Benoit takes path less traveled to success
Nearly out of baseball in 2010, right-hander thriving as Tigers' closer
Joaquin Benoit does his best reflecting at night, up in the mountains. He prefers when it's raining -- it's something inexplicable, he says, what the steady, innocent flow of precipitation does to relax his mind.
Benoit steps outside of his home and peers out at the horizon, out at the array of city lights below that illuminate Santiago, Dominican Republic, where he grew up. He used to reside in the center of town, where it "is a party night every night," he says. His old complex bordered a nightclub, which regularly pumped loud music and hosted noisy patrons until 3 a.m.
"I didn't get any sleep," Benoit said, "so I moved to the mountains, and all you can hear is crickets."
Benoit had his house built after the Tigers awarded him a three-year contract following the 2010 campaign. That '10 season, he submitted what he considers the best year of his career.
How everything unfolded, though, remains a bit mystifying to the right-handed reliever. In early 2010, a year removed from major shoulder surgery, Benoit's world was quieter than one of those nights up in the mountains. No teams were calling, asking for his services or even offering him a tryout.
All he heard were crickets. No one wanted him.
When Benoit was a child, his father woke him up once a week at 1 a.m. to go fishing. The two scoured small lakes and dams in search of crab and shrimp.
That experience nearly came in handy when Benoit's big league career appeared to be finished.
With teams weary of his right shoulder -- which was surgically repaired in January 2009 -- Benoit worried that he needed a new vocation. He said he stressed about his career possibly being over "every single day" once he became a free agent following the '09 season.
Benoit gathered his family to discuss how they could invest his life savings. They considered various business ventures, but Benoit admitted that no matter which avenue he chose, he wouldn't be doing the only thing he wanted to do: pitch.
"I'd probably be an OK fisherman," Benoit said, "[but] that's a hobby."
Benoit envisioned himself perched along a little stretch of water known as Samana Bay, the only place in the Dominican where humpback whales swim close to shore. But at 32, the hurler with the fragile shoulder was too young, too hungry and too unprepared to transition to the next unidentified phase of his life.
"It was the most painful thing I've ever been through," Benoit said. "Not having a job, finding myself a home when everybody already reported to Spring Training, it was really, really tough. To think that if I don't find a job, I was going to sit at home, not knowing what to do. ... It was shocking for me."
Benoit knows one thing about the sport he has played professionally since he was 19.
"Baseball is a round thing that comes in a square box," he said.
Benoit doesn't try to explain how, over time, he graduated from a middling Major League starter to closer of the World Series title-seeking Tigers. He doesn't care to consider whether there are differences between pitching in the eighth inning of a close game and taking the hill in the ninth.
"My brother once said that you're never going to learn anything about baseball and women," Benoit said. "You're never going to know enough."
Benoit never expected -- nor requested -- to take the reins as Detroit's closer. In the past calendar year, the Tigers have shuffled through Jose Valverde, Phil Coke, Bruce Rondon, a committee and Valverde again before finally settling on Benoit for the ninth inning two months ago.
Benoit's 2010 effort -- a 1.34 ERA with 75 strikeouts and only 30 hits allowed in 60 1/3 innings -- first convinced him that he could handle such a pressure-packed role, especially given his shaky status at the start of that season.
"If you told me at the beginning of that season that I was going to do that," Benoit said, "I would've told you, 'No.'"
That year, the Rays relieved Benoit of his daily anxiety in mid-February, when they signed him to a Minor League deal.
Tampa Bay cut Benoit from big league camp on the final day of Spring Training, and he headed to Triple-A Durham, though every time he played catch, his shoulder throbbed. He rested for four days, resisting the urge to even glance at a baseball.
Finally, Benoit tossed two innings in a game at Norfolk. All spring, he had topped out at 86-88 mph. Out of nowhere, his velocity jumped to 94-95 mph.
"Somehow, there was this miracle," Benoit said. "I guess God touched my arm."
The pain persisted until the summer months, but as Benoit pitched with regularity, it wore off. He joined the Rays in late April and turned in one of the best years of any reliever in baseball.
Benoit again entered the offseason as a free agent, but this time with a completely altered attitude. A year earlier, Benoit recalled, while talking with his mother, his mind floated to thoughts about his uncertain future. A year later, he sat next to his mother. This time, he spoke his mind.
"I was telling her what I was thinking before," Benoit said, "and I said, 'This year is totally different. Now I'm going to wait for [teams] to call me.'"
Given the way the Giants trounced the Tigers in last year's Fall Classic, Benoit is itching to return to the grand stage.
"Hopefully I get to close the last game of the World Series this year," he said.
Benoit has fashioned a 1.57 ERA in 51 appearances this season. He has converted all 17 of his save opportunities and has allowed two runs over the past eight weeks.
"He's come up huge for us," said pitcher Max Scherzer. "We all know how good he is. We all know what his stuff does. We know he's consistent, and we all believe when he takes the mound, he's going to shut the door."
What pushed the Tigers to bet on Benoit after one standout season, one that followed a near career-ending surgery? Benoit always wanted a three-year pact, but most teams came calling with a two-year offer. Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski upped the ante.
"Even though he had surgery," Dombrowski said, "our medical records were good as far as future health prognosis."
The shoulder has held up, and Benoit has delivered. And even he can't believe it.
"The chances were zero to none," Benoit said.
Somehow, the righty beat the odds. When he hit free agency four years ago, teams made him sweat until spring camp. A year later, his medicals made suitors hesitate. Benoit is scheduled to hit the market again this winter. This time, though, he already has everything he has ever desired.
"From being almost out of baseball to living up in the mountains -- I'd take that any time," Benoit said.
So how, exactly, did it all happen?
He has no answer.