Todd Benzinger (TRADING CARD DB)

Todd Benzinger

This article was written by Bill Nowlin

Todd Benzinger (TRADING CARD DB)There aren’t many in baseball who have had the thrill of catching the ball, thus making the final play that seals their team winning a world championship. In the bottom of the ninth inning of Game Four of the 1990 World Series, Cincinnati Reds first baseman Todd Benzinger took his position and hoped the Reds could hold onto the 2-1 lead over the Oakland Athletics that they had just taken. The Reds had won the first three games and just needed three more outs to sweep the A’s.

Dave Henderson was up first. He took a called third strike. José Canseco, the 1998 American League MVP, hit a routine chopper to Chris Sabo at third base. Sabo threw across the diamond to Benzinger, who caught the ball for the second out. The third batter of the inning was Carney Lansford. Lansford took two balls, then hit a foul dribbler to his third-base coach. On the fourth pitch, he lifted a pop fly, foul, to Benzinger, who had time. Benzinger backpedaled maybe 40 feet behind first base and 10 feet foul, then gloved the ball for the final out, holding his glove high. The Reds were world champions.

Todd Eric Benzinger played parts of nine seasons in the major leagues as a first baseman and outfielder for five different teams. He was born on February 11, 1963, in Dayton, Kentucky, a small city just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. His parents were Joan Barbara (McGrath) Benzinger and Joseph Albert Benzinger, Jr., an elementary school teacher.1 Todd had three older sisters – Holly, Lynn, and Kimberly, an older brother Joseph, and a younger brother, Brian.

Todd was a switch-hitter who threw right-handed, stood 6-feet-1, and was listed at 185 pounds.

There was some baseball in the family. An uncle, Don Gross (his wife June’s sister was Todd’s mother), was a left-handed pitcher who worked for the Reds 1955-57 and the Pirates 1958-60, winning 20 big-league games. Gross told this author that he didn’t really have any direct influence on Todd: “When he was in high school, I had a sporting-goods business in Cincinnati, and I used to go over and see the baseball coach.”2

Benzinger was drafted out of high school, selected in the fourth round of the June 1981 draft by the Boston Red Sox. Larry Thomas is the Red Sox scout credited with signing Benzinger.3 Todd had just completed his studies at nearby New Richmond (Ohio) High School, on the banks of the Ohio River and about 20 miles southwest of Cincinnati, where he was a multi-sport athlete and named an All-American. Football was perhaps his favorite sport. He was a star running back in high school.4

The 18-year-old Benzinger was sent to the Elmira Pioneers in the short-season Class-A New York Penn League. He played in 41 games and hit for a .241 batting average but took a good number of walks and had a .335 on-base percentage. He got on base enough that he scored 21 runs, though he only drove in eight.

In 1982 he put in his first full season appearing in 121 games for the Winston-Salem Red Sox of the Class-A Carolina League. He hit .219 with 46 RBIs, but with more experience he upped his average to .279 in 1983, playing in 125 games for the Winter Haven Red Sox of the Class-A Florida State League. He was voted the outstanding player in the league All-Star Game. By season’s end, he had driven in 68 runs.

Advancing to the Double-A New Britain Red Sox in 1984, Benzinger pretty much held his own (.258, 60 RBIs) and his 10 home runs put him in double digits for the first time. He would have played more than the 110 games in which he appeared, but a broken thumb ended his season early.

During the offseason, he worked out at the same facility as Pete Rose in Cincinnati.5

Both 1985 and 1986 were spent in Triple A with the Pawtucket Red Sox. In 1985, he hit .250 with 47 runs batted in. In his first year at Pawtucket, he was limited to 70 games due to preseason arthroscopic knee surgery. He batted .252 but only had 32 RBIs in 1986 despite playing in 90 games, 20 more than the year before. He didn’t get called up in September as Boston was on its way to the postseason and a World Series that went the full seven games against the New York Mets.

In 1987, Benzinger seemed to put it all together and had an excellent spring training. Over the first 65 games with the Pawsox, he hit .323 with 49 RBIs. In May, he earned himself “player of the week” recognition in the International League and in June a promotion to the Boston Red Sox, filling an opening left by Bill Buckner who had developed a debilitating hip problem.

Benzinger’s first appearance in a big-league game was as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the eighth inning against the New York Yankees at Fenway Park on June 21. The score was tied, 2-2, and there was one out in the bottom of the eighth. Facing Bob Tewksbury, Benzinger drew a four-pitch base on balls (Tewksbury’s only walk of the game.) The next batter up, Ellis Burks, hit a two-run homer that put Boston on top, 4-2. That was the final score, and the win upped Roger Clemens’s record on the year to 6-6.

He was still young. Described as “baby-faced,” Benzinger told USA Today, “I was driving out of the lot the other night and I heard one fan say, `Who’s he?’ Another guy says, `Nobody.’ Someone else says, `Oh, he’s just the bat boy.’”6

The very next day, Benzinger got his first start, and his first major-league base hit. The Milwaukee Brewers were in town. Benzinger played right field and batted seventh in the order. His first time up, facing John Henry Johnson, he singled up the middle into right-center field. A subsequent single sent him to third base, but he was left stranded there. Next time up, he hit into a double play, though Jim Rice scored from third base on the play. He grounded out to second his third time up. The Red Sox won, 5-2.

He got one or more base hits in each of the next three games, too, and his first runs batted in – four of them – came on June 24, thanks to a pair of two-run singles in a game the Sox won, 8-7, against the Brewers.

Benzinger’s first home run came in his 10th game, a two-run homer on July 1 against the Orioles’ Mike Griffin. He did say he benefitted from hitting in front of Wade Boggs.

When Buckner came back from the DL, Glenn Hoffman was sent down to Pawtucket. Benzinger remained with the Sox. Before the end of July, Buckner was released. Dwight Evans split his time between first base and the outfield. A number of homegrown players rotated in the Red Sox outfield: Jim Rice, Mike Greenwell, Ellis Burks, and Benzinger.

Benzinger played steadily for the rest of the 1987 season, appearing in 73 games and hitting .278 (.344 OBP), with 43 RBIs. He was an outfielder, except for two games in which he played first base. He made only two errors in 154 chances.

Still commuting to Boston from an apartment in Pawtucket, he was fortunate to have escaped serious injury or death on August 22 when a truck driver fell asleep and crashed into Benzinger’s car, sending him flying into the back seat as the car overturned. “I’m lucky I didn’t end up out the windshield,” he said.7 A fractured back was a possibility, but he was able to return a little over a week later.

Benzinger’s biggest game was on September 15 in Detroit when he drove in seven runs with a first-inning grand slam and a pair of RBI singles, but the Red Sox lost, 9-8. With the Red Sox having so many young players, there were a number of inquiries about trade possibilities, but they stuck with him. His versatility helped: he was a switch-hitter and could play both first base and outfield. In early spring training in 1988, he said, “When I came here last spring I had so many doubts. But I went out and proved myself. I knew I wasn’t going to make the team in April. But I knew that I would also be back.”8

He’d proven beyond doubt that he was a major leaguer, but there was still a lot of competition for a starting berth in Boston; Sam Horn remained in the mix and now there was Brady Anderson as well. There had been some thought Benzinger might be a bench player in 1988, but as it worked out, he got regular playing time. 9 May 5 was his best day: 4-for-5 with a home run and four RBIs against the visiting White Sox. For whatever reason, however, John McNamara did “not seem comfortable playing Benzinger on a regular basis.”10

Benzinger got off to something of a slow start and lost almost three weeks, with time on the disabled list, due to a groin pull that had bothered him all spring and then a strained muscle in his right forearm. When he returned, he was moved to first base. By season’s end, 85 of his 120 games were spent as a first baseman.

Joe Morgan had taken over as manager from John McNamara on July 14. Benzinger was quoted as saying, “The only thing I can say is the team won’t be any worse because of it.”11 The Red Sox went on their “Morgan Magic” spree, winning their first 12 games under the new manager and 19 of their first 20. Benzinger got one or more base hits in every one of his next 15 starts and raised his average from .231 to .282 in the process. One special moment was his game-winning three-run Fenway Park homer in the 10th inning against the Twins on July 20.12 Benzinger wasn’t timid about speaking up, saying, “It’s no accident that the players who are contributing now are the people who weren’t considered important members of the team a few weeks ago.”13 He had another 10th-inning game-winner on August 7, a single that broke a 0-0 tie against the Tigers and earned a win for Bruce Hurst.

Benzinger tailed off and wound up at .254 with 13 homers and 70 RBIs. He was remarkably good in the clutch; with the bases loaded, he hit .421 with 18 RBIs.14 In December 1988, Pete Rose said that Ted Williams told him that Benzinger was “the best young clutch hitter in baseball.” Benzinger said he had wondered why the Red Sox had stuck with him during his disappointing years in the minors. “Probably it was Williams. If I live up to what he says about me, I should make the Hall of Fame.”15

In a very close American League East race, the Red Sox finished just one game ahead of the Detroit Tigers and two ahead of both the Brewers and Blue Jays. Even the fifth-place Yankees were only 3½ games behind. The Red Sox and Oakland A’s (who had dominated the AL West) squared off in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series. In 12 plate appearances, Benzinger reached base but twice – on a walk and an inconsequential single in Game Two. The A’s swept the Red Sox.

In mid-December, the Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds made a trade. Benzinger, pitcher Jeff Sellers, and a player to be named later (minor-leaguer Luis Vasquez) were sent to Cincinnati for Nick Esasky and Rob Murphy. It was something of a surprise for Benzinger; late in the season, he had loaded up on Red Sox merchandise for his Christmas gifts.16

But Benzinger joined the team he’d been a fan of when he was growing up. He said that George Foster had been his favorite player.17 The Reds had finished in second place for four years in a row. The team was hoping to capture first. Pete Rose was the manager as the season got under way.

He certainly got playing time with the Reds, appearing in every game of the 1989 season save one, and 158 of those 161 games were at first base. The only game he missed was on April 30. Early on, he made headlines with a first-inning single that drove in a run against Orel Hershiser, breaking the pitcher’s streak of 59 consecutive scoreless innings. His 628 at-bats led the National League. He had three four-RBI games, ending the season with a career-high 76 RBIs and a .245 batting average. A grand slam on June 27 gave the Reds all the runs they needed to beat the Braves, 9-3. His biggest single day was on August 18, when he was 5-for-8 in a doubleheader against the Cardinals, with a three-run homer in the first game and a grand slam in the second.

Tommy Helms took over as manager in August. The team had suffered from a lot of injuries; by mid-July, the only starting position player who had not been on the DL was Benzinger and some had been on it more than once. The Reds finished fifth.

Lou Piniella became the new Cincinnati manager in 1990. He was hoping to see Benzinger cut down on the strikeouts (he had struck out 120 times in 1989) and add another 25 points to his average. On March 2, Benzinger suffered a cracked bone in his left hand during a session at a batting cage where he had been working out. He got off to a good start, though, when the season began, and hit .339 in April. That declined to .297 at the end of May, but he was still batting a very good .285 at the end of June, having played in all but two games. In early July, he hurt the tendons in his right hand while swinging a lead bat in the on-deck circle and missed more than a week. A batboy had run by while he was swinging, and he had to abruptly check his swing. He was down to .262 by the end of the month. He finished the season hitting .254, having seen his average go down in every month.

Left-handed-hitting Hal Morris had joined the Reds in mid-June and he finished strong, hitting .340 for the year, playing first base almost as much as Benzinger (who appeared in 95 games at first base compared to Morris’s 80.) They shared first-base duties in a significant number of games. The Reds won the National League pennant and beat the Pirates four games to two in the NLCS. As Cincinnati prepared to play Oakland in the World Series, Benzinger praised the A’s for sweeping the Red Sox in the ALCS, but talked about his own manager, Piniella, saying, “Playing for Lou is tough. He doesn’t show confidence in me. You end up trying to show him up by trying to do things on the field you don’t normally do.”18 Boston sportswriter Mike Shalin added, “You don’t have to read too far behind the lines to know Benzinger isn’t president of the Piniella Fan Club.”

The Reds won, regardless of any clubhouse tension, sweeping the A’s, and Benzinger gloved the ball for the final out. The team shared in all the honors, and Benzinger was a world champion for the team he’d rooted for while growing up.

In all of 1991 spring training, Benzinger never got even one extra-base hit.19 The first start he got in 1991 was in the season’s second game and he both doubled and tripled, driving in four runs to help beat the Astros, 6-5. He really struggled, though, hitting .231 at the end of April and only .153 by the end of May. He was clearly unhappy and asked to be traded. In fact, he went further and said he would “make noise…If it takes becoming a nuisance to the team, I’m going to do that.”20 The Reds as a team were only batting .227. Piniella said, “I’d play Ghadaffi, Attila the Hun and Hussein if they could hit.”21

Benzinger was dealt on July 11, to the Kansas City Royals for left fielder/first baseman Carmelo Martinez, who’d been struggling with the bat himself. Perhaps a change of scenery would do them both good. Martinez did bump his average up from .207 to .232. Benzinger did a lot better than that after rejoining the American League. When the Royals won 15 of 19 games, Benzinger was “the hottest hitter on the hottest team in baseball.”22 Batting .187 at the time of the trade, he hit .324 with 16 RBIs in his first 16 games with the Royals. Royals manager Hal McRae said, “He has contributed a lot to the success of this club.”23

The Royals settled back and finished in sixth place. Benzinger hit a very solid .294 in his 78 games with Kansas City.

The Royals acquired Wally Joyner in December and Benzinger knew that meant they were willing to move him. The Los Angeles Dodgers traded for him on December 11, sending Chris Gwynn and a minor-league player. Benzinger said he was thankful to the Reds for having traded him, adding, “I got my career back on track in Kansas City.”24

In 1992, Eric Karros got most of the work at first base for the Dodgers. Benzinger divided his time between the outfield (51 games) and first base (42). He appeared in 121 games overall, doing a fair amount of pinch-hitting. His batting average was .239; a bit below the team’s overall .248. That December, the Dodgers declined to offer him a contract.

A free agent, he signed with the San Francisco Giants in January 1993, at less than half his previous pay but with a number of incentives built into the deal. He had a very good year with the Giants, batting .288 in 86 games. Will Clark had a lock on first base for Dusty Baker’s team. Benzinger helped as he could and performed well.

Clark signed with the Rangers in November. Over the wintertime, Giants manager Baker wanted to set Benzinger’s mind at ease, announcing, “Todd Benzinger is my first baseman. He’s outstanding defensively, he’s a switch hitter and he hits the ball hard.”25 There was competition, though, from J.R. Phillips, who out-hit Benzinger in spring training, but Benzinger got the nod on March 28 and Phillips was sent to the minors to get more seasoning.

For some reason, his percentage of strikeouts went up in 1994, but his batting average of .265 was above his personal career average. The season was ended prematurely by the baseball strike in August. Benzinger had begun to hit well, batting 19-for-31 over his last 17 games (.613). He was placed on waivers by the Giants in October, to be assigned to Triple-A Phoenix. No major-league club claimed him; he declined the minor-league assignment and was thus given his release.

He wasn’t under contract. When asked if he thought that clubs might use replacement players in the spring of 1995, he said he wouldn’t be shocked. “We’re all on a clock, a biological clock – base ball clock.”26 He was 32 years old.

When things belatedly got underway in 1995, he signed again with San Francisco as a free agent on April 8, signing a minor-league deal with a side agreement for a significant bonus if he made the team.27 He did make the team but only appeared in nine early-season games, mostly as a pinch-hitter. He only had one start, on May 13. In that one he hit a solo home run. The next day’s game was his last. When it was time to cut the roster to 25 players, he was released on May 15. He’d hit 2-for-10, with two RBIs, in his final stretch of major-league play.

Ten days after the Giants released him, he signed with the New York Yankees. They assigned him to the Columbus Clippers in Triple A. He played in 12 games and hit .280 with a home run and four RBIs. Just 15 days after signing him, the Yankees released him. His playing career was over.

After baseball, he had what Minor League Baseball characterized as “a highly successful career coaching high school girls basketball in the Cincinnati area” between 1999 and 2006.28 From 2006 to 2008, he coached the girls’ team at Loveland (Ohio) High School. That October, he was named hitting coach of the Cincinnati Reds-affiliated Dayton Dragons, but when the manager departed for work in the Atlanta Braves’ system, Benzinger was named manager. He already knew the team, having served as a color commentator on several Dragons television game broadcasts.29 The Dragons were a Class-A Midwest League team and Benzinger managed them for both the 2009 and 2010 seasons. The finished in fourth place (59-80) the first year and eighth place (53-85) the second.

Todd and his wife Kristi have one son, Grant, who is making his mark athletically. He played basketball for Wright State University, was MVP of the NCAA’s Horizon League Tournament in 2018, and in early 2020 was named to the league’s All-Decade Team.30 He relocated to Germany to play professional basketball as a point guard for UNI Baskets Paderborn, leading the team in rebounds and ranking second in points scored for 2018-19. He continued to play for the team through the 2021 season.

Last revised: August 8, 2022

 

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Darren Gibson and Norman Macht and fact-checked by David Kritzler.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author relied on Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, and SABR.org.

 

Notes

1 The 1956 Dayton city directory and State of Ohio death records show Joseph A. Benzinger as an elementary schoolteacher. Thanks to Jan Lester of the Campbell County Historical & Genealogical Society.

2 Author interview with Don Gross, December 18, 2012. Todd Benzinger declined to be interviewed for this biography.

3 “Sox scouts get their men – to the majors,” Boston Herald, August 12, 1987: 100.

4 Garry Brown, “Don’t overlook Rangers’ solid blue-chip pitching,” Springfield (Massachusetts) Union, April 5, 1987: 30.

5 “Just watching how dedicated (Rose) is makes you think,” said Benzinger. “He’s 44 and he was hitting 400 to 500 balls a day. It was inspiring. Whenever I get tired, I think of him in that cage.” Stephen Turgeon, “Benzinger suddenly smelling like a Rose PawSox’ outfielder, finally healthy, making a big hit at McCoy Stadium,” Providence (Rhode Island) Journal, September 1, 1985: D4.

6 “A.L. Insider,” USA Today, June 22, 1987: 04C.

7 Ron Borges, “Benzinger has a close call,” Boston Globe, August 4, 1987: 31.

8 Mark Blaudschun, “Part of the jam…,” Boston Globe, February 27, 1988: 37.

9 Steve Fainaru, “Bench for Benzinger?” Hartford Courant, March 17, 1988: D6. See also Dan Shaughnessy, “Benzinger feels underutilized,” Boston Globe, April 3, 1988: 44.

10 Steve Fainaru, “Shaky Evans to stay at 1st,’ Hartford Courant, May 22, 1988: D3A. There had been concern, dating back a couple of years, that Benzinger was too often out with injuries. See Dan Shaughnessy, “Benzinger is enduring a painful situation,” Boston Globe, June 1, 1988: 47.

11 Gerry Finn, “Sox players low-key about Mac’s firing,” Springfield Union-News, July 15, 1987: 9.

12 Benzinger declined to get caught up in self-praise: “I don’t consider game pressure anything like life pressure. Ten years from now no one’s going to care what I did in the 10th inning against Minnesota.” See “Red Sox have a week to remember,” Boston Herald, July 24,1988: 38.

13 John Powers, “Benzinger joins the in crowd,” Boston Globe, July 24,1988: 50. Benzinger did learn that perhaps being too free with his thoughts might not be the best thing in a sports-media-heavy city like Boston. “I guess I’ll have to learn to clam up a little,” he allowed. See Stephen Harris, “Benzinger swings away with words,” Boston Herald, August 6, 1988: 71. Benzinger talked about how he was playing better under Morgan, see Kevin Paul Dupont, “Benzinger’s Hit Revival,” Boston Globe, August 2, 1988: 25.

14 Steve Fainaru, “Benzinger – the flip side,” Boston Globe, March 7, 1989: 67.

15 “Reds,” The Sporting News, February 6, 1989: 31.

16 David Cataneo, “A Christmas shopping nightmare,” Boston Herald, December 14, 1988: 41. “To the little kid part of me, it’s the best thing that could have happened.” But he said he’d miss the Boston music scene and playing at Fenway Park. David Cataneo, “Swapping in their Sox,” Boston Herald, December 14, 1988: 42.

17 Garry Brown, “Boggs the one constant in changing baseball world,” Springfield Union-News, July 1, 1987: 4.

18 Mike Shalin, “Piniella, LaRussa longtime rivals,” Boston Herald, October 14, 1990: 85

19 Associated Press, “Reds 6, Astros 5,” Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), April 11, 1991: 41.

20 “Benzinger wants out of Cincinnati,” Daily Advocate (Stamford, Connecticut), May 18, 1991: 22. Needless to say this didn’t endear him to Piniella and might have give a team paid if they hadn’t been thinking of inquiring about him. Piniella shot back, “When he talks about creating problems in the clubhouse, that’s not the way to make anybody want you.”

21 “Reds’ hitting barely exists,” Boston Herald, May 23, 1991: 17.

22 “Kansas City Royals,” The Sporting News, August 5, 1991: 28.

23 George Kimball, “Benzy: first class,” Boston Herald, August 6, 1991: 66.

24 “Los Angeles Dodgers,” The Sporting News, December 23, 1991: 29.

25 “San Francisco Giants,” The Sporting News, January 10, 1994: 40.

26 “Place here,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1994: 37.

27 Larry Stone, “Giants’ pitching now bursting at the seams,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 9, 1995: D1, 4.

28 Tom Nichols, “Former Reds First Baseman Todd Benzinger Named Dragons New Manager,” MILB.com, February 5, 2009.

29 Nichols.

30 “Benzinger named to Horizon League All-Decade Team,” wsuraiders.com, March 4, 2020. https://wsuraiders.com/news/2020/3/4/mens-basketball-benzinger-named-to-horizon-league-all-decade-team.aspx

Full Name

Todd Eric Benzinger

Born

February 11, 1963 at Dayton, KY (USA)

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