Benny Distefano‘s place in baseball history is unique in more ways than one. Currently the hitting coach for the West Michigan Whitecaps, Detroit’s Low-A affiliate, the 47-year-old Distefano is both an affable, sound effects-producing instructor ,and the holder of a pair of obscure yet notable distinctions during his playing days. Primarily a backup outfielder/first baseman in his five seasons with the Pirates and Astros, Distefano is the last left-handed-throwing catcher to appear in a big-league ballgame after having played behind the plate three times for Pittsburgh in 1989. A lifetime .228 hitter who logged only 25 extra-base hits, he also tripled in his first plate appearance, making him one of only 29 players to do so since 1955. By comparison, 66 of the more than 7,200 players to debut since that time have homered in their first PA. Distefano talked about his brief yet remarkable playing career, and how God, food, and water led him into the coaching ranks.
David Laurila: How would you describe your playing career?
Benny Distefano: If you look at my career, I had five years in the big leagues, and I guess I was more of a journeyman. I got to the big leagues after a short minor league career, when I was 22. When I got there, I was immature mentally and didn’t totally understand what it took to be a major league player at the time, so it took me awhile to make the adjustments and they sent me down to Triple-A. What happens is that you get caught in the middle sometimes, and I fought my way back to the big leagues, but overall, playing 12 years, five of them in the big leagues, I feel very, very fortunate. It’s nice to be back in pro ball, as a coach, and I appreciate what the game has given me.
DL: Is there anyone in particular who helped you to mature, or is that something you mostly did on your own?
BD: You have a lot of good coaches that provide you with information. There was Tommy Sand, who was a coach in the big leagues for 15 years. I played for Jim Leyland for four years, and there was Chuck Tanner. I played for some very good coaches and managers, and they give you the information, but then it is up to the player to decide what he wants to do with that information once he starts to store it in his brain. Some people mature a little bit quicker than others, and some take a little bit longer. But the job of the coaches is to give you the information and resources to be the best player you can be, and the best human being, and then it’s up to you to do it from there.
DL: Your biggest claim to fame is that you got into three games behind the plate, and are currently the last left-handed catcher to appear in a big-league game. How did that come about?
BD: In 1988, we were in an airport in Philadelphia; it was Ray Miller, Neil Heaton, and myself. Before we got onto the plane, Ray Miller asked me why there aren’t any left-handed catchers in the big leagues. I thought he was joking around, but what he was doing, it seems like, was planting a seed to give me an opportunity to increase my versatility. Normally, the third-string catcher is a utility infielder, and with the Pirates that year, our backup infielder was Rafael Belliard. He was an outstanding player, but he was very small, so they asked me if I wanted the opportunity, and started letting me catch in the bullpen. They sent me to the instructional league to learn how to catch, and in 1989 I made the club as a pinch-hitter/first baseman/outfielder/third-string catcher. In 1989, the major league roster went from 25 men to 24 men, so everyone had to do a little more, which helped keep me in the big leagues.
DL: Were you a good catcher?
BD: When I learned, yeah. I had a strong arm and good hands, so Joe Ionetta, one of the Pirates’ instructors, worked with me every day in instructional league. So yeah, I was adequate. For my role, I think I did a good job.
DL: If you were in a decision-making position, would you be willing to employ a left-handed catcher?
BD: I was actually just talking to a friend of mine a few days ago in South Bend, Indiana; the gentleman’s name is Mike Berger, and he’s the farm director of the Arizona Diamondbacks right now. He just got the position. We were talking about that, and if it’s the right situation, I think it’s a good idea to have a backup catcher who could be left-handed. You’re only going to use him in emergency situations, and it gives you an opportunity to have another left-handed bat, if that’s what the team is looking for. It simply needs to be the right guy. He has to have good hands, a strong arm, and the desire to go back there and do it.
DL: Almost as notable is the fact that you tripled in your first big-league at-bat. What do you remember thinking, standing on third base?
BD: When you look back at certain points of your career, it’s like it happened yesterday, and that’s definitely one of them-it’s one of the most memorable things. It was my first at-bat, my parents and sister were there, I was 22, and it was a 2-0 fastball off Pete Falcone. I hit it off the wall for a triple, and I was thinking, “Aaagh, a little bit more and I could have had a home run in my first at-bat.” But it was just an incredible feeling; I was on cloud nine to have simply been in the record books for having a gotten a major league at-bat.
DL: At which point did you realize that hitting a triple in your first at-bat was more rare than hitting a home run in your first at-bat?
BD: It was afterwards when I started talking about it with other players, coaches and newspaper people, about how triples are more unique than home runs. But, you know, be it a single, double, triple, or even a home run, just getting a chance to play in the big leagues and doing something like that in your first at-bat… that’s something you’ll appreciate and never forget.
DL: What do you remember about your first home run?
BD: It was a pinch-hit off of Larry Andersen, who was a 12- or 13-year player in the big leagues. We were in Philadelphia in Veterans Stadium, and it was a two-run homer in either the eighth or ninth inning. I knew that I hit pretty good and as I started to run down the line… it was a line drive right down the line, and it just hooked over the fence. As I was running, it was like, “I hit a home run in the big leagues!” You do a lot of firsts in the major leagues and they’re obviously all new experiences; they’re all things you never had the opportunity to experience before.
BD: I actually don’t, but one thing I do remember that is kind of bizarre is that in 1988 or 1989, also in Veterans Stadium, we had a 10-0 lead in the first or second inning and ended up losing. Steve Jeltz hit home runs from both sides of the plate against us. Steve Jeltz was a utility infielder, and a little guy, so when he does that… well, before long, we lost the game. That was pretty unique.
DL: You once had two hits in the same inning, including a grand slam.
BD: Yes, in Montreal. I led off the ninth inning against Jeff Reardon and got a base hit over shortstop, and the next thing I knew I was up there again in the same inning. The bases were loaded and I came up against Bob James, who was a good pitcher with a good, strong fastball, and all I remember was thinking, “See the ball and hit it.” Montreal was a tough place to hit home runs, but he threw a fastball over the plate, I drove it well and it ended up being out of the ballpark. What’s most memorable about that is, the next day Willie Stargell called up and congratulated me. Certain things like that you just don’t forget. There is a lot of fun and a lot of memories that go with something like that.
DL: You got the last hit of your career as a member of the Houston Astros, and ironically it was against your old team, the Pirates.
BD: Yes, it was against Doug Drabek in the Astrodome in 1992. I knew they were going to make a roster move and I had a feeling that it could possibly be me. It was right before we went on a West Coast road trip, and I pinch-hit against Drabek, and he threw me a 3-2 fastball that I pulled foul. Then he threw me a 3-2 curveball that I waited back on well enough, and hit a pretty decent line drive off the glove of Orlando Merced at first base.
DL: At the time, did you have any idea that it might be your last one?
BD: No, I thought I had a little more time left, but the following year my son was born and I had turned 31, I was a journeyman player, and it’s tough to hang around the game because they’re always bringing up young players; it’s a young man’s game. Unless you’re established and a very good everyday player, it’s tough to stay around. But when I look back, even though I was only 31, I know how fortunate I was to have worn a uniform and to have done something I love for that amount of time.
DL: What brought you back into baseball and the coaching ranks?
BD: My son. I was out of the game for 12 years and had never thought about coaching. My son was about eleven-and-a-half at the time, and I had been staying in contact with Jeff Wilpon of the New York Mets, who is the CEO over there. We had played college summer league ball together and have maintained a great friendship, and I was talking to him and he asked me if I was interested in getting back in the game. Initially I told him no, because I wanted to make sure I was looking after my son and my family and everything. I showed my son the e-mail and said, “Ben, if I tried to get back in the game, I’d miss you. What would I do without you?” He turned around and said, “All I need is God, food, and water.” An 11-and-a-half-year-old man said that, and I thought to myself, ‘Wow.’ I asked him if he was serious and he said yes-God, food, and water. and he’d be okay. So I thought about it, and I asked my wife, and initially she said no. But then she thought about it for about a week, and talked to Xavier Hernandez, who is another ex-major league player who is in coaching, and to his wife, and said I should go for it. I was totally unprepared for both of them to say that. My sister had passed away about six months before, and I was thinking about what I was going to do with the next third of my life. I was 44 years old at the time, and I decided that I wanted to do something that I love. I live in Houston, from when I played for the Astros, and I went to Dallas for the Winter Meetings, where I ran into a lot of people I hadn’t seen in years. One of them was Dan Lunetta, who is the minor league director here with the Tigers. I went on to interview with the Mets and then got together with Dan and Glen Ezell, who interviewed me as well. They offered me a position before the Mets [did], and I’ve been here ever since, working with hitters.
DL: Toby Harrah is the minor league hitting coordinator here in the Tigers’ organization. How would you describe Toby?
BD: Incredible. If you follow baseball, you know that Toby Harrah was a household name when he played, and I’ve learned so much from him about hitting. Everything I’ll ever know about baseball and hitting, he’s probably already forgotten. He’s a walking encyclopedia. He’s also a great teacher of the game who works great with the young instructors and with the young players; he’s just an inspiration. He motivates you with just the way he talks about things. His knowledge is simply second to none, and he’s one of the best instructors I’ve ever been around. I’m very, very fortunate as a coach to have him as my hitting coordinator. And once he gets going, you can see the fire in his eyes and the intensity and passion in what he teaches. If you talk to a lot of good baseball people, you’ll feel that passion and commitment, along with the faith in what they believe in. He has that. Toby is something else.
DL: According to one of the players you’ve worked with, Casper Wells, you have quite a personality yourself. In an interview with MiLB.com’s Lisa Winston, Wells said of you, “He’s pretty unusual. He’ll just throw out some sound effects when you’re hitting.” Is that true?
BD: As far being a hitting guy, I’m a very passionate person. If they’re hitting, I’ll be saying “Way to swing it” all the time, and I’ll go, “BOOM!” I think it’s very important for coaches to be able to relate to their players, either through some emotion or through, maybe not always sound effects, but talking and communication-wise to let them know your feelings. If a player knows that you believe in him, and he trusts you, you’re going to get the most out of that player. A lot of times I’ll crack jokes, and I’ll laugh at myself. What a lot of people don’t realize about this game is just how tough it is. It’s a daily grind and it can get on your nerves. We’re with these young men 12 hours a day; we’re with them more than their families. We’re talking about 25 different individuals, as well as the coaching staff, trainer and strength guy, so sometimes you do unusual things to break it up. You want to have some laughs within your circles.
DL: On a more serious note, you were injured in an on-the-field brawl two years ago. What happened?
BD: It was just a situation where we had a hitter charge the mound, I went to break it up, and a young player for Lansing came in, dove in the pile and took a swing; I just happened to get hit in the wrong spot. Still, I was very fortunate, because it could have been a lot worse. And I need to mention how well the Detroit organization treated it. Dave Dombrowski, our general manager, called me up. Everybody was looking out for my best interests. And talking about funny things and wacky things, Toby Harrah was in town when the fight happened. The zygomatic bone is between the cheekbone and the ear; it’s like a little bridge where your jaw goes up between your brain and the bone that goes around it, and it broke, so I had like a quarter-inch divot in my head. What happened is that I’m sitting in the dugout and Toby is sitting next to me, and neither of us knows how serious it was, so he’s laughing at me. I’m looking at him and kind of laughing myself, but I’m thinking, ‘That’s not right.’ We’re cracking jokes, not knowing how serious it was, and that’s the camaraderie in baseball; you like to have fun with each other. But once Toby realized that I was actually injured, he was obviously a lot more concerned. You know, you always try to get the light out of something that isn’t always positive, because going through tough days is going to happen to everyone in this game.
DL: Any final thoughts?
BD: To the true fans of the game, I just want to say that these young men are out here busting their butts every day. A lot of fans don’t know what kind of a grind these guys go through seven days a week. They get up and lift weights two or three times a week, and work out, and they’re trying to make adjustments as they’re playing and trying to get better. And it’s very, very tough mentally as you’re going up the ladder, because it takes a long time to get to the big leagues. To get to the big leagues, or even Triple-A or Double-A… just to play professional baseball, these guys are very special athletes. They should be respected for what they accomplish, even if they don’t get to their ultimate goal, because they work very hard to get where they’re at. This game is fun, but it doesn’t come easy. Believe me, I know.