Jason Benetti, Syracuse Chiefs announcer, refuses to let cerebral palsy affect his game


Jason Benetti, the voice of the Syracuse Chiefs. (Jonathan Newton/THE WASHINGTON POST)
July 5, 2013

“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.


Jason Benetti downloads his pre-game interview in the radio booth prior to game action against the Charlotte Knights. (Jonathan Newton/THE WASHINGTON POST)

“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.

Benetti finished college in 2005 and after a couple of seasons as the Chiefs’ No. 2 broadcaster he moved to Salem, Va., to call games for what was then a minor league affiliate of the Houston Astros. He enjoyed baseball, but still felt tugged by something bigger.

In 2008, he enrolled in law school at Wake Forest, juggling scorecards with legal briefs. After returning to the Chiefs in 2009, he took a side job with the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse, helping with disability policy research.

“It was something I cared about,” he said, “something that’s obviously close to my heart.”

Broadcasting more than 120 baseball games a year — in addition to a full schedule of high school football and an assortment of college basketball games — forced him to study his law texts and complete online coursework at odd hours. He took a toxic torts exam from the team hotel in Scranton, Pa. The morning of Stephen Strasburg’s first start for Syracuse in 2010, Benetti, who doubles as the Chiefs’ media relations director, missed a half-dozen calls about Strasburg’s media availability.

By the time he graduated from law school in May 2011, Benetti decided to postpone taking the bar. Something else had popped up, something he never could’ve imagined when he was younger: a budding television career.

“McDade with a shot, hooking down the line. Will it stay fair? Yes. A home run for Mike McDade to tie it up. . . . Quite a ballgame we have here. The remaining question: How will it end? Also, when will it end? That could be the slogan for the 2013 Syracuse Chiefs.”

Benetti served as an adjunct professor at Syracuse last semester, teaching television broadcasting. He told his students to remain confident speaking in front of the camera, something that didn’t always come easy to him. On radio, he’s just a voice. But on television, Benetti felt he had to try harder to make sure fans focused on his words.

He does 20 Chiefs games on TV for Time Warner Sports, plus high school football games on Thursday and Friday nights. The past couple of years, ESPN has called on him to broadcast college games for ESPNU and ESPN3 online.

“Jason got the job because of his ability,” said Chris Farrow, coordinating producer for ESPNU and ESPN Regional Television. “I like his voice, the energy, passion. He has a great attitude.”

Benetti tells his students that first impressions matter, even as he spends a lot of energy on- and off-camera focusing on second impressions. In stores, employees treat him like he’s lost or hard of hearing. In airports they thrust canes and wheelchairs on him.

“It used to get me mad,” he said. “But now, I understand, I need them to go home and think about the next time they see someone who looks different, just talk normal, have a regular conversation, don’t make assumptions.”

“Two to one, the final score here. Charlotte with the victory to bump the Knights’ record to 31-42, Chiefs are now 28-42. And we’ll do it again tomorrow. . . . For Kevin Brown inside network headquarters. Jason Benetti saying see ya later from Fort Mill, South Carolina. The Charlotte Knights pull it out, 2-1, on the Syracuse Chiefs baseball network. Good night.

Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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