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Fevered Pitch With one ill-advised fastball, the Orioles' Armando Benitez ignited a brawl, lost his closer's job and damaged a once-promising career

The telephone kept ringing, but there was no way Baltimore
Orioles righthander Armando Benitez was going to answer it. The
message light was a furious red quasar that could go on blinking
forever for all he cared--even if the most insistent callers
were his mother and Carlos Bernhardt, the Orioles coach who had
discovered Benitez when he was 14. A trip for a bite to eat,
even a stroll to the lobby, was out of the question. This was
how the most notorious pitcher in all of baseball would attempt
to deal with the consequences of one sorry, stupid pitch--by
sequestering himself in his 15th-floor room of the New York
Grand Hyatt. Solitary confinement with 24-hour room service.

Well into his second day of isolation, Benitez finally opened
his door last Thursday. During a visit with Bernhardt, he broke
down and cried. Then Benitez met with his agent, Mike Powers;
his financial consultant, Joseph Geier; Baltimore general
manager Pat Gillick; and assistant general manager Kevin Malone.
The men arranged themselves in Benitez's room like five dots on
a die, with the disgraced reliever at the center, sitting on the
edge of his bed with his head in his hands.

"He just wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear," Malone
says. "He didn't want to see anybody, and he didn't want to talk
to anybody. He was very sad."

And this was the man who the Orioles thought was ready to nail
down the toughest outs for the team with the highest payroll in
baseball. "A young, immature kid," Orioles manager Ray Miller
called him. Hardly the most desirable quality in a closer.

Benitez treats Camden Yards as if it were the county fair,
straining to reach triple digits on the scoreboard radar
readings with the machismo of a teenager trying to win a Kewpie
doll for his date. He calls his mother in San Pedro de Macoris,
Dominican Republic, virtually every night--sometimes as late as
1 a.m.--and they talk for as long as two hours. He is 25 years
old. "Twenty-five," says one of his teammates, "going on 15."

Benitez never seemed so immature as on the night of May 19 at
Yankee Stadium. In the opener of a three-game series with the
first-place Yankees, Miller gave him the ball in the eighth
inning to close out a win the slumping Orioles desperately
needed. With a 5-4 lead, two outs and two runners on base,
Benitez threw a terrible slider to Bernie Williams, as awful as
the ones that the Cleveland Indians' Marquis Grissom and Tony
Fernandez had hit off Benitez for game-winning home runs in the
American League Championship Series last year. The pitch to
Williams arrived lazily on a flat plane on the inside half of
the plate. Williams blasted it into the upper deck, the seventh
home run off Benitez in 23 2/3 innings dating from the postseason.

Uh-oh, Baltimore coach Sam Perlozzo thought. I hope he doesn't
hit the next guy.

First baseman Rafael Palmeiro thought about walking to the mound
to calm Benitez. To his regret, he didn't.

Pitching coach Mike Flanagan figured that Benitez was fine, that
he'd learned a lesson three years ago when a grand slam by the
Seattle Mariners' Edgar Martinez provoked him to hit the next
batter, Tino Martinez, on the shoulder with a pitch, causing
both benches to empty. After that game Benitez cleaned out his
locker and threatened to run home to the Dominican Republic. The
Orioles sent him to the minors instead.

Or surely Benitez had learned a lesson last year, when against
the Boston Red Sox on April 27 he again followed a gopher ball
with a brushback pitch, prompting his ejection. But his 17 walks
in 17 2/3 innings this season notwithstanding, Benitez's major
problem is not control--it's still self-control. After Williams
connected, Tino Martinez came to the plate, having drawn the
short straw a second time. Benitez fired the baseball right
between the 2 and the 4 on the back of Martinez's jersey with
such obvious intent that umpire Drew Coble threw him out of the
game, Coble says, "almost before the ball got there."

The Yankees, led by Darryl Strawberry, shot up from their seats
in the dugout, shouting at Benitez. The pitcher dropped his
glove, extended his arms and gestured with his fingers for the
New York players to come and get him. They did. A wild,
sprawling fight ensued in which Strawberry and Yankees pitcher
Graeme Lloyd threw punches at Benitez, and Baltimore pitcher
Alan Mills unloaded on Strawberry.

Two days after it had been the site of a perfect game, venerable
Yankee Stadium was reduced to a Jerry Springer set. Even more
shocking was what happened later. To a man, the Orioles refused
to muster even feigned support for Benitez, as alone in his own
clubhouse after the game as he would be for the next two days at
the Grand Hyatt. That's how badly Benitez had violated
baseball's ancient and unwritten code of brushback ethics.

"It was his mistake that allowed Bernie to hit the home run,"
Gillick says. "You make a bad pitch, and then to take out your
frustration on someone else is not right. I think that's what
sits badly with everyone."

"Dumbest thing I've ever seen," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter
said. "Ask the Orioles. They'll tell you it was dumb."

Miller, who said Benitez was "out of control," and catcher Lenny
Webster agreed that Benitez had wrongly started the incident.
Says another teammate, one of several who asked to remain
anonymous for the sake of clubhouse peace, "He embarrassed the
whole organization. We don't do things that way here. It
reflects badly on all of us. He may be ready physically to be a
closer, but he's not ready mentally."

Three days after the incident, when Benitez rejoined the team
for pregame workouts, he received almost no counsel or support
or even a friendly word from his cliquish, notoriously detached
teammates. This is an aging team--no current Oriole came up
through the minors with Benitez--that is preoccupied with rumors
of housecleaning trades. Virtually ignored in the clubhouse,
Benitez was left to play cards with a 21-year-old
Spanish-speaking rookie from Aruba, pitcher Sidney Ponson, and
to trail Bernhardt like a puppy.

Perhaps now Benitez understands the unwritten rules of the
brushback. You throw at someone only after obvious provocation,
such as when an opponent buzzes one of your teammates or tries
to show you up. When you do retaliate, you keep the pitch below
the letters. "Another foot," said one Oriole, "and he hits
[Martinez's] head or his spine with a 97-mile-per-hour heater.

The art of the brushback lives on, virtually unchanged in its
protocols since the good old days of Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson
and other menacing masters. Kevin Brown of the San Diego Padres
and the perpetual scowl, for instance, is seven hit batters from
becoming the 47th pitcher to nail 100 in his career. Brown has
hit batters more often (.42 per nine innings) than any member of
the 100-Hit Club whose career began after 1915. Moreover,
Seattle's Randy Johnson (87) and the Colorado Rockies' Darryl
Kile (75) are knocking on the door, not to mention on nervous
batters, even more frequently than Brown (.44 and .53 per nine
innings, respectively).

Two days after suspending Benitez for eight games, American
League president Gene Budig last Friday suspended Detroit Tigers
righthander Doug Brocail for two games for hitting Rickey
Henderson of the Oakland Athletics with a pitch on May 15,
immediately after Brocail had been warned for throwing behind
Henderson. Brocail's behavior was classic Brushback 101. He had
reasonable cause to act (retaliation for Oakland lefthander Mike
Mohler's nailing Bobby Higginson two innings earlier, and for
Henderson's jawing at Brocail after the previous pitch), and he
did so with a properly placed delivery (left ankle).

"I don't like to see brawls, but part of our game is to throw
inside," Milwaukee Brewers manager Phil Garner says. "I'm in
favor of leaving things the way they are and letting the players
take care of it."

Of course, rogue pitchers such as Benitez, Garner's own Jeff
Juden and San Francisco Giants righthander Julian Tavarez proved
in the past week that baseball's frontier justice sometimes
ranges far wide of acceptable. The Brewers faced chin music of
their own last week, when the Giants' Tavarez continued a
three-year quest to give Mike Matheny another shave he believes
he owes him. Tavarez touched off a brawl in 1996 by buzzing
Matheny's head, hit him in the back with a pitch in late April
and brushed him back again on May 19.

The day before that, in the fifth inning of a horrible outing
against Colorado, Juden airmailed a fastball between the
shoulder blades of pitcher Pedro Astacio, whose bat-brandishing
response prompted Juden to give the universal sign for "O.K.,
meathead, bring it on."

The next night Benitez would come off the mound in Yankee
Stadium and issue the same invitation. Given Benitez's
hardscrabble upbringing, his lack of baseball etiquette and
social skills is understandable. He started playing baseball so
late that, at 14, when Bernhardt scouted him in the town where
they both lived, San Pedro de Macoris, Benitez was still
learning how to catch. He was 6'2" but weighed 140 pounds. Three
meals a day? A treat. Benitez's parents had separated when he
was very young, leaving his mother to raise four children with
money she scraped together by hand-scrubbing clothes.

When he was 17, in 1990, Benitez's fluid, loose-armed throwing
motion was drawing so much attention from scouts that
Bernhardt's wife, Janet, called Carlos one day at spring
training in Florida. "You'd better do something," Janet said.
Bernhardt couldn't leave Florida, so he faxed his wife a
standard player's contract and put an X where Benitez should
sign his name. Janet closed the deal.

Four years later Benitez was in the big leagues. He made his
first appearance when Johnny Oates, Baltimore's manager at the
time, pulled ace Mike Mussina, leaving Benitez to face Albert
Belle with two runners on. Benitez struck Belle out. By last
season Benitez had become such a dominating middle reliever that
he inherited 44 leads and protected all but one of them. Still,
he met his infrequent spells of adversity with a mix of
petulance and rage.

"As long as things are going well, he's a great kid," says a
teammate. "But if he's going bad, you don't know if he'll talk
to you. If you give up a three-run homer, don't take it out on
your teammates. He does."

Says Bernhardt, "He's not a bad kid. He supports his whole
family. You have to understand that if he goes down, his whole
family goes down."

Already, Benitez is playing for his fourth manager and fourth
pitching coach. In his first full season of being entrusted with
ninth innings, he is trying to replace Randy Myers, only one of
the alltime great closers. (Myers blew one of 46 save
opportunities last year.) All around Benitez, the team--which
features 12 potential free agents, each wondering who will be
signing next year's checks--is disintegrating. Until a 9-1 win
over the A's last Saturday, the Orioles had lost nine straight
games for the first time since their historic 0-21 start in '88,
dropping them to 17 games behind the Yankees in the loss column.
Even Miller, a pleasant man who sometimes appears overmatched by
his promotion from pitching coach to manager, suffered a meltdown.

"I'm about two days from asking [owner] Peter Angelos to get me
every 20-year-old who can throw the ball over the plate," he
shouted in an obscenity-laced tirade after a 9-5 loss to Oakland
last Friday. Miller then fired his belt against his office wall,
waved toward the players and said, "Go ask those c---suckers
what's going on."

What's going on with Benitez is anyone's guess. Gillick and
Malone explained to him in that hotel room why he was wrong and
how important it is to move on. Benitez did apologize profusely
to them, as well as to Martinez, Miller and Angelos. "Everybody
makes mistakes," Benitez said. "This is harder than Cleveland.
Much harder."

The closer's job is gone for now. His teammates shake their
heads about him. His own sensitivity and self-doubt seem almost
physical, as if his 6'4", 225-pound frame somehow is smaller.

Who knows where he goes from here? Last Saturday, at least, it
was back to the team's hotel in San Francisco, as the Orioles
batted in the first inning against the Athletics. Though he can
work out with the team, Benitez is not allowed in the dugout or
clubhouse during games while under suspension. In black slacks,
a white silk shirt and shades, Benitez, escorted by a security
guard, walked out of Oakland Alameda County Coliseum. In a
secured parking lot, a huge, fresh-from-the-factory superstretch
white limousine gleamed in the last hour of daylight. The
familiar noise of the crowd drifted sweetly, like barbecue
smoke, out of the big stadium. Benitez slipped into the
monstrous vehicle and left. Alone.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JERRY WACHTER CONTROL PROBLEMS Whenever Benitez loses his edge on the hitters, it's a good bet his emotions will be the next thing to get away from him. [Armando Benitez pitching]

COLOR PHOTO: SETH HARRISON/GANNETT NEWSPAPERS ONE HIT, ONE ERROR As Martinez bent in pain, Benitez further infuriated the players in the Yankees' dugout with his childish display. [Tino Martinez bent over in pain]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN DUNN/AP [See caption above--Armando Benitez with arms raised]

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [Armando Benitez]

"Another foot and he hits Martinez in the head with a heater,"
said one Oriole. "Scary."

Benitez received almost no counsel or support from his cliquish,
notoriously detached teammates.