening of Friendship Christian’s Bay Family Sportsplex.
During one of the early years of the Sportsplex, though I don’t know if it was during the first season, the Commanders warmed up to the song “Tubthumping” by a British alternative music band Chumbawamba. It’s better known informally for lyric “I get knocked down”. It’s chorus reads, “I get knocked down. But I get up again. You’re never going to keep me down”.
Bennett knows the song, but doesn’t associate it with his only trip to the Sportsplex. But the tune’s chorus seems to be the theme of his professional baseball career, which is amazingly in its 17th season.
The Lebanon resident has overcome Tommy John surgery, labrum surgery on his shoulder, surgery on his non-pitching hand after hitting and losing to a Turner Field dugout door following an RBI single given up to Alex Rodriguez and a bacterial infection in his colon caught in Mexico.
After pitching for three major-league clubs, the line graph on his career plummeted to an independent league, rebounded through Mexico and has him in something of a renaissance at Triple-A Albuquerque in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ minor-league system.
Since signing with the Isotopes earlier this month, Bennett has gone 1-1 with a 1.45 earned-run average in three starts, covering 18 2/3 innings. His loss, in his first start, came with an outfielder dropped a fly ball, leaving the runs unearned. He combined to pitch a 1-0 shutout at Salt Lake [where former Cumberland player Luis Martinez was in the lineup as the Bees’ catcher], one of only seven 1-0 games in the 20-year history of that ballpark. He finally gave up three earned runs in 6 2/3 innings of a no-decision earlier this week at Sacramento, where I caught him on the phone Friday.
“This thing with the Dodgers was completely unexpected,” Bennett told me yesterday. “There are tons of guys with good numbers who are younger than me.
“You never know what they’re thinking. When I signed, they said there was opportunity here. They were struggling with starters in AAA, and when you’re in AAA, you’re only one call from the big leagues.”
Though he was 4-3 with a 2.44 ERA in Mexico this spring, I figured he would never get so close to such a call again. Frankly, I thought he should have hung up his cleats and glove and get into the next phase of his life a couple of years ago.
To my surprise, he told me the same thing.
“I tried to retire several times,” said Bennett, who will turn 34 June 10. “I looked into being a fireman, looked into going to college. But the harder I tried to get out of baseball, God wanted me to stay in it. I get a job in Mexico, it helped pay the bills.
“I’m here for now. What the reason is, I don’t know, but I do what God tells me. If it goes further, that would be awesome. I didn’t think I’d be playing right now. I thought it would be something else.”
One reason for his current success is probably the conditioning which followed his illness in Mexico last year. The 6-foot-3 Bennett said the infection, and the weight training he embarked on afterward, caused him to lose 70 pounds, from 265 to 195. Bennett, who worked out in a Sacramento gym before our phone conversation, said he’s probably bounced back to 215 by now due to being out of his routine due to the travel.
A friend of mine who saw him before he left for spring training said Bennett looks like a movie star.
“It was a good thing and a bad thing. I’m glad I didn’t die in Mexico,” said Bennett, who credited Lebanon’s Dr. Damon Petty with a tip which kept him from getting sick again – take Pepto Bismol before eating. “I didn’t even get a stomach ache. That was pretty good.”
Bennett didn’t know how many teams are on the back of his baseball card. But after rummaging through the memories of his career, we came up with Albuquerque as his 19th team. We counted Nashville once even though he’s been with the Sounds three times. It counts his three big league clubs – Milwaukee, Atlanta and Tampa Bay; the independent team in Lancaster, Pa., two Mexican teams in the summer and three, along with another in Venezuela, in the winter.
His big-league career covers parts of four seasons, ending with the Rays in 2009.
“I was pitching hurt both places,” Bennett said of two of his stops. “I was supposed to be called up in 2005. In 2010, my shoulder blew out in 2009, and I pitched through it.
“I probably could’ve pitched seven years if I had been smart about it. But you live and learn. I knew something was wrong. I just pitched through it. My shoulder popped out of place in 2008. I took a cortisone shot and kept pitching.
“I’m not one of those guys who wanted to sit on the [disabled list]. I wanted to pitch.”
But Bennett said he wouldn’t change a thing about the course of his career.
“I wouldn’t be the person I am now if I hadn’t gone through those things,” said Bennett. “God definitely has a reason for it.”
Something else he went through was dealing with his temper, which spelled the beginning of the end for him in Atlanta when his own anger over the A-Rod hit ended in his broken hand. He was released a month later and signed with Tampa Bay, where his shoulder issues caused him to lose his control [couldn’t throw strikes, not punches].
“I’ve definitely dealt with that,” Bennett said of his temper. “It’s one of those things you have those experiences to relate to players – anger, failure. I’m definitely not perfect.
“But I’m thankful to have gone through those things and be where I’m at right now.”
Where he is now is married to a Mt. Juliet girl, Rachel. They are the parents of four daughters ages 1-9. He said he is where God wants him to be.
“I was making good money in Mexico. I’m probably making less in Albuquerque,” he said. “God pays the bills, I don’t, so I’m not worried about it.”
He’s been knocked down. With God’s help, he’s gotten up again. He’ll never be kept down.