Almost an hour into a rain delay on what should have been a warm and pleasant May night, the infield at Guaranteed Rate Field is covered with a tarp, the White Sox and the Orioles players are in their clubhouses playing cards or video games, and the broadcasters up in the TV booth are telling stories.
Analyst Steve Stone has a lot of them, mostly about Harry Caray, with whom he broadcast Cubs games on TV for many years before coming over to the Sox to partner with the equally legendary play-by-play man Ken “Hawk” Harrelson. Eventually, the subject of on-air mistakes comes up: mistakes in pronunciation or fact or attitude that, depending on the direction of the slip, can become either a funny viral video or a humiliating, even career-ending disaster. Jason Benetti, who replaced Harrelson in the booth three years ago, and who at the age of 38 has already achieved the pinnacle of his chosen profession, decides to share a story of failure.
He was broadcasting a football game at Auburn University two years ago, soon after the beloved Auburn radio announcer Rod Bramblett had died in a tragic car crash, as Jason well knew. But when the camera panned to a group of students who had painted R-O-D and a broken heart on their chests, Jason had a brain fart and turned to his broadcast partner — coincidentally and regrettably also named Rod — and said, “They’re spelling your name, Rod. They’ve got a heart for you!”
This error, which seems rather minor to me, Steve, and broadcast stage manager Joe Grube, was a terrible sin to Jason, one for which he apologized profusely as soon as he realized his mistake, both on the air and then eventually in person to Bramblett’s survivors. We all feel Jason is being too hard on himself — come on, man, it was a momentary slip — but he disagrees, more and more vehemently, until he says, “Fine, you want to hear about a mistake?” and tells us another story, one he has never shared with anyone in that room before.
“OK,” he says. “This is years ago — maybe 2011, I think — and I’m doing a double-header of high school basketball games in East Syracuse.” (Jason triple majored in broadcasting, economics, and psychology at Syracuse University and got his start in sports broadcasting there.) “It’s toward the end of the first game, and a kid gets off the bench wearing big plastic protective goggles, like lab safety goggles, and me and my partner — he was actually the mayor of East Syracuse — we joke about it, saying things like, ‘Hey, looks like that kid knows his way around a Bunsen burner.’
“Soon as that first game is over, my producer comes over to me and says, ‘There’s a parent here who wants to talk to you, but I told him I was going to talk to you myself about it. He’s the father of the kid with the goggles, and he wants you to know his son lost an eye in an accident months ago, and it’s taken him this long to get his confidence back to get on the court, and that’s why he’s wearing those goggles.’ ”
Something has changed in Jason while he’s telling the story. He’s no longer killing time during a rain delay. He is trying to get us to understand something: namely, why Jason Benetti is so hard on himself.
“So I ask him where the father is, and he points him out, and I get up and I walk across the court to him, and he tells me he talked to his daughter at home who’s crying because I made fun of her brother’s goggles after all he’s been through. And I say to the father, ‘Did you see me walk across the court? Did you watch how I walk? Now, can you imagine how bad I feel right now because I stupidly and without thinking made a joke about how somebody else looked?’ ”
The fact that Jason Benetti was born with cerebral palsy, or CP, and thus limps quite noticeably is usually the first thing mentioned in stories about him — for example, the Washington Post headline “Jason Benetti Refuses to Let Cerebral Palsy Affect His Game” — and I had intended to get it out of the way early in this profile and then never mention it again. Jason has become a friend of mine in the last few years, and I assumed he was deeply tired of being held up as an Inspirational Story. He is — sort of. And yet his disability is a significant part of what drives him, what obsesses him, and what has shaped his life — not so much in how it has limited his physical activities but in how it has suffused his sense of self.
Jason knows people stare at him. They always have. Jason knows that his legs are oddly curved, that he walks with a full-body hitch in his step, and that his eyes point in two different directions, making people who don’t know him think he’s congenitally stupid. Jason is far too kind to put it this way, and too well mannered, but his remarkable career and potentially unlimited success isn’t a triumph over adversity. It’s a message to everybody who ever called him a gimp, to parents who told their children not to stare, to the flight attendant who asked him three times if he could handle the weighty duties of sitting in an exit row, and, while we’re at it, to the rival Jason beat out for a college radio sports director job who said, on a public forum, “Well, at least he will be a great magazine story.” And that message is: Fuck you.
The day after the rainout, it’s a beautiful May evening and Jason and Steve are broadcasting the makeup game, played as the second game of a double-header. The enormous windows of the booth, closed to the elements the night before, are now wide open, letting in the noise of the stadium, and, of course, the smells.
“The smell of hamburgers is wafting into the booth,” says Jason to the TV audience. “Did you know, Steve, that today is National Hamburger Day?”
“I did not,” says Steve, who sometimes reacts to Jason’s unexpected observations with a riposte, sometimes with a laugh, sometimes with a blank stare. He listens to a voice in his headset. “I’m told that it was actually yesterday, Jason.”
Jason, instantly: “Did you know, Steve, it’s 364 days until National Hamburger Day?”
I ask Jason during a break if he’d had that factoid ready to go. He shrugs. “I got a note about a AAA player I’m following, and somebody said he was going to get a hit for National Hamburger Day, so I thought I’d toss that in.”
Jason’s preparation for games is legendary, even among his peers. Loren Knaster, a close friend who was a fellow broadcasting major at Syracuse University, says, “We found out we were broadcasting a game against Cincinnati eight days out. He would immediately go all in on Cincinnati, learn everything there was about the players, the coaches, everything. Play-by-play guys put together charts on opposing teams. Most people do it the day of the game. Jason would do his first chart the day he got the assignment and produce a revised chart two or three days out.”
Steve Stone told me — with some wonder — that Jason once got an assignment from ESPN to do a regional play-in in a collegiate basketball tournament and was offered a week in either San Diego or Boise, Idaho. “Of course you choose San Diego — who wants to spend a week in Boise? But he went to Boise! Why? Because, he said, he had eight teams to study, and he didn’t want any distractions!”
During the Orioles game, Jason is relying on detailed notes from the White Sox media office as well as a number of baseball stat sites he keeps open on his laptop, plus his own score book — in which he meticulously records each pitch with an array of color-coded Uni-ball pens, allowing him to note that, say, a particular batter has swung at the first pitch in his prior two at-bats, and each pitch was a cut fastball. Beyond all that is his own extensive research, which can reach into the truly obscure.
To wit: Later in the season, during a short lull in a game against Tampa Bay, he casually told the audience that Rays manager Kevin Cash had attended Florida State University, playing for the esteemed coach there, Mike Martin. The broadcast screen showed a pic of the young Cash in his Seminoles uniform.
Then he said, “Of course, both managers were also born in Tampa Bay.” The production team threw up a graphic, “Major League Managers Born in Tampa Bay,” listing La Russa, Cash, and a few others. Having made it around the bases, Jason heads for home: “And here’s a funny thing: Tony La Russa’s cousin Irene was Kevin Cash’s second-grade teacher. And of course Irene roots for the Rays, unless they’re playing the White Sox.”
Where in the world did Jason dig up that? “Tony had mentioned that to me on the field the day before,” he said. “So, in our morning call, I asked our producer Chris to grab some young Kevin Cash stuff. I told Chris I’d start the story however far back he could find a picture. So we started at FSU.”
Most of the time, though, Jason isn’t unveiling obscure information with the delight of Uncle Drosselmeyer distributing Christmas presents. He’s narrating the action of the game, but also setting and elevating the tone. Most MLB television play-by-play broadcasters are not neutral — they are, after all, employed by the team, speaking to its fans — but they tend to be bland. It is their job to inform, while the analyst provides the “color commentary.” If not entirely reversed, that division of labor is at least balanced between Jason and Steve.
Steve has played the game, so he allows himself to speculate on what a player might do, what he should do, and what he did wrong. Jason, though, likes to tell stories — what the player has done before, what he hopes to do, what he will probably do, given his history. It was Jason, for example, who noticed that Nick Madrigal had an impressive batting average with two strikes in the count, and thus the second baseman became “Nicky Two Strikes” to White Sox fans, and, not incidentally, it became a lot more exciting when Madrigal had two strikes on him with the game on the line.
On the field, Tim Anderson, the Sox shortstop, handles a routine grounder, and then a few pitches later, he snares a hard-hit ball, spins in the air, and fires it to José Abreu at first with a millisecond to spare. “One easy play for Tim, one hard one. He needs a medium for the full Goldilocks,” comments Jason before tossing to a commercial break.
Although Jason says that his job is to reflect the viewers’ emotions back to them, that’s never literally true, because these are White Sox fans and Jason never curses or insults anyone’s mother. But he is expert at finely modulating his smooth delivery with a cadence he’s practiced to seem relaxed and conversational, despite the flood of input washing over him from game and broadcast monitors, his research sheets and websites, and the actual noises of the game crashing through the window.
No matter how frenetic the action gets, he’s never at a loss for the right word at the right moment; no matter how miserable the result on the field, he never moans or groans or disses a player. His persona is the Platonic ideal of a guy to sit next to at the ballpark: infinitely knowledgeable, endlessly inventive, ceaselessly funny, and, best of all, actually interested in what you might have to say.
Kevin Brown, his former minor-league broadcast partner who now handles play-by-play for the Baltimore Orioles, says, “Jason has a way of finding out what makes people tick and drawing the best out of them. I am convinced that you could drop JB into a booth with a mime and he would make that mime a better analyst.” As proof: Any casual viewer of White Sox games can see that Steve Stone is funnier, smarter, more engaged, and simply happier than he ever was during his long years trying to get a word in edgewise with Hawk Harrelson. He’s also a better analyst. Steve himself agrees. “He asks me questions!” Steve says, delighted. “Sometimes, he’ll just ask me, ‘Why?’ ”
It’s getting toward the end of the makeup game. Abreu comes up to bat and smashes the ball over the right center field fence, putting the game away. “That ball is DESTRUCTED!” shouts Jason, a rare mistake of grammar — if it was one — that the production team immediately starts having fun with, playing it on a loop as the seventh and final (under the league’s new rules for double-headers) inning begins. White Sox closer Liam Hendriks strikes out a batter, and Jason says, “Farewell to … young Ryan McKenna” — the first time I’ve heard him pause for even an instant to double-check a bit of info in the course of an entire double-header. Then the final batter, the final strikeout, the final call — “Hendriks once again BLITZES the Orioles!” The game is over, and instantly everyone is packing up to get home.
We exit into the public area of the concourse, and a tipsy fan becomes very excited to see Jason, an experience that is growing more and more common. Once, leaving a game, Jason got onto the elevator with a fan in a wheelchair being escorted by a stadium employee down to the exits. The man in the wheelchair had some degenerative neurological condition, affecting his appearance and his voice, and that man’s eyes grew wide. A trace of a smile came to his lips, and he said, “JASON.” Jason turned, and the man extended his hand. Jason took it. “JASON,” the man said. “JASON.” In his wheelchair, the man vibrated with joy. Jason kept shaking his hand, then held it until the elevator arrived at the ground floor.
Jason’s origin story is, at least in Chicago sports and media circles, as well known as that of Batman. He’s the kid from south suburban Homewood whose mother was pregnant with him while she was walking to a White Sox game in July 1983 when a piece of debris fell from Old Comiskey Park and narrowly missed her and instead laid out her husband flat on the sidewalk. That trauma may have sent Sue Benetti to the hospital to give birth 10 weeks early, which in turn led to her only child’s cerebral palsy. Growing up, Jason loved sports but couldn’t play because of his disability, so he became a broadcaster, first in high school, then in college, then as a professional. Then, one glorious day in 2016, he fulfilled his childhood ambition, as immortalized in a third-grade essay: “When I grow up, I want to be the TV announcer for the Chicago White Sox.” (Cue sentimental oohs from the studio audience.)
Like all legends, it’s a mélange of truth and nonsense. First of all, that piece of debris that nearly killed Jason in the womb (why would that be a good omen, anyway?) didn’t fall from the crumbling park, but from a nearby building. Jason’s father, Rob Benetti, told me it was “a piece of concrete fascia, weighing about 40 to 50 pounds, which struck me just where the neck meets the shoulder, fracturing my T1 to T3 vertebrae.” Rob may be the source of his son’s gift for pulling stats from memory.
Plus, Sue Benetti is certain the accident had nothing to do with her son’s premature birth, and even more certain it had nothing to do with the viral infection and bronchopulmonary dysplasia that kept him in the neonatal intensive care unit for months, connected to tubes and pumps, or his diagnosis of cerebral palsy two years later, after doctor after doctor had been unable or perhaps unwilling to explain the tiny infant’s failure to develop on schedule.
Cerebral palsy is a catchall term for a related suite of conditions, ranging from stiffness in the outer extremities to profound mental impairment. Any or all of them may present to any degree, and it may not be known whether a child diagnosed with CP will ever walk or speak or be able to feed themselves. Revealing another attribute they must have passed on to their son, Rob and Sue devoted themselves first to doing anything necessary for Jason to succeed and second to believing, without a moment of doubt, that he would. It became apparent early that whatever physical challenges he’d face — alleviated, somewhat, by a series of pediatric surgeries, including one to ease the tension in his lower legs — his mental acuity was off the charts. “So many of the doctors thought Jason was going to do big things, even from when he was little,” says Sue. “When he was 3, one of his pediatricians at the University of Chicago said we should sign him up for the Lab School.”
The Lab Schools being rather far away and rather expensive, Jason attended public schools in Homewood, where he was welcomed into the usual classes for a child his age — his parents chose to “mainstream” him, without knowing that term — but, both he and they agree, he did not easily fit in. He used a wheelchair as a young boy, then had braces on his legs; even when they came off, his gait was odd, his eyes splayed, his disability obvious to the other children. Children, as a rule, have never been very good at hiding their shock or amusement — some of his classmates stared, others kept asking if they could push his wheelchair. Then there was that one teacher who accused Jason of “disrupting” the class by walking around in such a distracting manner. That teacher, thanks to Rob and Sue’s swift intervention, was soon able to enjoy never being disrupted — or upstaged — by Jason Benetti ever again.
But if he lacked friends, he was wealthy in family, as his parents constantly shared with him their enthusiasms and adventures, which mainly revolved around sports. Young Jason attended baseball games, football games, IndyCar races, and pro wrestling matches. One evening in Indianapolis, Rob heard from a cabdriver that wrestler Ric Flair was eating at a restaurant in town, so Rob called the restaurant, pretending to be Flair’s brother, in the hopes of confirming Flair’s presence and arranging a meeting for Flair’s biggest, youngest fan. The attempt failed, but the attitude — well, why not at least try? — seems to be another trait Jason inherited.
So yes, Jason loved sports, but he was never a frustrated athlete, dreaming of glory and crashing down to earth due to his lack of ability. He loved sports because his parents loved sports and he loved his parents, and besides, sports are great. He also loved comedy and musicals, Saturday Night Live and Mr. Show, Monty Python and George Carlin.
As for that third-grade essay about doing TV for the White Sox, which gets mentioned in profiles of Jason just about as often as his disability — the only thing better than a Triumph Over Adversity is a Childhood Dream Come True — he has no memory of ever having written it. Jason only found out about it when his mother pulled it from a scrapbook the day he signed his first contract with the White Sox. He also, at that age, wanted to be a doctor. Maybe a fireman, too. Or a pony.
Elementary school was bearable, middle school perfectly pleasant — aided by a basement with a Ping-Pong table, a game that requires intelligence, deft hands, and not a lot of running — but high school was a challenge. “You know how teenagers are … ,” says his mother, and as she trails off, I think of how puberty makes everyone intensely and suddenly aware of not only their own bodies but everybody else’s.
But it may be at Homewood-Flossmoor High that the true origin story of Jason Benetti begins, and it had to do with a tuba and a radio station.
As he tells it — and he tells it often, having become as adept at narrating his own biography as he is at describing a double play — Jason played first tuba in the high school band (“which means I was slightly better than the other tuba player”), but the wraparound sousaphone for the marching band “wasn’t my strong suit.” His accommodating band director tried to choreograph a show around him — literally, with Jason standing midfield, like a barren rock in the midst of a churning sea of spats and shako hats, playing a tuba mounted on a stand. “It was basically everything I hate,” Jason says. “Attention for the wrong reasons. Open and obvious assistance. No chance to be normal. Probably a token round of applause.”
So instead, the band director suggested maybe he’d prefer announcing the show from the booth. And lo, it came to pass. Jason made a remarkable discovery as he stepped to the microphone far above the field, once an arena of humiliation, now a canvas for him to adorn. He quickly found his way to the high school’s radio station (a relatively rare amenity that Homewood-Flossmoor happened to boast) to capitalize on his discovery: that on the radio or PA, he could deploy his intelligence, his resonant voice, his wide range of expertise, his wit, his gift for making other people slightly happier than they had been before hearing him, and they would hear him, because finally, at last, they could not see him.
Nobody seeing him meant that nobody pitied him, mocked him, or tried to help him. Nobody seeing him meant that nobody would ever give him a damn thing, like being the only member of the marching band not required to march, because, well, just look at the poor boy. Jason, freed from the burden of visibility, could use his exceptional talents to be what he had always wanted to be: just like everybody else.
Having found the platform and invisibility of sports radio, he attended Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, famous for its broadcasting program, joined the staff of its radio station, and triumphed over the cut-throat student politics to become sports director. But even more important than his apprenticeship, he also found his team.
Sandy Weintraub met him in a dorm rec room. “Playing Ping-Pong with Jason is an indelible experience,” he says now. “He’s very good, and he knows people will underestimate him. He’s incredibly competitive. But,” he adds, “I’m also pretty good.”
Jason was brought to that particular rec room that day by Loren Knaster, and pretty soon the three of them, along with David Spiegel, were all hanging together and rooming together and talking together every day, which for the most part they still do. They were not Jason’s first friends, of course, but they were his first best friends, and it was the first time he ever felt like an equal.
The younger Jason, according to his friends, was much the same as the current version: endlessly knowledgeable, witty, companionable, and kind. Sandy calls Jason’s essential quality “authenticity,” which I take to mean that even when performing, he never seems to be putting on an act. It’s a rare gift to say and do things perfectly calibrated to bring delight to the person, or multitudes, you’re talking to. It’s almost impossible to do that without ever seeming like you’re trying.
But back in college, he had what Sandy calls “an edge.” Loren straightforwardly calls it “anger.” It was connected to his disability, to his hatred of being seen as special or needy or, God forbid, “handicapped.” But his anger could also rebound on himself. “He trips and falls more than other people,” says Loren. “And we were walking one night home from a party, and he tripped and fell. And none of us cared — it was very normal. It’s not like he was being bullied by anyone. But that would ruin him for 48 hours. We would have to go home. … He was trying so hard to not have his disability be a factor. When it did, he … got angry.”
Jason admits it. He confesses it like a crime that haunts him. “I was a hard friend to have,” he says, contradicting his friends. “There was a chip on my shoulder. I would lash out at people.” Despite his crew, he felt isolated. He was too scared of people’s reaction to him to approach them, so he waited for people to come to him — and they didn’t. It is an odd thing to be blessed with close friends and yet focus your anxieties on all the friends you don’t have, the endless multitudes who might theoretically dislike you. Anger is a way of manifesting loneliness and longing: You put out spikes so people won’t get close to you. Then you have a better explanation of why people won’t get close to you than the one you fear.
To get beyond his anger, he ended up having to do something his college friends could not have predicted. He had to give up his urge to be invisible, and he had to do it in the most public way available to him.
“The college version of us would never believe he was on TV,” says Loren. “It doesn’t add up. We would go do a TV bit at school, and we would take two hours to film a 15-second clip. He was very uncomfortable. He would find every reason to hate it and would become so focused on where to stand, and where to put his hands, and where to look, that all of his natural skills went away.”
Because on TV, of course, they can see you.
Sportscaster Sean McDonough, who was Tim McCarver’s partner on national baseball broadcasts before Joe Buck came along, is one of the more visibly successful alumni of the Newhouse School at Syracuse, and as such, he receives heartfelt letters accompanying sample tapes of broadcasts from current students looking for feedback and a leg up. “There’s a wide range of talent,” he says. “Sometimes you say to them, ‘Maybe you should consider being a producer or director or some other honorable profession.’ But with Jason, it was, ‘You could have my job tomorrow. You’re a network-caliber person now.’ ”
I’ve listened to the tape Jason sent McDonough when he was still a senior at Syracuse. It’s the radio play-by-play from a 2004 football game, Syracuse vs. Florida State, and it is truly remarkable how confident, prepared, and, well, adult the 21-year-old Jason sounds. In fact, as he alternates with his analyst, a fellow student, it sounds like Bring Your Child to Work Day at the broadcast booth. A White Sox fan would easily recognize his baritone elocution, his ability to conjure up names and numbers and fluid descriptions of the ongoing action as if he were reading from a script rather than improvising. McDonough is right: You’re listening to a professional-caliber broadcaster. But to someone who listens to Jason today, especially on the TV baseball broadcast, with its relaxed pace and gaps of time to fill, something’s missing: his wit, his banter with his partner, his cultural references and sly drops of history and trivia. What’s missing from Jason’s perfect presentation is Jason.
With the help of McDonough and others, Jason started his rise through his profession’s ranks. His first professional gig after graduation was with the Syracuse Chiefs, a minor-league baseball team whose games he broadcast from 2009 to 2014. He spent three of those years flying back and forth from North Carolina, where he was attending law school at Wake Forest University, to pick up games in various collegiate and secondary leagues.
A typical winter week might see him at classes Monday through Thursday, then jumping on a plane to Syracuse to broadcast high school football games on Friday night, and then back to Winston-Salem on Saturday for collegiate football. Some of those games were on TV, and so, over the course of those years, he worked on his TV presentation. He became less and less nervous as he accepted that if you’re announcing on TV, you’re a TV announcer, no matter what you look like. He learned that if he positioned his head just so, one eye would be to the camera and the other to his partner, so both the audience at home and his partner would think he was looking directly at them, and everybody would be happy.
But he still wasn’t able to escape the shallow judgment of others, whether solicitous or cruel. Jason was walking onto the Chiefs team bus one day in his herky-jerky style, and somebody yelled, “Look, Keyzer Söze!” referring to the twisted, limping villain played by Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects. “Hey, no spoilers!” shot back Jason, with a careful smile. The next day, somebody had picked up a DVD of the movie for everyone to watch on the bus so, presumably, they would all get the joke.
His first national TV broadcast was a Division I basketball game between Syracuse and Albany on some tertiary ESPN channel in 2011. He was nervous — the audience could be everywhere and infinite in number. He came out of the booth and found a two-word text from Kevin Brown, his radio broadcast partner with the Syracuse minor-league team. Jason read it and found himself in tears. It said:
Hawk Harrelson, he of the folksy manner and catchphrases like “duck snorts” for bloop hits and “You can put it on the board … YES!” for home runs, informed the White Sox that he no longer wanted to work home games after the 2015 season. He didn’t mind a lift to the airport and a first-class flight to another major-league city, but driving to Sox Park against traffic from his home in Indiana no longer appealed. So the White Sox had a problem: They didn’t need a new play-by-play man; they needed half of one.
“We had a Hall of Fame broadcaster who is going to step back, and we needed somebody to take a part-time job,” says Brooks Boyer, the White Sox senior vice president who oversees the team’s broadcasts. “And we couldn’t promise whoever it was that you’ll slip right in when Hawk does retire.
“We spread a very wide net,” he says of their search. “We were open about it. We had a lot of big names. … It’s Chicago, a major market. But the name on everybody’s lips was Benetti.”
He was accomplished but young, the kind of guy who might risk spending a few years in Hawk’s shadow in return for the chance to take over the first seat. And of course, he was a hometown guy. Once they settled on Jason as the leading candidate, they flew him to Arizona to have dinner with Steve Stone, with whom he would partner in the booth. Steve says that immediately after that meeting, he called veteran White Sox executive Bob Grim and said, “You better get this guy tonight, because somebody is going to be backing up a truckload of money to his house sometime soon.”
I asked Boyer if he had considered Jason’s disability in their hiring. “I had heard he had CP, but didn’t know anything about his disability until he walked in for his interview,” he says. “And of course, I asked him the questions I had to ask, like can he get on a plane OK? Can he drive himself to games? And he answered those questions very openly, and after 10 minutes I forgot all about it.” (Jason was fine with it: “I’d much rather that he ask me those questions than not. If the only thing holding him back from a decision is a preconceived notion of my abilities, then let me dispel it. It’s much better this way. Cut the shit! Ask me the questions!”)
But did Boyer ever think, like that long-vanquished rival in college radio, about the great magazine profiles? The stories that were to flood his morning media roundup about the brave disabled kid conquering his obstacles, the White Sox presenting him with the ultimate Make-a-Wish? Boyer considered and then said, “I’m a marketer. I should answer that it was 100 percent on my mind, that he would make a great story. But the truth is, I was just focused on hiring the best broadcaster I could.”
Jason began filling in on White Sox home games in 2016, continued in 2017, broadcast 140 of the 160 games in 2018 — Hawk stepped in to do a few series and Sunday home games — and then finally became the full-time White Sox TV play-by-play announcer for the 2019 season. The Chicago kid who was once, to his humiliation, at the center of a high school marching band routine was now the center, the voice, the personality, of his hometown major-league Baseball team. He had always wished to be anonymous, not to be singled out, to be invisible, so that someday he could be seen not for what he looked like but for what he could do. And now he would get his wish.
A few weeks after the double-header with the Orioles, Jason and I are sitting on the terrace of Chicago Cut, a downtown steakhouse popular with high-powered Chicago men and their high-powered friends. Next to the railing overlooking the Chicago River, former Cubs star pitcher and ESPN broadcaster Rick Sutcliffe is dining — and drinking — with friends, including Jon “Boog” Sciambi, who does TV play-by-play for the Cubs. They keep gesturing for Jason to come over and hang with them, and when he does, they tell him to sit down (while encouraging him to bring along his friend — that is, me, whoever I am). After Jason graciously and repeatedly declines and eventually extracts himself to return to our table, Rick spends the rest of the evening regularly walking over to reiterate the invite, each time a little more loudly and a little less coherently than the last. At one point, as he persuades Jason to come back over to hear this one amazing story, he says to me, “Sorry, man.”
“No worries,” I say. “If you’re hanging with Benetti, you have to share him.” However ungainly the gait he used to get here, Jason has indeed arrived.
Steve Stone says Jason’s future is unlimited — “He could be the Bob Costas of his generation” — and you don’t need to be a professional analyst to see he’s right. ESPN has him on contract to do national collegiate basketball and football games as well as occasional Statcast secondary broadcasts of baseball games that are both exceptionally entertaining and a great way to avoid having to listen to A-Rod on the main broadcast. This summer, NBC borrowed him from the White Sox to broadcast Olympic baseball, which introduced him to yet another national audience — at least those willing to get up at 4 a.m. central time for the games.
The only thing seemingly missing from Jason’s rich life is someone waiting for him back at his new house in the northern suburbs. His friends, colleagues, and family do not mention any romantic interests, in college or ever — although you can tell his mom wishes there were someone to mention. When I ask Jason about it directly, he shakes his head and says, “Someday.” At first, I suspected this odd blank spot in his life was some kind of secret — as unlikely as that would be for a man so open about just about everything. But I’ve come to believe that it is, as it appears to be, simply an absence, and something he’s not quite ready to attempt, despite conquering every other mountain in sight.
I ask him about his role as a symbol of hope and triumph to the disabled and abled alike. He remains sensitive about it, especially the suspicion — fading but still lingering — that he got his chances to succeed only so he could make everybody else feel better. “You know those video clips where, say, the high school football team lets its disabled manager suit up and take the field and the other team lets him score a touchdown? I have an aversion to those. It’s like dropping food on a country in a famine. It’s nice and a good thing … but what’s going to happen after that?”
At the same time, he knows how much he means to other disabled people, like that man he met in the elevator. “I had hoped there was going to be a level of excellence that I would get to that people would just stop caring about how I look. That’s never going to happen. But … I got an email from a guy with a daughter who has CP, and he’s constantly fighting for her, to get her access, to get her opportunity. And he said that when she gets down, he tells her to just watch the White Sox on TV. ‘Forget all that,’ he tells her. ‘Look at Jason. You can do it!’ ”
The irony of it all is not lost on him: He worked incredibly hard for decades so he could rise above the pitiable niche he believed other people put him in. And although people will always write articles about how he triumphed over disability, they do so to praise him, to celebrate everything he’s done, to hold him up to millions of people, disabled and not, who see in him a reason to hope. The struggle for him now is to accept that people will still see his eyes, his gait, and come to their own conclusions. The only difference now is they conclude he’s a hero.
Jason Benetti is no longer angry. He no longer dwells and frets and steams when somebody who doesn’t know him thinks he needs extra help or extra consideration. (Well, not for long.) But more importantly, he no longer believes that he’s not yet good enough, that he has to get better, that he has to work even harder to erase his distinctive physical presence and instead be just like everyone else. Jason Benetti will never be just like anyone else, and he is finally coming to understand how rare and wonderful that is.
Over by the railing, Rick Sutcliffe starts shouting and waving again, insisting that Jason come over and hear this crazy story, or maybe tell one. Jason smiles ruefully, apologizes, tells me it’ll just be a second, and walks, in full sight of everyone, over to his fans.