A couple of people asked me who Ben Winslow was after reading my earlier diary about the Stockton Ports players who made a movie this season, so I figured that rather than just give a brief outline, this may be a good place to tell his story.
And the story of Benny The Jet is one worth telling.
Benny had given the game away in college after a close friend of his died in a batting cage, and Keith Lieppman saw him a couple of years later throwing a ball with some buddies in a field and "liked his enthusiasm" - so he offered him a tryout.
Supposedly, at the tryout, the A's coaches said we like you, you're full of enthusiasm, you're a great guy, you can't hit, but we'd like to give you a shot anyway, so they offered him a contract and put him in short season ball.
Benny got scattered at bats in 2004 with the Vancouver Canadians, but his energy was so infectious that he was soon the most popular player on the team, even though he rarely played. Just running out to coach at first base, he showed he was so happy to be there that the fans just ate it up. He had a fan club. Girls yelled his name and stalked him at local nightclubs. The batboys came to fear his penchant for bouncing sunflower seeds off their helmets as he ran past. He was king of the kids.
So Benny, complete with 'Benny and The Jets' theme music, would get out for a pinch hit once every four or five games, or a spot of pinch pitching now and then (he actually led the team in ERA for most of the season), and the crowd would go wild every time. It was Benny Town.
But then season 2004 ended, and Benny prepared himself to head back to Arizona and continue with his old job - teaching special needs children. He said to me, before he left Vancouver for the final time, in response to my asking whether he'd try to get a tryout with another team, "No way. Oakland gave me my shot. Oakland put faith in me. If I can't get to the Majors with Oakland, I'm not interested in making the Majors."
I couldn't believe he was serious, but he was. In Benny's mind, even if he never played again, he'd already been way luckier than most. "I got to play baseball for money. How fuckin' cool is that?"
Now, Keith Lieppman is a good guy. The way he runs the A's farm organization, he values people who are a positive influence on the clubhouse, and who are Athletics through and through, and who don't get caught up in what car they drive and how big their bouns is, so when the season was over, rather than cut Winslow as a failed experiment, he offered the guy a spot as player/assistant coach at Stockton. And Benny happily accepted.
So for much of the 2005 season, the same thing happens as last year; Benny plays now and then, flirts with Mendoza, does a lot of first base coaching and bullpen catching, the occasional piece of pinch-hitting... until the last game of the season.
It's an away game and Stockton have sewn up their division title. It's a nothing game, really, yet the away fans seem to know who Benny is. They've seen him do his mad energy sprints around the field earlier in the season, and they know he rarely gets a chance to swing, but today he's starting at first base.
In fact, the coaches have decided that today is Rudy Day, and Benny The Jet would play one inning in EVERY POSITION on the field.
Sadly, that plan went out the window after a few innings as the Ports fell behind, but Benny wasn't about to be sat down. In fact, Benny had decided that this may well be the last game he ever gets to play, and he's not going down without a fight.
Top of the 2nd, with two men in scoring position and the Ports down 0-2, Benny knocks a groundball into right field, leveling the scores at 2-2.
And the crowd - an away crowd, mind you - goes wild.
Top of the 4th, 2 outs, and Winslow comes back to the plate, now as a left fielder. With the opposition fans on their feet, cheering wildly, Winslow sees a hittable pitch, turns hard on it - and it goes. And goes. And goes out of the park.
Home run to Benny The Jet! Those I've talked to who were there say Benny sprinted those bases so hard you'd have swore the ball was still in play, and the only indicator that it wasn't was the humungous grin across his face as he ran.
A pair of strike-outs followed, which is to be expected when your heart is racing a mile a minute, and the Ports lost by a run in the bottom of the 8th, but Benny got his dinger.
So will The Jet be back next season? I have no idea, and last I spoke to him, neither does he.
But I felt it was worth retelling the tale of Benny The Jet Winslow to the Oakland faithful, because the fact that the A's can see the value in a guy while driving past him in a field, and can give him a chance to be a pro ballplayer, and then a coach, based on nothing more than insane enthusiasm, a generous, sincere nature, and the sort of love of the game that 99 out of 100 players lose by the time they're 14 years old, tells me exactly why I'm an Oakland fan.
We have our very own Rudy. Here's hoping he gets called back into the fold next season.
You're welcome back in Vancouver any time, Jet.