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Baseball profile

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by 5RunHomer, May 20, 2011.

  1. 5RunHomer

    5RunHomer New Member

    I'm looking for some feedback on a feature I wrote a few weeks ago. I could get into my thought process on the structure and style but I'll see what's said of it first. Appreciate the help ladies and gentleman.

    Alabama's Brock Bennett proved the skeptics wrong

    TUSCALOOSA | Staring at the television screen, Cliff Shelton couldn't put a finger on who was playing catcher for the University of Alabama.
    The way he moved with ease behind the plate was all too familiar, darting to errant pitches few could reach, smothering the ball and keeping the base runners from advancing.
    Shelton had seen someone catch like this before.
    A high school baseball coach of nearly 30 years, Shelton grasped for the thread of a memory he couldn't quite reach.
    Each pitch brought a sinking sense of bewilderment for the coach of Greater Atlanta Christian. The way the catcher received the ball and flicked it back to the pitcher in one effortless motion gnawed at him like the missing answer to a riddle he had solved dozens of times before.
    As the final out of the inning was recorded, the catcher popped up from his crouch behind home plate. Dusting off the dried red clay from his uniform, he trotted to his home dugout, slapping high fives with his teammates.
    Shelton leaned forward to get a better look at the screen. Seeing him walk off the field, it was unmistakable. The catcher's gear added more bulk to his frame, but it was his height that gave him away.
    As a 5-foot-9 catcher among a team of 6-foot-somethings, Shelton finally recognized his former player. Reaching for a drink, he shook his head and thought of a conversation four years earlier.
    “Boy, I got that one wrong,” Shelton blurted out

    Return to sender

    If you hear something enough times, you start to believe it's true.
    University of Alabama catcher Brock Bennett has heard it all, over and over again, but he won't accept it. He won't believe the doubters, the skeptics or the prognosticators. He won't believe the coaches, players or fans for that matter — not even his own.
    After all, it's hard to believe in anyone when your own high school coach doesn't know you want to play college baseball, nor think you have what it takes to do so.
    When Bennett told his head coach at Greater Atlanta Christian he wanted to play Division-I baseball, Shelton thought it was a joke.
    Shelton thought he was a good player, but not the type to play at the next level. At 5-foot-9 and 135 pounds, he was barely big enough to play in high school.
    Walking out of his office, Bennett shrugged it off when Shelton told him to set his sights a little lower, adding his coach's name to the already long list of naysayers.
    Atheletes have been known to keep those lists, cataloging those who have doubted their talent. Michael Jordan will never forgive his high school coach for cutting him from the team his sophomore year. Tom Brady still gets miffed about being taken in the sixth round of the draft. Sometimes they simply make up an antagonist they have to prove wrong. Not many, however, have evidence to back it up.
    Bennett has piles of evidence, some of which is marked with First Class postage.
    Together with his parents, Bennett filed away the rejection letters from college coaches at home in Tucker, Ga. Despite a senior year in which he hit over .350 and didn't commit an error, Bennett couldn't get a response.
    While most college-level athletes are busy sorting the incoming mail from schools doing everything short of begging for their services, Bennett was helping his mother lick stamps and fax stat sheets.
    Like an unemployed salesman mailing out cover letters to prospective employers, Bennett and his mother applied and applied, never getting a response.
    Playing at Greater Atlanta Christian, Bennett saw many of his friends go through their college recruitments. While scouts lined up to see his teammates, Bennett got lost in the shuffle.
    Even Georgia Tech, which keeps Greater Atlanta Christian in its backyard like a tool shed, stopping by from time to time to get the next star player, failed to take notice of Bennett.
    They weren't alone.
    Dozens upon dozens of letters were sent out to no avail. While others may have taken it as a sign, Bennett took it as a challenge.
    One weekend while touring the baseball facilities at LaGrange College, of the small but sturdy Great South Atlantic Conference, Bennett made up his mind. Looking around the ballpark and batting cages, he knew it wasn't where he belonged. At Greater Atlanta Christian, the facilities were not only better, but the players may have been as well. If he was going to play in college, taking a step back wasn't an option.

    With that in mind, Bennett decided to enroll at UA. He knew the chances of walking on were slim, but he decided if he was going to do it, he would go all out.
    “I wasn't going to play just to play. I'd rather compete at the highest level possible,” Bennett said.

    Catching a break

    When Bennett pulls his crimson jersey overhead before each game, falling well on his hard-earned frame, he hears the doubts in the back of his head, gnawing away at him.
    Never mind hitting over .350 and appearing in the starting lineup without interruption for nearly two seasons, Bennett still wonders when it will all end — when people will realize he's too short, too weak, too, well, unorthodox.
    A catcher stuck in a middle infielder's body, Bennett has been told ever since he was big enough to put on shin guards and a catcher's mask that he might want to try another position.
    In high school, Shelton wanted him to play second base. When he came out for tryouts at Alabama, then-head coach Jim Wells thought he was a middle infielder.
    If he had been, he wouldn't have had a chance. In the end, it was his position that saved him. Lacking a backup catcher to catch bullpens and batting practice — essentially, handle the grunt work — Wells saw enough in Bennett to take him on as the team's third catcher.
    Of the 25-30 players who tried out in 2006, Alabama kept two.
    “The key thing is, he was a catcher,” Wells said, recalling the wiry 135-pounder who showed up for the first day of practice. “If a kid walks on as a catcher, he's got a good chance of hanging on longer — it doesn't mean he's going to make the team, though.”
    In the beginning, it didn't look like he would.
    Sure, Bennett would have the opportunity to dress out, but playing was another story. Catchers under 190 pounds don't exist these days. Maybe in the 60s or 70s, but not now. A catcher of Bennett's size simply wasn't a consideration.
    “His first year, we traveled to play Southern Miss and my assistants were over talking to the Southern Miss coaches and they thought I brought my 12-year-old son to the game,” Wells said.
    Despite showing flashes of ability, Wells was hesitant to hand Bennett the reins. With such a small frame, the danger of hurting himself was a consideration, let alone his lack of power at the plate.
    In a league where offense is a premium, Wells couldn't risk having an everyday player who couldn't hit his weight — even if he was one of the hardest working players on the team.
    “When he came in 2006, he was just another guy, just another bullpen catcher. The difference between him and some other guy walking off the street was that he laid it all on the line every day,” Wells said. “There was a part of me where we'd sit down as a staff and say the best catcher is Bennett, but he struggled offensively then and was about the size of your thumbnail.”
    In baseball terms, the catcher is considered the backstop — a brick wall capable of not only blocking errant pitches, but also shielding the plate from runners.
    He's the last line of defense, holding his position at home while runners barrel down the third-base line at break-neck speed. It's a cruel game of capture the flag where even the toughest players are knocked to the ground by a determined base runner.
    The image of Pete Rose nearly obliterating Ray Fosse on a play at the plate in the 1970 All-Star Game is a taste of what life for a catcher entails. Like a safety blowing up an unsuspecting receiver coming over the middle, the collisions can be violent, bordering on brutal.
    While Wells resisted putting Bennett behind the plate because of his vulnerability, incoming coach Mitch Gaspard had a plan.
    Gaspard had seen the glimmers of hope from Bennett and was determined to see if he could be an everyday player. Gambling on his instinct, Gaspard gave Bennett an unusual option: Sit out his junior year, using the season to put on weight.
    Resigned to life as a career back-up, Bennett was surprised when Gaspard told him the plan, thrilled to find he was getting noticed and, if everything worked out, given the opportunity to earn a spot in the lineup.

    Muscle Milk

    Resigned to life in the bullpen catching practice sessions, Bennett took the opportunity as a sign of affirmation.
    Bennett would turn his already renowned workouts into something of legend. Five days a week, he'd wake before dawn and beat the coaches to the ballpark to hit the weights.
    He gained the nickname “Muscle Milk” from carrying around the nutritional drink at all hours. When he wasn't working out, he was eating or drinking his supplements.
    A stringbean for most of his life, Bennett began bulking up as he progressed through the year. While the team was busy eating hamburgers and French fries, Bennett would hover over his fish and carrots, obsessed with maintaining the best diet possible.
    There would be no cheat days and no family-style meals. Eggs, yogurt, veggies and the occasional lean meat were tolerated.
    Soon, teammates and coaches took notice, joking with Bennett that in a game where fitness isn't high on the list of priorities, he was setting a new standard.
    “If Brock takes his shirt off, he could be on the cover of Muscle Fitness,” Gaspard said.
    When Bennett showed up the following season, he had put on more than 20 pounds. Now a lean, ripped 175 pounds, Bennett was determined to stake his claim behind the plate.
    In his first three SEC starts, Bennett went 8-for-11, scoring four runs and knocking in three.
    This season, Bennett has been a constant. Day in and day out, he's in the starting lineup, never missing a beat behind the plate or in the batter's box. In 43 games, he's hitting .356, trailing teammate Jared Reaves by one point for ninth in the SEC.
    For Wells, seeing the transformation Bennett had undergone is nothing short of miraculous.
    In his 15 seasons coaching at UA, Wells said he's never seen anything quite like Bennett's story. He had a front-row seat for the early years but even he wouldn't claim to have seen it coming.
    “Honestly, at the time, I would not see him being the starting catcher,” Wells said. “I don't think anyone dreaming in their wildest dreams would have seen what Brock became.”
    The coaches cap long set aside but the signal-caller's mentality still lingering, Wells sees the same intangibles in Bennett that prompted him to take a chance on the him years ago.
    “Playing hard is the No. 1 ingredient which is more important than any talent you have. He's going to do that,” Wells said. “You're looking for toughness mentally and physically. He's got that -- a guy that really cares how the team does more so than how he does on a daily basis. ... He's had all that since he's walked on campus. He's just 40 pounds heavier now.”

    A second chance

    A .356 hitter with the fastest 60-yard-dash time on the team, Bennett has drawn the eye of Major League scouts.
    It doesn't matter much if you're under 6-feet when you have hands like Bennett does behind the plate. Coupled with a penchant for making contact at the plate, a shot at playing at the next level will be waiting for him if he chooses.
    For Brock's father, Keith, the opportunity to play professionally was there, but the choice wasn't.
    A late-round pick by the Cincinnati Reds in 1978, he never had the chance to follow his dream. His family wouldn't allow it. As a practicing Seventh Day Adventist, playing baseball was difficult. Every Friday at sundown he was forced to leave the baseball field, sometimes in the middle of games, and stay home Saturdays to worship.
    A power-hitting third baseman who regularly hit 20-plus home runs, Keith gained notoriety, leading his team to consecutive state championships.
    As an amateur, his faith was an obstacle that could be overcome, but being a professional ballplayer was another story.
    “In the middle of the game, with 15 minutes to sundown, here comes Daddy,” Keith said, recalling a state tournament in which several scouts were on hand to watch him play. “He said, ‘It's time to go,' and that would be that.”
    What would have been seen as taking two days off in a seven-day-a-week sport, juggling faith and baseball wasn't an option at the big-league level.
    More than 40 years later, Keith is no longer a practicing Seventh Day Adventist. He isn't bitter about how his parent's faith ended his baseball career, saying simply that “religion came into it.” But looking back, he can only guess where it would have taken him and how far he could have gone in the game he dearly loved.
    “You look back on it now and wonder what would have been,” Keith said. “I always said when I have my children I'd let them make that decision.”
    For Brock, leaving the field was never an option — not that he needed encouragement to stay. From sun up to sun down, he'd work on fielding ground balls and hitting in the cage with his father.
    Recalling all the time spent together in the backyard playing catch, Keith knows the hard work has finally paid off.
    “It would be really rewarding for all the many hours and times we've played ball together to see him take it to that level,” Keith said.
    Although the two don't talk about how Keith could have worn a Reds cap and played under the bright lights, Brock knows his fortunes could be vastly different.
    “He's put me every situation that I can to have an opportunity to do what he wasn't able to do,” Brock said.
    Not long ago Brock was the one stuck on the sidelines, introducing himself to teammates as the guy who catches bullpens.
    Now, he's the leader of a team on track for the SEC tournament. He's gone from wearing the catcher's gear, to owning it. Behind the plate, he's no longer the 5-foot-9 walk-on. He's just Brock Bennett — starting catcher for the University of Alabama.
  2. JimmyHoward33

    JimmyHoward33 Well-Known Member

    Great snippet at the beginning. I wonder if there's more to what Shelton got wrong....was he the one discouraging the college recruiters? The kid wasn't held back in HS, he was fulltime starter and all.

    Only other question I have is if there's anything to the way the kid broke into the line-up. Was there just a spot due to graduation and he seized it in preseason camp? An injury that opened something up? Obviously if there's no dumb luck involved it doesn't merit mention, but I'm curious.

    All in all an excellent read, a good story I wouldn't have any idea about if I didn't happen on it on SJ. Cool.
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