What if Derek Jeter had signed with the Cincinnati Reds? If it had been up to longtime Reds' scout and former player Gene Bennett, he would have. Bennett was honored for his years of service by the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation January in Los Angeles.
Bennett graduated from Wheelersburg High School and played for local baseball leagues before a scout named Buzz Boyle took notice and signed him with the Cincinnati Reds in 1952. He played outfield for the Reds for seven years.
"My shoulder got to where I couldn't throw much,” Bennett said. “That was a big time problem back then because the things you had to do then — you really had to run and you really had to throw. It's not like it is now. When you couldn't throw, the chance of you going on to excel was pretty tough."
He told the Reds he wasn't going to play anymore, so they offered him his choice of two jobs. He could either manage a Class D farm team, or scout new players for the team. He told them he'd think about it and came back home to Scioto County.
"I came back home and (legendary baseball scout and Scioto County native) Branch Rickey just happened to be in town, and I just by luck ran into him,” Bennett said. “I told him what the deal was, that I wasn't going to play anymore and the Reds told me they'd like me to be manager of a Class D league or even possibly be a scout. I asked him, 'If you was in my shoes, which one would you do?' He said real quick, 'I'd take the scouting job, because in scouting, if you do the right thing and you're successful, you probably got a lifetime job. In managing in the minors, if you don't have good players to manage it's tough to win. If you don't win, it's tough to hang around too long.'"
A few days after his discussion with Rickey, Bennett called the Reds and accepted the scouting job. As a scout, Bennett signed great players like Chris Sabo, Barry Larkin, Paul O'Neil and Don Gullett.
"Don Gullett, had he not had that shoulder problem, he would probably have gone down as one of the great pitchers in American baseball. I've signed good pitchers, but I never saw a high school kid in my life that even came close to this guy. I hear people today say 'This guy's better than Gullett,' but Gullett's change-up is better than anyone's fastball," Bennett said.
As a scout, Bennett said not everyone has to be a star, but he always looks at what a player can bring to the team.
"If I was looking at a position player, I looked at a player that could really run. I looked for a guy that had an outstanding arm, and then I test his eyes to see if he could see. If you sign players like that, if they ever hit, you don't have a baseball player, you got a star. If he don't hit, you got an outstanding utility player," Bennett said.
When scouting pitchers he said he looks for guys who can throw hard, and throw strikes.
"If you've got competent pitching instructors, they can teach that guy a change-up or a curve, or something like that. But when you get a guy that can throw that ball up to 95 miles an hour, he don't have to have much other stuff," Bennett said.
He said he made a few scout picks that the Reds rejected; players like John Smoltz and Leon Durham. But one that bothered him most was missing out on New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. He said Jeter would have put the Reds back on top.
"I had a deal worked out with him already," Bennett said. "A cross checker came in and looked him and saw him play and said 'He's all right but he ain't no first round pick.' Those are the smart guys that would come in and see a guy pitch two innings and bat twice, and they was the judge and the jury."
When draft day came around, the Reds had fifth pick. Bennett still believed Jeter was their guy right up until the announcer called their pick.
"They said, 'The Cincinnati Reds take Chad Mattola,' and I said, 'Yeah, the Cincinnati Reds just took Babe Ruth too,'" he said, sarcastically. "Then real quick I heard them say, 'New York Yankees take Derek Jeter,' and I said 'Holy cow!'"
Bennett complained to Reds General Manager Jim Bowden, but said it was too late.
"It didn't help anything. The Yankees took Derek Jeter," he said.
In 1991, Bennett was appointed to Senior Assistant to the Cincinnati Reds General Manager, and he still holds that position today. In July 2008, the Reds honored Bennett with a plaque and induction to the Reds Hall of Fame.
This year, in Los Angeles, the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation presented Bennett with a large plaque during their sixth annual ceremony.
"At this banquet they had a big auction, and they bring in millions. The money is used to go to baseball people, scouting in particular, that has a disability and can't work no longer and they don't have insurance," Bennett said.
He said especially in our current economy and housing market, what the foundation does is more valuable than ever, and he was honored to receive the award.
"You know, when you get honored with things like this, I've found you've got to have a lot of help from people that you work with," Bennett said, pointing to people in his own life such as Fred Hays, Leroy Jackson, and Harry Steinridey. "These guys could have worked for anybody, but they were faithful to the Reds and because of people like that, they helped me get these awards because I was always able to sign a ton of players. If I had had to do some of that by myself, it would have been tough to do."
RYAN SCOTT OTTNEY can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 235, or e-mail at email@example.com.