Ben Cohen


Pitching Coach Doubles As Starting Pitcher

Once every five days, Joel Bennett takes off his mitt, puts on his jacket and sidles up near Jackals manager Joe Calfapietra. Minutes later, Bennett struts back onto the field and heads toward the pitcher’s mound, the place he has just left.

The game’s starting pitcher is now the Jackals’ pitching coach.

Bennett, 37, has the keen mentality of a coach, but is also strapped with a right arm and crafty demeanor that still baffles hitters in the Can-Am League. So instead of locking himself into either coach or player, Bennett is both.

“It’s definitely a luxury to have a guy who’s pitching and can work so well with the younger players, that’s for sure,” said Calfapietra, whose team won the league’s first half and is guaranteed a playoff berth.

The player-coach is an oddity in professional sports, mainly because most people knowledgeable enough to coach can no longer play at a high level, and those with playing chops are not interested in adding more to the daily grind. Bennett is an exception. He coached the pitchers in 2001 and 2002, before Calfapietra arrived with the organization, but returned to his singular role as starting pitcher after those two seasons.

He holds most of the franchise’s pitching records, including: wins in a season (14), career wins (57), strikeouts in a game (16), strikeouts in a season (141) and career strikeouts (597).

Bennett – who enjoyed cups of coffee with Baltimore and Philadelphia in 1998 and 1999, pitching 19 total innings – was reluctant to return to New Jersey for yet another summer. He and Calfapietra had discussed the player-coach idea last summer, but Bennett had not been convinced. He left Yogi Berra Stadium in 2006 thinking that he’d worn a Jackals uniform for the last time.

Then Calfapietra called Bennett in the offseason and dangled the offer again. Bennett said he’d think about it. Calfapietra called again, and Bennett said he was considering it. After a month or two, Bennett had accepted the position, but insists that he had one condition.

“I wouldn’t come back just to do one or the other,” he said. “It had to be both.”

The one problem with Bennett’s new role? He never arrives until late June, because he is a middle school teacher in upstate New York. It normally is less of a conflict, because even without a formal spring training, he can throw at home and prepare himself for the summer. But he had new responsibilities this year, and he needed to learn about the new corps of pitchers. Bennett followed the team daily, listening to broadcasts and reading game summaries online, and when he entered the clubhouse for the first time, he made it a point to introduce himself more than once to the pitchers.

Before taking a coaching hiatus that lasted four seasons, Bennett occasionally worried about his credibility with the players. After all, he couldn’t simply coach from the bullpen. He had to lead by example. He had to do what was easier said than done.

“The part that was tough was, ‘Man, what if I’m not pitching well?’ ” Bennett recalled. “That’s the thing that was always in the back of my mind. But, as long as you go out and execute a game plan, there’s enough respect.”

He doesn’t have to fret about pitching deficiencies, either. Despite being eight years older than any other player, Bennett has posted solid numbers this year. He’s 1-2 with a 3.54 ERA, having surrendered 25 hits in 28 innings. He usually pitches into the sixth or seventh inning, no easy feat for a man whose back stiffens more every year.

When he comes out of the game, Bennett says the shift from player to coach is “instantaneous.” Calfapietra says it usually takes his good friend a few minutes to dampen his competitive edge, but never more than an inning or two. When he’s ready, he stuffs his torso into his jacket, composes himself, and sits next to the skipper.

Bennett says this is his last year wearing the Jackals’ black and red. After all, he hasn’t had a baseball-free summer in 16 years, even if his three kids adore their spots as batboys.

At times, even Bennett sounds unsure about his plans for next season. “I’ve said that since ’02,” he says.

(The Herald News, 7/25/07)


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