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Madden: Benson should not be scapegoat for Pirates

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The words "ridiculous" and "Pirates" have gone hand in hand for over a decade. But the attempt by the organization to position pitcher Kris Benson as a scapegoat races past "ridiculous," makes a hard right at "insane," then parks somewhere near the corner of Smokescreen Boulevard and Not My Fault Street.

Benson's arm hurts. So he's not pitching. Makes sense. Only Benson knows how his arm really feels, and besides, no one ever confused him with General Patton in the first place.

But, with the dust still settling from the Aramis Ramirez giveaway, General Manager David Littlefield blithely labels Benson's pain as "minor irritation." Manager Lloyd McClendon brusquely dismisses the mere mention of Benson: "I'm just trying to keep my guys who are ready to play focused."

Do the Pirates think Benson is tanking? If so, management should just come out and say it. Don't speak in thinly veiled terms. Stop slinking around the issue. Be the man you want Benson to be.

Of course, at that point Benson could have some choice responses of his own. I am by no means his authorized spokesman, but allow me to retort on his behalf anyway. Benson might say:

"In the movie 'Major League,' third baseman/aspiring actor Roger Dorn responded to a charge that he wasn't diving for ground balls by pointing to his face and saying, 'I am not about to risk this valuable property for a collection of stiffs.' Substitute my arm for his face, and you get the idea."

"I got blasted earlier this season for not pitching like a No. 1 starter. Now I'm getting blasted for not pitching through pain. Is anybody else in our clubhouse ever going to get ripped publicly, or are the ticket buyers to conclude that I am the sole reason we are headed for an 11th consecutive losing season?"

"The organization leaked to the media that the Pirates traded Ramirez instead of me because I took myself off the market by saying I had a sore shoulder. Did my shoulder have anything to do with getting almost nothing in return for a homegrown 25-year-old who can hit with power and drive in runs, or did stupidity and horrible financial planning jump in there at some point?"

"It's not worth my career to continue to throw. It's not in my best interest to keep going out there feeling the way I've been feeling."

Benson, by the way, actually made the last statement. It's no less correct than the previous three.

As for the idea that Benson is faking a sore shoulder to keep from being traded, that's absurd. His wife, Anna, was spotted wearing a New York Yankees visor at several games. Benson would love to leave the Pirates just as much as the Pirates would love to get rid of him.

But even leaving a bush outfit like the Pirates isn't worth risking a career-ending arm ailment.

Benson is scheduled to be a free agent after next season. This is an awful time for him to have arm problems. How does he benefit by pulling the ripcord?

I don't understand why the organization has developed such a collective contempt for Benson. True, he has been an underachiever since the team acquired him with the first draft pick overall in 1996, but what big-name player among the Pirates hasn't been disappointing this season?

Lionize Brian Giles all you want, but he has only 11 home runs. Didn't he miss a month with a knee injury? Was he faking? Jason Kendall is still an $8.5-million singles hitter. He and Giles, however, have not been the target of organizational wrath. Nor should they be. But neither should Benson.

(Here's an amusing note about the Giles-and-Kendall-to-San Diego trade rumors: Some say the Pirates are working overtime to trade those two together so they can maintain their close friendship. It sounds silly ... until you consider that the Pirates allegedly did the same exact thing when they sent Jeff King and Jay Bell to Kansas City together in 1996.)

The Pirates' doctors say nothing is structurally wrong with Benson's shoulder. But that's what team doctors are paid to find out. You can't fault him for wanting additional opinions.

We've established that Benson has nothing to gain by faking his shoulder ailments. So, who gains when speculation concerning such fakery runs rampant? The Pirates' organization does.

The benefits are quite minor. You only can only detract so much from a decade-plus of depressing futility with plenty more on the way. But there's only one thing worse than a bunch of athletes who stink, and it's an athlete who's a coward. So the Pirates are trying to make Benson look like a coward.

I don't buy it, and I don't like it. The Pirates' treatment of Benson is petty and bullying. Considering the disarray of the organization, that would be true even if he were faking.

Then again, this is a golden era for franchise-authored fairy tales. Owner Kevin McClatchy says the Pirates lost $30 million over the past three years. That seems very hard to fathom considering that PNC Park's luxury suites are regularly sold out and that the Pirates drew their fifth-best, best and seventh-best attendance figures ever over the past three full campaigns.

Littlefield says the $6 million the Pirates would have spent on Ramirez next year can be put to better use in the free-agent market. After all, look what happened this season with Jeff D'Amico, Kenny Lofton, Reggie Sanders, Matt Stairs and Jeff Suppan. There's no doubt Littlefield struck gold with cheap free agents this year. There's also little doubt it was a major fluke.

So, if the Pirates want to point a finger at Benson, fine. Anyone with a brain knows the truth. But then, anyone with a brain stopped caring about the Pirates a long time ago.

Mark Madden hosts a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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