Benintendi still impressing folks with talent, drive
Promoted from Double-A last week, Red Sox rookie hitting .385
By Megan Zahneis
When Andrew Benintendi was 5 years old, his father, Chris, took him out on the acre the family owned in southwest Ohio to practice shagging fly balls.
Chris Benintendi would grab a tennis ball and a racquet, hitting the ball as hard as he could. His firstborn would leg out the high flies, catching them nearly every time.
Seventeen summers later, Andrew Benintendi is adjusting to life as a big-league baseball player, having notched two hits in his first start for the Red Sox as 18 family members looked on at Safeco Park.
But Chris Benintendi, a partner at a Cincinnati law firm, never suspected his only son would make it this far.
"Looking back, maybe he was showing us some special things, but we didn't know it," Chris said. "We just thought it was kind of cool."
"They were just out playing ball," Jill Benintendi said of the days her husband and son spent in the backyard with the tennis ball. "But now, you do look at it and you go, 'What other 5-year-old…?'"
If her little tyke was abnormally athletic, odds are that Jill herself probably had something to do with it. She and her husband were both varsity athletes in high school, she on the hardwood and he manning the hot corner. One of Chris Benintendi's sisters, too, is a former college basketball standout.
And while Chris Benintendi can't say he's always seen his son as Major League material, he thinks Andrew's athletic aptitude has always been around.
"He's not a kid that you would look at and say, 'This guy looks like a professional baseball player,'" Chris said of Andrew. "But he's athletic, and he's always been athletic, even as a small child. When he was a baby, he'd pick up a ball and shoot into a little hoop. Then we started swinging a bat when he was a little bit older."
And to John Kelly, it was apparent from a young age that Andrew had the intangible qualities sport often requires. A Wittenburg University teammate and 30-year friend of Chris Benintendi's, Kelly coached 8-year-old Andrew on a travel baseball team known as the Madeira Crew.
"He was incredibly coachable," Kelly said. "Even at that age, the other players looked up to him. They knew how talented he was. He was the best player on the team; more than that, he was the smartest player on the team."
Andrew's work ethic, too, was second to none.
"He had a drive within himself to where, I think, he wanted to be the best, whether he wanted to be the best 7-year-old, the best 10-year-old, the best 18-year-old [player]," Chris Benintendi said. "You wouldn't know it because he's not very outspoken, but we would know."
And Jill recalls her son hitting the gym at Madeira High School to shoot hoops for a half hour before classes started, in hopes of making the basketball team as a freshman.
Not only did Andrew, then 5-foot-8 and 135 pounds, make the team, but he smashed records as a four-year varsity starter -- he remains Madeira High's all-time leading scorer by 298 points, as well as the school leader in three-pointers, steals and free throws -- and in his junior year was an Ohio Division III co-Player of the Year.
But to hear Jim Reynolds, who coached the high school basketball team for 25 years, tell it, Benintendi always stayed even-keeled. Plus, Reynolds said, his skills were just plain impressive. That brought to mind a comment from an opposing coach.
"'Man, that kid can play,'" Reynolds remembers being told.
"You should see him play baseball."
And during his career with the Mustangs, people did.
Though people began telling Chris Benintendi his son had the potential to play Division I baseball when Andrew was just 12 years old, it wasn't until the younger Benintendi donned Madeira blue and gold that he truly turned heads.
It was also around that time that he decided to focus his efforts more fully on baseball. Though his parents say basketball was Andrew's first love, he realized that at 5-foot-10, he didn't have the stature to go as far on the court as he did on the diamond.
So it was that, between starting 91 straight basketball games for Reynolds, Benintendi took up residence in the locker room of longtime Madeira baseball coach Jack Kuzniczci.
Kuzniczci served as Benintendi's gym teacher from the time he was in fifth grade to when he entered high school. When Benintendi finally came to play on Kuzniczci's club, the coach didn't have a whole lot of work to do. His star pupil even took the mound for the Mustangs up until his senior year and could hit 89 mph on the radar gun.
"Andrew's the best athlete to go through Madeira, probably, ever," Kuzniczci said. "I was there 23 years, and he was probably the best athlete of all time there. You could have gotten all the coaches together and figured that one out.
"He put up records that weren't just better than everybody else, they were almost unreachable records."
Indeed, Benintendi still holds Madeira's single-season and career records for at-bats, hits, runs, doubles, home runs and stolen bases, in addition to the school's single-season batting average and RBI titles.
By the fall of his senior year, Benintendi was being noticed for his pursuit of Ohio's high school hits record (a title he was thought to hold until it was discovered that a former big-leaguer had actually amassed nine more hits).
After the season wrapped, bringing Benintendi a .567 batting average with 57 RBIs, 12 homers and 38 steals, the accolades came rolling in, among them the Rawlings National Player of the Year and Gatorade Ohio Player of the Year awards and first-team All-American honors.
So, too, did the attention.
Chris Benintendi became his son's de facto agent, telling clubs Andrew wouldn't sign unless he was drafted in the first several rounds. Andrew planned to attend the University of Arkansas, and he wasn't about to give up on that easily -- not even after being drafted out of high school in the 31st round by his hometown Reds.
But the Reds knew Benintendi wouldn't sign -- the measure, Chris thinks, was one of goodwill rather than practicality. So on to Fayetteville went Andrew. It wasn't until Benintendi found himself penciled onto the Razorbacks' roster that he hit the first true roadblock of his athletic career.
The numbers he put up while starting all but one game of his first season at Arkansas weren't shabby -- he hit .276 with 45 runs in 61 games -- but they weren't quite up to snuff for someone who'd been on a different trajectory his senior year. Benintendi also had to contend with injury for the first time, having had surgery to remove the hamate bone in his right hand before arriving at Arkansas.
So he did what he'd done in high school, when he'd committed to baseball as his primary sport, which was to hit the gym.
"After his first year at Arkansas," Chris Benintendi said, "he came back and didn't play baseball that summer but worked on his body and got stronger so when he went back for his sophomore year, I think it paid tremendous dividends for him as far as his ability to hit the ball harder."
Those dividends would come in the form of a .376 batting average, 20 home runs, a .717 slugging percentage and a .488 on-base percentage -- all bests in the Southeastern Conference that year. All of that earned him National Player of the Year nods from Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball, as well as the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association's Dick Howser Trophy and USA Baseball's Golden Spikes Award.
Those trophies and plaques are displayed in the basement bar of the Benintendis' well-appointed Madeira home, but visitors will have to ask to see them.
"We have all those awards and trophies downstairs, but he doesn't really dwell on them," Chris said. "I'm not sure they've really sunk in for us or for him, because that wasn't his ultimate goal. His ultimate goal wasn't to win the Golden Spikes award; it was to play in the big leagues."
Ultimately, of course, that slugging sophomore season made Benintendi the apple of many a big league executive's eye. Boston selected him in the first round of last year's Draft with the seventh overall pick.
And while the Benintendi clan celebrated back home, the day passed in relative calm for Andrew, whose Razorbacks had just clinched a spot in the College World Series the previous day.
After Commissioner Rob Manfred read Benintendi's name off a script card that's now framed in the Benintendis' basement, the newest Red Sox had just one question.
"'Well, what do you want to do for dinner?'" Chris remembers Andrew asking.
So the Benintendi party marked the occasion with a trip to a Buffalo Wild Wings -- just outside Fayetteville, so Andrew wouldn't be recognized as easily -- and not much else.
"We're sitting there like, 'Well, you just got drafted. Let's call it a day!'" Jill Benintendi recalled with a laugh.
John Kelly, meanwhile, dialed up Chris Benintendi.
Back when Andrew played on Kelly's Madeira Crew travel team, Kelly had called a meeting with the players' parents at the start of their second season together.
"I told the parents, 'OK, we've got a year under our belts, we've been together for over a year now. Let's just get one thing straight. Nobody here is making it to the Major Leagues. Nobody is going to play professional baseball, so we should just have fun together and take all the pressure off,'" Kelly said.
"Well, when Andrew got drafted, I called Chris and apologized."
Andrew Benintendi inked the contract that made him a professional baseball player -- and forced Kelly's apology -- on June 30, 2015. Three days later, he'd debut for the Short-Season A Lowell Spinners, playing hero by knocking in the winning run in the ninth inning.
Benintendi split the rest of 2015 between Lowell and Boston's Low-A Greenville Drive before starting 2016 with High-A Salem. That didn't last long, either, as Benintendi was promoted to Double-A Portland after accruing a .341/.413/.563 slash line in 34 games with Salem.
Despite his modesty, the limelight is getting harder and harder for Benintendi to avoid. Back in Fayetteville, the Razorback faithful honored the man they came to call "Benny Baseball" with a shirsey giveaway, and across the nation, his image is popping up on baseball cards, prospect listings and TV screens.
That last is thanks to Boston GM Dave Dombrowski making his belief in the 22-year-old public, sending him from Double-A straight to the big leagues last week.
Now, Aug. 2, 2016, is a date that will forever be etched in Chris Benintendi's mind, just like the others that punctuate his son's meteoric rise to the majors.
"He's handled the environment as good as you can from the perspective of feeling comfortable and not coming out of his game," Red Sox manager John Farrell said after Benintendi went 3-for-4 on Sunday, picking up his first two Major League RBIs and raising his average to .385 before heading to Boston for his first game at Fenway Park.
"He has a beautiful swing that is evident by how he approaches each at-bat. At one point, he was the only offense we had going. He's more than impressed in the game so far."
And so, the expectation was that Andrew Benintendi will be climbing the Major League ladder for many nights to come.
Megan Zahneis is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.