FORT MYERS, FLA. – Outfielder Joe Benson had finished his 10th professional summer batting .250 in 54 games for Binghamton, the Mets’ farm club in the Class AA Eastern League. He was home in Chicago for the winter, working out for another season, and wondering if someone would give him a chance.
“I had finished in Double-A for the fourth straight year,” Benson said. “I’m sure there are teams that lose interest when they see that on a veteran player’s résumé.”
Benson had Mike Hollimon, a former infielder in the Twins’ organization and elsewhere, serving as his agent.
Hollimon called a week before Thanksgiving and told Benson that he had received a “strange voice mail” from Brad Steil, the minor league director for the Twins.
“Steil wanted to know if I had any resentment or other bad feelings toward the Twins,” Benson said. “I said to Mike, ‘Why would I? The Twins gave me 7 ½ years at the start of my career. Call him back.’”
Steil told Hollimon the Twins wanted to sign Benson to a minor league contract. And it came with the deal-maker in most such offers: an invitation to big-league spring training.
With that, Benson told Hollimon to accept whatever the Twins were offering. He’s back with the organization that signed him as a second-round draft choice out of Joliet (Ill.) Catholic Academy in 2006. He’s back with the organization that waived him in May 2013, and watched him get claimed by Texas.
Benson started off hot for Frisco in the Class AA Texas League. Followers of the Twins were in a hyper-critical mood by then. There were insults hurled at the organization for giving up on another player with potential to tap.
It didn’t work out that way. Benson batted .205 at Frisco and became a minor league free agent after the season. He signed with Miami and spent most of the 2014 season in the Class AA Southern League, batting .264 with 10 home runs and 62 RBI.
Those numbers didn’t get him a spot on the 40-man roster, and again he became a minor league free agent. This time, he was signed by Atlanta, spent two months in Class AAA and was released by the Braves in June.
“I then spent five games playing for Gary Gaetti in Sugar Land, Texas ... the Sugar Land Skeeters,” Benson said. “That’s quite a league: seven teams on the East Coast and the Skeeters. The good part is when you start a road trip, you fly.”
Benson would have stuck around with the Skeeters, but the Mets called and offered him a job. He played two months in Binghamton, then went back on the massive list of minor league free agents … the players with six years as a professional and no spot on a 40-man roster.
He had 7 ½ years with the Twins, and then he was with four organizations over the next 2 ½ years.
No wonder getting a call from Brad Steil was like hearing from a lost relative. Except: This call was an offer of some money, rather than a request for it.
Benson had signed a football scholarship to Purdue as a running back. He brought speed and a powerful 6-foot-2 frame to baseball. Unfortunately for Joe, he was striking out before striking out was cool.
It took to his fifth season, but he still was only 22, when he had the year that made the Twins feel as if that second-round selection would pay off: He started strong at Class A Fort Myers, and was promoted to Class AA New Britain, where he had 23 home runs and 49 RBI in 374 at-bats.
“Spring training of 2011 … that’s when I felt there was a shot, if I had a good spring,” Benson said.
Benson had 24 at-bats with four hits that spring. He went back to New Britain and hit .284 with 16 home runs and 67 RBI. He also had 111 strikeouts in 409 at-bats.
Benson was called up in September and played in the Twins’ final 21 games, starting 19 at the various outfield positions.
The production was minimal but Joe showed some energy in those final weeks. That was a contrast to most everything the fans had seen from the Twins that season.
Few people felt that when Benson went 2-for-4 vs. Kansas City on Sept. 28, 2011 — the 1-0 victory that allowed the Twins to avoid 100 losses — that he wouldn’t be seen again at Target Field.
Joe Benson was 23 then and still a notable prospect, and now he’s about to turn 28 as a journeyman.
How much longer, Joe?
“I have friends who go to work in a cubicle every day,” Benson said. “I’m single. I don’t have to do that.”
He paused. He looked across a collection of baseball fields. There was a smile.
“I’m not ready to grow up,” he said. “Baseball is fun. There are a lot of good people in baseball. It’s all I know.”