Jason Benetti, the voice of the Syracuse Chiefs. (Jonathan Newton/THE WASHINGTON…)
“We come to you from the Palmetto State, Fort Mill, South Carolina, just across the border from North Carolina. Game three of a four-game set between the Charlotte Knights, the Triple-A affiliate of the White Sox, and the Syracuse Chiefs, the Triple-A affiliate for the Washington Nationals.
“With Kevin Brown inside network headquarters, Jason Benetti here along with you. . .”
Jason Benetti, 29, scanned over his scorecard to read the day’s lineups. His deep, booming voice is not appropriate for a nice restaurant, but it’s perfect here, this old radio booth, barely bigger than a walk-in closet.
Ever since he first sat behind a radio microphone in high school, this is where he’s felt most comfortable.
“Nobody sees me,” he said. “The inhibitions, whichever existed, they’re all gone.”
Benetti shuffles through Class AAA ballparks flat footed, his knees pointed in the wrong direction, each joint awkwardly negotiating with the next — the lasting effects of cerebral palsy. By now, in his fourth season calling Chiefs games, Benetti walks through the team’s clubhouse and no one even looks up.
“He fits right in with the rest of the guys here,” outfielder Corey Brown said. “Just like family.”
Benetti’s gait might be the first thing anyone notices, but after talking to him, it’s the last thing anyone cares about.
“He has no crutches whatsoever,” Syracuse Manager Tony Beasley said. “I see a young man that’s very intelligent, that’s very into what he does. But at the same time, he doesn't want any help. He’s very independent.”
“The 2-2 pitch. Fouled away. That ball just fell short of the P.A. booth to our right. That same window was shattered by a foul ball two years ago on what was impromptu Free Glass Night here at Knights Stadium.”
Greg Booker, the Chiefs’ pitching coach, jokes that Benetti has the perfect face for radio. He said Benetti’s sense of humor helps bridge any gaps right away. “He’s just quick, real witty,” Booker said.
Benetti was born 10 weeks premature. He contracted a virus and bronchopulmonary dysplasia, a lung disorder that required the aid of an oxygen machine. Prospects were grim and there were times Rob and Sue Benetti wondered if they’d ever take home their only son.
“It’s really difficult to put into words, watching your little one suffer like that,” his father said. “I can’t even explain it. It’s a nightmare for any parent.”
Benetti survived but the ensuing cerebral palsy affected his motor skills.
There were surgeries on his legs, and he spent second grade in a wheelchair before graduating to leg braces — not unlike what Forrest Gump wore, he notes.
“By the way, they don’t just fly off while you’re running,” he said.
Growing up in the suburbs south of Chicago, Benetti found refuge in sports. He didn't play Little League or Pop Warner, but his parents could hear him calling games from his bedroom.
“He was always sharp and so quick-witted,” Rob said. “He had a better grasp of the English language by 6 than I probably do now. He was just a gifted orator.”
Benetti memorized every statistic possible. In junior high, he ran the school's NCAA tournament pool, and in high school he discovered radio.
Homewood-Floosmoor High owns and operates a 1,500-watt station, one of the largest high school-run operations in the country. Benetti learned the ins and outs of radio there, broadcasting sports updates and providing play-by-play of the school’s sports teams.
He enrolled at Syracuse University, where he continued studying broadcasting. Benetti liked the idea that from a radio booth, he was judged solely on what he was saying.
“People see me and to them, my IQ immediately drops,” he said. “I think I wanted to be smart. If you’re smart and people know you’re smart, then how you walk, what you look like — that’s not an issue at all.”
“You know, there’s an amusement park located just about three miles outside the ballpark. Might be worth checking out after the game. First pitch to McDade, off-speed, a strike, nothing and one. We were driving to the ballpark the other day, Tony Beasley mentioned he’s a big roller coaster guy. He might want to check out the old amusement park after the game. The 0-1 is high. One ball, one strike. There is no limit to Tony Beasley’s interests. He enjoys watching ‘The Voice’ and he enjoys amusement parks.”
Benetti’s approach hasn’t changed much since college. He’s a perfectionist but works best without a script. “I figure if I’m enjoying it, maybe the listeners are, too,” he said.
He notices every detail of every game. Next to his scorecard, eight colored pens sit side-by-side. The orange one is for strikeouts. Walks are noted in green, runs in blue.