• Sal Maiorana

When Armando Benitez drilled Tino Martinez, all hell broke loose

NEW YORK (May 19, 1998) – Just two days earlier there had been a celebration of baseball excellence at Yankee Stadium when David Wells pitched just the second perfect game in the illustrious history of the franchise. Now, as Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated put it, “Yankee Stadium was reduced to a Jerry Springer set.” Armando Benitez. Remember him? “That guy was such a knucklehead at that time,” Wells said a few months ago during a podcast appearance with ESPN’s Buster Olney, recalling one of the biggest brawls – precipitated solely by Benitez – that ever took place in the Bronx. At least inside the stadium. “Dumbest thing I’ve ever seen,” Derek Jeter said that night following a game the Yankees won, 9-5, though few remember that pertinent fact because of the chaos that took place in the midst of New York’s winning rally. “Ask the Orioles. They’ll tell you it was dumb.” The defending AL East champion Orioles were scuffling big time at the start of 1998 and when they arrived in New York to begin a three-game series they were on a five-game losing streak, their record was 20-23, and they were already 11 games behind the unstoppable Yankees. But with David Cone still struggling to find his way despite all the Yankees’ early success – he entered the game with a 5-1 record but an unsightly 6.46 ERA – the Orioles ran out to 5-1 lead as the bottom of the seventh arrived. And then it all began to unravel. The Yankees scored twice in the seventh to cut into the gap, and they were back to pecking away in the eighth against pitchers Sidney Ponson, Alan Mills and Norm Charlton. Jorge Posada and Chuck Knoblauch walked and with two outs, Paul O’Neill ripped an RBI single to get New York within 5-4, so Orioles manager Ray Miller called on his volatile closer, Benitez, to put out the fire. Instead, Benitez only ignited it as he threw a meatball of a slider that hung right in the middle of the plate and Bernie Williams launched it deep into the night to put the Yankees ahead 7-5. The jolt of electricity that Williams triggered with his titanic upper-deck, go-ahead three-run homer was still coursing through the delirious crowd of more than 31,000, and as Williams took a curtain call, Benitez stewed as he watched Tino Martinez make his way to the batters’ box. Flash back three years earlier when Martinez was playing for the Seattle Mariners and he happened to be the next batter after Benitez got tagged for a three-run homer by Edgar Martinez. Benitez drilled Tino in the shoulder, emptying both benches.

It didn’t take long for history to repeat itself. Benitez took dead aim with his first pitch, a blazing fastball that split the 2 and 4 on Tino’s back. “After Bernie’s home run, I told the guys in the bullpen Tino was going to get it,” said reliever Jeff Nelson, who was also a Mariner the night in 1995 when Benitez plugged Tino the first time. The pain for Martinez had barely even registered when home plate umpire Drew Coble began demonstrably signaling Benitez was tossed from the game, but that did not dissuade the Yankees from confronting the 6-foot-4 hothead. And he seemed to welcome the challenge when he tossed his glove and waved his hands for the Yankees to come on out. “I didn’t try to hit him,” Benitez claimed. “It was not intentional. I have no problem with Martinez. I threw the glove because it was obvious they were coming after me.” Within seconds, led by Darryl Strawberry, the Yankees were out of the dugout and so began a wild melee that spilled across the diamond and into the Orioles dugout, Graeme Lloyd actually the one who took the first angry swings at Benitez. Martinez was held back by several players and coaches including Baltimore catcher Lenny Webster. “I told Tino it was over,” Webster said. “Tino said, ‘No, it’s not. That’s the second time he’s done that.’ So I can understand how mad Tino is.” It was a deplorable act by Benitez, and Jeter was right – even his own teammates were upset and downright embarrassed. Sports Illustrated quoted one anonymous Oriole as saying, “He embarrassed the whole organization. We don’t do things that way here. It reflects badly on all of us. He may be ready physically to be a closer, but he’s not ready mentally.” Said Orioles general manager Pat Gillick, “It was his mistake that allowed Bernie to hit the home run. You make a bad pitch, and then to take out your frustration on someone else is not right. I think that’s what sits badly with everyone.” It certainly did with the Yankees. “It was just a real rotten thing to do,” Joe Torre said. “It was just so blatant that Benitez caused a riot. That’s basically what happened. He came within a foot of hitting Tino in the back of the head.” “I guess if you can’t win ball games you’ve got to try and win fights,” George Steinbrenner said. “That’s the worst I’ve seen in 25 years in the game. I’m proud of my guys. They’re playing great, they’re doing great and they fight for each other. That guy should be suspended for the rest of the year. That was a classless act. He’s got no class.”

NEXT POST on July 21: El Duque makes a memorable Yankees debut.