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Ballpark Digest Interview: Jason Benetti

Jason Benetti

There may be no one associated with the Chicago White Sox more than Ken “Hawk” Harrelson—which made the announcement that the White Sox had hired Jason Benetti to call home games alongside Steve Stone such a surprise. Benetti mulled over his hiring, hand-sanitizer ingredients, and his favorite ballparks in an interview with Jesse Goldberg-Strassler.

A fan of the White Sox since his youth, Benetti has overcome cerebral palsy to carve out an esteemed broadcasting career, bringing him up the Minor League Baseball ladder from the Carolina League’s Salem Avalanche to the International League’s Syracuse Chiefs and onto networks as respected as Westwood One, Fox and ESPN.


Ballpark Digest: Jason Benetti, member of the Chicago White Sox broadcast team. How does that feel?

Jason Benetti: It feels like you’re talking about someone else. I feel like one of the characters late in the run of Lost. Am I in this current time? Am I on the island? Is it the future? Am I me? It’s bizarre and wonderful.

BPD: Most importantly, which is correct: “The White Sox’ new broadcaster, Jason Benetti…” or “The White Sox’s new broadcaster, Jason Benetti…”?

JB: I think it’s White Sox’s. That’s the way I’ve written it.

BPD: What is your job title, description, and schedule with the White Sox?

JB: I’m going to be a TV play-by-play announcer for the Sox. My schedule is mainly home games, with a road series in Toronto mixed in. Hawk Harrelson will do the road games plus the home opener and the Cubs-Sox home games. I’m doing all 10 spring training games.

BPD: What was the sequence of events leading to your hire?

JB: I interviewed with the Sox, Comcast and WGN in October. Then, in December, the Sox called me and asked if I’d be willing to fly in to meet Jerry Reinsdorf. I did, and it went well enough that they wanted me to meet Steve Stone. So, a few weeks later, I flew to Arizona to get together with Steve for dinner. We hit it off and a few weeks after that, the Sox made me an offer. It was quite the whirlwind.

BPD: What was your first impression of Hawk and Steve Stone upon meeting with each of them? It stands to reason that familiar ground was covered in each conversation; where did those conversations diverge?

JB: Hawk and Steve have both been genuinely welcoming. I’m flattered by their kindness and interest in making this transition to the Sox as easy as possible.

Hawk is a family man who cares especially deeply for his grandchildren. Steve has a tremendous knack for easily navigating a wide variety of topics.

BPD: Compare and contrast yourself with Hawk Harrelson. (Have you ever invented something as influential as the batting glove?)

JB: The cool thing is Hawk and I converge quite a bit. One of the things he’s told me since I’ve been hired—and even before—is to be myself. I grew up loving Hawk because of that very thing. He’s not at all afraid to be himself. And that’s beautiful. So, our ways of doing play-by-play may not sound alike at all times, but they both come from the same place.

BPD: How are you preparing for the forthcoming season?

JB: Very carefully. I’m daily reading the Sox media guide, taking in the smaller points of the organization’s history. I have a large file on my computer with information on each player on the organization’s current roster. It’s periodic immersion.

BPD: How was your workload during the season determined?

JB: I’m not really sure. What I do know is that Hawk’s home during the season is near South Bend. So, it’s actually more convenient for him travel-wise to do the road games rather than the home games.

BPD: On those days when the White Sox will be playing, but you won’t have a game to call, how will you spend your evening?

JB: That’s an interesting question. The one thing I do know is that I’ll be watching the game. Not sure where, but I’ll definitely watch the game (whether at home or on vacation). There’s also the chance that I’ll have ESPN assignments during Sox road trips. In those cases, I’ll watch the game back via MLB.TV or on my DVR.

BPD: For someone who has never heard you before, what categorizes (and perhaps separates) a Benetti broadcast?

JB: Oh boy. Well, I generally subscribe to the Kansas theory of life: If I claim to be a wise man, that surely means that I don’t know.

I love asking questions of my analyst. I love legitimately finding out something new and nuanced about the game from the person next to me. So, if my partner uses an ambiguous word, I ask him or her to define it. It helps us all flesh out what we’re watching together.

I generally enjoy wordplay. And pop culture. One time this infielder for the Salem Avalanche (now Red Sox), Wladimir Sutil, was thrown out at the plate. So, I said, “You picked a fine time to leave me Sutil.” Was it funny to more than two people? I don’t know. But our concessions guy and I enjoyed it.

BPD: The more I broadcast, the more I learn both about myself as a broadcaster and the hidden science/art of the broadcast. What have been the most important things you have learned about yourself and your craft?

JB: What’s been most enlightening to me is that the audience and I both seem to be more fulfilled—or at least more inclined to remember a broadcast-based on the things we discuss which are unique to that broadcast.

In December, I called a Colgate-Syracuse basketball game on ESPNU. The last time Colgate beat Syracuse, the Raiders did it twice in one season. The week of the second win that year, the #1 song in the United States was Duke of Earl, Gene Chandler’s repetitive, soulful classic.

So, I sang a short bit of the chorus on air. The next day at the airport, one of the Syracuse TSA agents says, as I walk through the metal detector, “Great job with that 60s song last night.”

It’s rarely, “Wow, your 3-point call with 12:20 to go was so sharp and staccato.” That said, all of the technical things we wonks obsess over allow singular moments to glow.

BPD: What experiences during your broadcasting road best prepared you for the role and put you in position to succeed? 

JB: To me, doing minor-league baseball is something I’d never, ever trade. The fun and ability to make some mistakes without the guillotine coming down on me was exceedingly valuable. It let me start to figure out what worked and what didn’t.

One night in Frederick, MD, the Salem Avalanche (one of my former teams) scored a bundle of runs in the first few innings. The game was totally out of hand. So, I noticed that someone had left a bottle of hand sanitizer in the booth. I decided to read the ingredients of the bottle between pitches. So, thanks to Avalanche GM John Katz for not firing me that night.

Plus, the long minor-league season taught me that getting better daily is really, truly worth it.

BPD: What is your favorite way to spend a rain delay?

JB: If I’m not on the air, my favorite rain delay pastime is to walk the concourse and chat with fans. Rarely in a baseball season do we get to see the field and its surroundings in game mode. I like seeing the ballpark from all of the angles I used to see it from when I was strictly a fan. A close second place is inane banter with other press box folks.

BPD: Who inspired you?

JB: In terms of play-by-play, Sean McDonough, Ian Eagle and Bob Costas all are different people. But, their common bond, to me, is that they use the language to create impact brilliantly. Their senses of humor combined with their abilities to wield the English tool make them the types of announcers that I pattern myself after. That’s not an exhaustive list, certainly.

Outside of play-by-play, I just finished a biography of the game show host Bill Cullen. I picked it up because I knew he had polio at a young age, which affected his ability to walk. On his television shows—the early Price is Right, I’ve Got a Secret and later, Blockbusters and Hot Potato, among others—he never was shown walking. Fascinatingly, I learned in the book that this wasn’t his decision. Directors, out of respect for Bill, let him walk to his position on camera. My opinion on this matter isn’t fully formed, but I do wonder what would have happened had directors not done this.

BPD: How do you regard your cerebral palsy? To connect Mr. Cullen overcoming polio to your overcoming of cerebral palsy, is it a reach to say that you feel a kinship with him as well as others of the same ilk, past or present?

JB: Well, I don’t know that I’m one to feel a kinship with historical figures. But, I do love knowing that something which came before me can inform, by analogy, what I do or don’t do. I feel strongly that when a person hits a roadblock, taking one’s eyes off the problem is the best way to elucidate an answer to that problem. Quite often, something substantively unrelated will give up a solution to the prior problem. It happens so often.

BPD: What obstacles has cerebral palsy presented you in the past that you have now surpassed? What challenges does it continue to present?

JB: When I was a kid, I found out pretty quickly that boatloads of people at my schools didn’t gravitate toward someone who looked like me. So, when I got to college I had a small group of high school friends who I mostly trusted. Then, I got to college and met some lovely people not from my area who shared a passion for sports and media. They helped me—through some trial and error (AKA me getting frustrated with them as they helped me understand me)—figure out how to truly be genuine with people and open up in order to trust them fully. Prior to meeting these people—my college roommates—I had the rather unwavering belief that people who met me would discount my IQ. That changed in college.

In terms of my disability and my work, it has taken some truly wonderful people to really believe in me on television and take a leap to put me there. I don’t look directly at the camera. I don’t physically command a room immediately when I walk in. I’m not a “best ball” ringer. But, a bunch of people have looked beyond that and put me on TV. For that, I’ll always be grateful—and so will the others who get those chances after me.

BPD: Who do you hope to inspire?

JB: Anyone who wants to do great work. If I’m doing that, it’d mean my work was rising to the threshold of great.

BPD: To close, which are your favorite ballparks, and why?

JB: Let’s assume for this question that U.S. Cellular Field is not a possible answer. Given that stipulation—which I’ve agreed to on your behalf—I choose Camden Yards in the majors. It’s, to me, the perfect combination of old and new. It’s beautifully tucked into a city block.

In the minors, I always loved going to Louisville Slugger Field in Louisville. First of all, the people there are simply top notch. Second, the crowds there are lively as can be most nights.

Also, you’ve got to go to Buffalo for Star Wars Night. The production is Hollywood-caliber. True glitz with purpose. The fans dress up like it’s some sort of bonus Halloween….October 32nd or something.

And, Indianapolis. A beautiful downtown ballpark. And the new Charlotte park. They crushed it.

Top image courtesy Chicago White Sox; front-page photo courtesy ESPN.

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