Much like Chris Parmelee, Joe Benson wasn't expected to see any big league time in 2011. But sometimes the best laid plans go awry -- 99 losses probably qualifies -- and as a result, a few of the 40-man roster guys from New Britain got a chance to try their chops against big league pitching.
Benson's star shines a bit more brightly than Parmelee's -- don't let the early results deter your thinking -- but both should be a big part of what I feel is a brighter future than most pundits think in Minneapolis. Benson, like Parmelee, was soft-spoken and very accommodating when I sat down with him last October in the Twins clubhouse.
Brandon Warne: Who is Joe Benson, both as a player and a person?
Joe Benson: As a player, I like to think I’m a toolsy outfielder; that’s what I keep hearing. I play hard; I play with a lot of intensity. Sometimes a little too much. As a person, I’m pretty laid back. I enjoy music a lot, and I enjoy being up here in the Twin Cities.
BW: Can you talk about your youth a little bit? You were extremely skilled at both baseball and football. Take us through your youth, whether it was playing those sports, or anything else.
JB: I grew up in a south suburb of Chicago, Joliet. I was a huge Cubs fan, even though all my friends were Sox fans, because the White Sox play on the south side. I started playing baseball when I was four years old. I picked up football in high school, just sort of a way to hang out with friends and do something after school. I ended up being pretty good at football, but baseball was always my first love, so when colleges came around, I chose baseball over football.
BW: How did you come to that decision?
JB: I just could never imagine hanging up the cleats and having a summer without baseball. So, when I made the decision between the two, it was baseball first and foremost.
BW: Sounds like a simple decision, but also the right decision. Once you focused on baseball, what was it like to be recruited and to have teams and schools express interest in you as you came up the ranks?
JB: Football recruiting started a lot sooner than baseball; it started my sophomore year. It was colleges sending me letters, questionnaires, and inviting me out to games to check it out. The closer it got to my senior year, or my junior summer, I finally started getting some baseball recruiting interest after a long, long summer of baseball.
That’s when I knew I had to make the decision between baseball and football, and once I made the baseball decision, I told most of the colleges for football. A bunch of schools then started coming in offering for both baseball and football, but once the draft came and I was taken, it was almost a guarantee I was going to sign.
BW: Did any college football coach push you really hard to sign?
JB: Not so much. They knew baseball was my first interest, but once they heard I was interested in their school for baseball, a bunch of football teams started jumping in, helping the baseball team out with scholarships. Football gets tons of scholarships, baseball gets hardly any. But anyway, I signed with Purdue, and that was it.
BW: Take us through draft day, and what it was like to hear your name called.
JB: I was finishing a Mario game I had started on my GameBoy, because I was travelling. I went to Houston for a workout, and then flew up to Minneapolis and did a workout at the Metrodome. I started playing the GameBoy game, and was finishing up that morning of the draft. I wasn’t going to start watching personally until about the third round, because that was the highest I’d heard I had a chance to go.
Mom and dad were kind of checking it out on the computer, and reading off names of kids I’d played against before, guys like Travis Snider, and (Chris) Parmelee. I played against Parmelee in some travel ball tournaments growing up. Anyway, my mom was reading off names, and she called out my full name -- William Joseph Benson -- and I turned and looked. I didn’t know if she was calling me, or....
BW: Like you were in trouble or something?
JB: Yeah, she was reading it off the computer screen. I looked over, and her head was in her hands, and she was crying. My dad was tearing up too, and I just started screaming. Immediately, telephones started going crazy, and within about five minutes, I had about 20 close friends over to swim and grill out and celebrate. Dad bought cigars. It was pretty cool.
BW: Just a brief segue, what was your perception of the Metrodome?
JB: Uh...it was nice. It was...nice to work out in. The ball flew well. *laughs*
BW: I bet it worked wonders for your power, and let you show off a little bit.
JB: The weather was always nice inside!
BW: Anyway, take us through coming up in the Twins system. As a high school draftee, you obviously have to start lower on the totem pole, and work your way up a bit longer as most of the college draft picks. Similarly, you’re probably getting more instruction from some of the Twins legends. Tell us about the instruction that you received from both legends and non-legends, and what kind of things those guys preached to you.
JB: Most of the work I did was in the batting cage with hitting coaches. They’re an organization that preaches getting your foot down, and being fundamentally sound. I’ve had a chance to work with Jim Dwyer in the Florida State League -- he played 18 years in the big leagues -- and Paul Molitor -- obviously.
BW: Nobody better.
JB: Yeah. But I’ve also worked with our hitting coordinator, Bill Springman, just going through everything. You can’t take everything to heart, because you have all these outside influences, but at the same time, you try to absorb as much information as possible, and take bits and pieces from everyone and kind of put it altogether.
BW: Did the Twins try to alter anything about you right out of the chute?
JB: No, they did a lot of observing as I played my first year in the Gulf Coast League. I pretty much spent every morning in the cage with Jake Mauer, who was then the hitting coach of my Rookie Ball team. They didn’t change much until Instructional League came around, and then the whole learning process of hitting started.
BW: What is your approach at the plate, and how has it evolved since you were drafted?
JB: My approach is get a fastball, hit the fastball. I’d like to think that I have a better plan at the plate now -- I can anticipate pitches, and sit change-up, sit breaking ball -- than I did in the past. I try to simplify everything; get a good pitch, and hit it hard.
BW: There can be some stigmas that can come with being a high-walk, high-strikeout kind of guy. I’m not saying that I think you’re necessarily headed down that path, but I think that’s actually become more of a positive thing in light of Adam Dunn’s career -- 2011 notwithstanding -- and what he’s done with that skill set. How do you find your approach being tailored based on what you see other players doing successfully?
JB: It’s all about slowing everything down when you get to the plate, and seeing pitches well. If you’re not seeing pitches, you’re in a lot of trouble, like if you’re not recognizing the breaking ball that day, or even the changeup or fastball. You just have to try slow everything down, and take everything nice and easy. I know I’m a high strikeout guy, and I’d like to cut them down, but I think that’ll come with experience. Facing guys more than once, plate approach changing obviously, and those sort of things, but I’ll work on them and see where it goes from there.
BW: Having talked to Parmelee recently, tell us about your call to the big leagues, and being told to "get a haircut."
JB: Mine was kind of a rollercoaster ride; I got ejected in the ninth inning of the game for arguing balls and strikes. We ended up losing, and being eliminated from playoff contention, and still Smitty (New Britain manager Jeff Smith) came in with a big smile on his face. I thought that was a little odd since we had lost, but he sat the team down and told us how proud he was of us, and how much the Twins as an organization were proud of us and appreciated us taking it to the last day of the season.
Then, real subtly, he told me and Chris, "You guys better shave up, you’re going to the big leagues." That was kind of cool; I’d rather have it done that way rather than having him call us into the office individually. That way we got to celebrate with our teammates whom we’d been grinding out a tough season with from day one. Immediately it was hectic, but we celebrated with everyone for a little bit. Everyone was packing up, and I had to run outside for a bit and talk to my family, but it was a thrill of a lifetime.
BW: Take me through that first at bat in the big leagues. I watched it personally on TV, but I’d like to know what was running through your mind as you were on deck and stepping into the batter’s box? Once you got inside the lines, did all the nerves go away?
JB: Yeah, my heart was probably racing a million miles an hour. I tried slowing everything down, but it didn’t help that my helmet came flying off on my first swing. My helmet was too big, and I had a belt that didn’t fit. I told myself I was going to swing at the first pitch, because I knew it was going to be a fastball, but it ended up being low. But I took a couple extremely large hacks, saw a couple pitches, and got a 3-2 changeup and ended up walking. It was fun. It was cool.
BW: How about the first big league hit? How was that for you?
JB: That was a giant relief; it took me about 12 or 13 at bats, or whatever it was to finally get the hit. I ended up reaching out, and blooping a little slider up over the third baseman’s head out in Detroit for my first knock.
BW: You haven’t stopped since; you’ve been hitting well in the meantime. You’ve only been up for a couple of weeks, but what has baseball at the big league level taught you, whether it’s from your teammates, your coaches, or the game itself?
JB: You know, I’m just watching and observing a lot. You have to get to the ballpark early; it’s hard work. It’s a grind. You have to get your individual work in everyday. You’re responsible for yourself, and your actions. Just go out and play the game hard. The Twins preach it. No matter what physical mistakes you make, as long as you’re hustling, and playing hard, for the most part the coaches won’t ever question anything you do wrong.
BW: The Twins obviously think quite highly of you, as you’re one of the organizations best prospects overall. What does it mean to you to be noted as a top prospect for an organization like this?
JB: I guess it’s cool and all. Being a prospect means you just have more to do, and a lot more learning left. Does it really mean anything? Probably not. Those things change all the time. I’d like to think that I work hard to get where I’m at, and I don’t really believe in the prospect rankings and all that.
BW: Any parting thoughts for Twins fans, or anything you want fans to know about you?
JB: Go Twins! I mean, I don’t really have much to say. I’m not that interesting of a guy. I don’t do social networking; that’d probably get me into trouble. I will say one thing, getting to play in this beautiful ballpark, in front of these great fans coming out despite the fact that we’ve been eliminated for quite a while. I can’t say enough about the fans here in Minneapolis.
Walking the streets back to the hotel, or wherever it is, you see Twins gear and hats on everyone. We appreciate all the love and them coming out and cheering us on even though we’re out of this thing.