Benny Distefano

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Benito James Distefano

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Biographical Information[edit]

Benny Distefano played in five major league seasons, mostly with the Pittsburgh Pirates, primarily as a first baseman and also seeing some action in the outfield. Never able to win a regular role in the majors, he played nine seasons in AAA. He was one of the few players to hit a triple in their first MLB at-bat. He hit clean-up in the first AAA All-Star Game. In the majors, he was the last left-handed catcher. He also spent time in Nippon Pro Baseball, the Venezuelan League (winning two triples titles) and the Dominican League. After his playing career ended, he was a coach.

Working his way up[edit]

The Los Angeles Dodgers took Distefano in the 16th round of the January 1981 amateur draft. He did not sign, then was taken by the Toronto Blue Jays in the secondary phase of the June 1981 draft, one pick after they took Mike Sharperson. After bypassing the Jays, he was selected by the Pirates in the second round of the January 1982 amateur draft, one round after Burk Goldthorn. This time, he did sign.

He began his pro career with the Greenwood Pirates that summer, hitting .289/.396/.465 with 74 runs, 23 doubles, 8 triples, 15 homers, 89 RBI and 85 walks, stealing 11 bases in 15 tries. He tied Kenny Clark, Ken Kinnard and Richard Plautz for the South Atlantic League lead in triples, was 6th in RBI, ranked 9th in walks and missed the top 10 in home runs by one. Among first basemen, he led in putouts (1,184) and assists (104). [1] He tied Brian Harper for 3rd among Pirate minor leaguers in triples, was 4th in RBI and was second in walks (7 behind Marvin Clack).

Playing AA his second year as a pro, he batted .271/.357/.496 with 7 triples, 25 dingers, 71 runs, 63 walks and 92 RBI for the Lynn Sailors. He tied Steve Lyons and Tom Romano for 5th in the 1983 Eastern League in three-baggers, was 5th in home runs (between Jim Wilson and Romano), ranked third in RBI (after Wilson and Willie Darkis) and was 6th in slugging (between Wilson and Eric Davis). Moving to the outfield, he had 11 assists but 13 errors, tied with Daryl Boston for second-most among EL outfielders, behind Tony Beal. [2] He joined Romano and Jeff Stone as the EL All-Star outfielders. [3] Among Pirates minor leaguers, he tied Bobby Bonilla for fifth in triples, tied Bud Bundy for the most homers, led in RBI (4 more than Bundy) and was 4th in slugging. He spent the winter with the Navegantes del Magallanes, hitting .272/?/.433 with 9 triples in 66 games then was 8 for 15 with another triple in the postseason. He led the Venezuelan Winter League in triples, two ahead of Billy Hatcher. He tied Kevin Bass and Ron Shepherd for second with 14 doubles, 3 behind Clint Hurdle, was 3rd with 110 total bases (behind Bass and Alvin Davis) and 4th with 36 RBI. [4]

Bouncing between the Pirates and AAA[edit]

Distefano spent some of 1984 between the AAA Hawaii Islanders (.304/.378/.500, 8 3B, only 14 K in 240 AB) and got the call to the majors when Brian Harper got hurt. [5] Benny Distefano is one of a very few players who tripled in their first major league at bat; moreover, he did it against someone who went to the same high school he did, Pete Falcone (Benny was a classmate of Falcone's brother). He accomplished this feat on May 18th when he subbed for an injured Amos Otis. [6] He hit only .167/.226/.346 in 86 plate appearances over 45 games for the Pirates, just .120/.154/.160 as a starter. His first home run came off Larry Andersen in June. He mainly backed up Jason Thompson at first base and Doug Frobel and Lee Lacy in right field.

Returning to Magallanes for another winter, he slumped to .224/?/.289 with no triples and one home run in 65 games though he again excelled in the semifinals (5 for 10, 2 2B). Back in the minors in 1985, he hit .238/.334/.415 with 27 doubles, 8 triples, 14 home runs, 74 runs and 69 walks to 53 whiffs for Hawaii, mainly as an outfielder. He tied for 5th in the 1985 PCL in triples, missed the top 10 in home runs by two and was 7th in walks (between Bob Bathe and Pat Casey). Among Pirate minor leaguers, he was 3rd in doubles, second in triples (behind Trench Davis), third in homers (after Mike Diaz and Carey Cheek), led in runs (3 more than Reggie Hammonds), was 3rd with 67 RBI (behind Diaz and Cheek) and 5th in walks (between Reggie Barringer and Tony Laird). But even with the major league Pirates losing over 100 games, the team did not call him up; Thompson was still productive at 1B but the team desperately needed help in the corner outfield slots with poor performances by Steve Kemp, George Hendrick and Joe Orsulak. In his last winter with the Navegantes, he was not as good as the first but better than the second - .273/?/.342, 5 3B, 0 HR in 65 G, 32 R. For once, he fizzled in the Venezuelan postseason (2 for 24, 2B). He tied Ozzie Guillen, Oswaldo Olivares and Shawon Dunston for the league lead in triples and tied Barry Bonds, Cecil Fielder and Jose Leiva for sixth in runs.

He spent most of 1986 back with Hawaii, hitting .259/.329/.463 with 9 triples while splitting time fairly evenly between 1B and the outfield. He tied Rick Renteria and Jim Steels for 4th in the 1986 PCL in three-baggers and led Hawaii (traditionally a poor power place) with 13 home runs, 3 ahead of Denny Gonzalez. Among Pirate farmhands, he tied Renteria for the most triples and was 3rd in dingers (behind Tony Chance and Lance Belen). He was second to Belen in slugging. He was promoted to Pittsburgh in August but again disappointed in the majors - .179/.190/.282 in 42 plate appearances over 31 games. In 1986-1987, he hit .268/.321/.335 for the Aguilas Cibaeñas in the Dominican League. He hit under the Mendoza Line in the postseason. [7]

Pittsburgh changed their AAA affiliate for 1987 to the Vancouver Canadians and Distefano spent the full year on the farm, as the Pirates had a hot young prospect named Barry Bonds in LF and decent contributors at 1B (Sid Bream) and RF (R.J. Reynolds and Mike Diaz). His batting line for Vancouver was .278/.402/.448 with 15 home runs, 77 RBI and 77 walks. He fielded .995 at first. He tied Dave Cochrane and Jerry Narron for 9th in the 1987 PCL in homers, tied Tom Dunbar for 8th in RBI, led with 15 hit-by-pitch, was 7th in OBP (between Francisco Melendez and Ty Gainey) and was 9th in OPS (between Jose Gonzalez and Jessie Reid). He tied Belen and Gino Gentile for 5th among Pirates minor leaguers in circuit clouts, tied Dunbar for 6th in RBI, was 3rd in walks (behind Dunbar and Tommy Gregg) and was second to Gregg in OBP. At age 25, he was no longer a prospect and did not get a September call-up. He played briefly in the 1987-1988 Dominican League, doing well for the Tigres del Licey (.359/.375/.487 in 12 G) but going 4 for 31 with no extra-base hits and 3 walks in 8 postseason games. [8]

1988-1989: Some footnotes to history[edit]

Distefano was the DH and cleanup hitter for the NL in the 1988 AAA All-Star Game, the first AAA All-Star Game. He got a kiss from Morganna the Kissing Bandit in the 2nd inning to draw some sports headlines; she said it was the first time she had kissed a player in AAA game after 21 major leaguers. [9] He flew out to Steve Finley, facing Roy Smith, and finished the day 0 for 3 with a walk. As the NL was a combined 3-for-32 with 3 walks, he was in company with his teammates in the inaugural 2-1 loss. [10] For the season, he was one of the main leaders on a Buffalo team that set a minor league attendance record, drawing over a million fans. [11] He hit .263/.344/.440 with 19 home runs for the Bisons. His 15 assists tied Mark Ryal for third among outfielders in the 1988 American Association. [12] While a mid-season All-Star, he failed to make the post-season All-Star team, having only done so in AA to that point; Billy Moore, Van Snider and Rolando Roomes were picked as the All-Star outfielders for 1988. [13] Among Pirates farmhands, he tied John Love for second in doubles (26), led in homers (5 ahead of Jeff King, Tom Prince and Kevin Burdick), was 5th in RBI and was second in total bases (212, trailing Burdick by 35). Called up to the majors for the third time, he finally did well in The Show in 1988: .345/.394/.621 in 33 plate appearances over 16 games.

Given his play in the majors in 1988, Distefano entered 1989 with a shot to make the big league roster out of spring training. He added catching to his list of positions to improve his chances, making himself a third-string option behind Mike LaValliere and Junior Ortiz - in spite of the fact he threw left-handed. He got his first chance at catching on May 14th, coming in in the 9th after Ortiz had left for a pinch-hitter; he moved over from 1B for the inning. He was the first lefty catcher since Mike Squires in 1980. [14] With injuries to Bream, he and Gary Redus saw time at first for the Pirates. His last MLB home run came off former teammate Jose DeLeon of the St. Louis Cardinals on September 25th. Distefano hit .247/.333/.338 for a 96 OPS+ in 176 plate appearances and 96 games that year, his longest look at the majors. He mostly pinch-hit and played 1B but caught 3 games (6 innings, 2 putouts) and played one game in the outfield. He hit .318/.375/.409 in 7 starts but only .186 in 89 games off the bench. He was the most recent left-handed thrower to play catcher, his last appearance at the position having come on August 18th. Two decades later, Distefano was still getting letters from parents of Little Leaguers who were lefty catchers, seeking guidance. [15]

1990: Struggles in Japan[edit]

Returning to Venezuela after missing three seasons there, he was only 6 for 32 for the Tiburones de La Guaira in 1989-1990, his last time in Venezuela. In 1990 he played with Chunichi in Japan. In spring training, he was involved in a conflict when he was hit by a pitch by Yoshitaka Katori. He threw the bat at Katori and then punched catcher Tatsuo Omiya. He was promptly ejected. [16] He was the 26th player to homer in his first NPB at-bat, taking Hiroaki Nakayama of the Taiyo Whales deep and again starting off on a good kick as he had done in the majors. [17] He hit only .215/.270/.320 in 56 games for Chunichi, though, with only 14 RBI. He added four more homers and was released before the season was over. He said he had trouble adjusting to the Japanese culture. He showered and changed into street clothes after leaving one game and manager Senichi Hoshino told him he should have left on his uniform in case of a fight, he needed to be there for his team. The next day, a fight ensued when Vance Law was nearly hit by a pitch. Distefano hit someone during the brawl and was the only player ejected. Later, his team fined him a million yen ($7,000) for his role. [18]

1991-1993: Winding down his playing career[edit]

Distefano was signed by the Baltimore Orioles and spent 1991 with the Rochester Red Wings. He hit .267/.335/.457 with 18 home runs and 83 RBI. He tied Mitch Lyden and Bob Zupcic for third in the 1991 International League in homers, tied Domingo Martinez for second in RBI (10 behind Derek Bell) and was 6th with 193 total bases. Among O's minor leaguers, he was third in home runs (two behind Chito Martinez, one behind Brent Miller), was second in RBI (two shy of Ken Shamburg) and was third in total bases (after Miller and Damon Buford). He was not the 1991 IL All-Star first baseman as Domingo Martinez was picked instead.

He was offered contracts by both Baltimore and the Houston Astros for 1992. Thinking his shot at returning to the majors was better with the Astros, he signed with them. After hitting .326/.436/.457 in April for the Tucson Toros, he returned to MLB after missing three years. His second at-bat back in the bigs was a big one. He pinch-hit for Rob Murphy with one out in the 8th against the New York Mets, with David Cone having a no-hitter in progress. He singled to end the no-no. After the game, he was telling the assembled media personnel that he had grown up a Mets fan and watched a game where Tom Seaver lost a no-hitter late. Someone said, "I guess then you feel bad about breaking up David Cone's no-hitter." To which Distefano replied, "Yeah, real bad" sarcastically. [19]

For the year, he hit .233/.303/.300 in 66 plate appearances over 52 games for the Astros, mostly as a pinch-hitter. He backed up a trio of young prospects, Jeff Bagwell at 1B, Luis Gonzalez in LF and Eric Anthony in RF. He got his last major league hit off his former Pirates teammate Doug Drabek. Houston released him in August and he signed with the Seattle Mariners. He batted .266/.314/.328 in 18 games for their Calgary Cannons affiliate. A free agent, he was picked up by the Texas Rangers for 1993 but spent all year in AAA with the Oklahoma City 89ers. He hit .222/.284/.331 with 6 home runs in 116 games, a sign his career was over. He did get to catch two more games that season.

Coaching career[edit]

Distefano was a coach with the GCL Tigers in 2006, and the hitting coach of the West Michigan Whitecaps from 2007-2009. He was hitting coach for the Brooklyn Cyclones in 2010, Savannah Sand Gnats in 2011, St. Lucie Mets in 2012-2013 and Brooklyn Cyclones again in 2014. In 2015, he became the Mets' Minor League Outfield Coordinator. [20]

References[edit]

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