For six summers from ages 7 to 12, Will Benson and Xzavion Curry played together on the Sandtown Red Sox youth baseball team southwest of Atlanta. Now 24, the longtime friends are teammates again — after making their major league debuts for the Cleveland Guardians exactly two weeks apart.
“We’ve been talking about this day forever,” Benson, who started in center field Monday, told the Athletic.
Back in Atlanta, Tony Douglas watched Curry’s debut with great pride, just as he had Benson’s first big league game two weeks earlier. In his nearly 30 years coaching baseball for the Sandtown Youth Sports Association, Douglas, 56, had never seen one of his former players reach the majors. Now he had seen two — former Sandtown Red Sox teammates, no less — in the span of 14 days.
“I was sitting there watching the game last night in amazement,” Douglas said Tuesday in a phone interview. “I can’t even put it into words.”
The words Douglas used to describe the 7-and-under team that first brought Benson and Curry together were “the kids that nobody wanted.” The group of castoffs became a tightknit powerhouse; while the Red Sox were a rec league team that primarily played against other teams in Sandtown, they enjoyed a good deal of success on the travel-ball circuit over the next six years. For a few of those summers, the Red Sox’s infield featured a defensive wizard named Justin Fields.
“His range at second base — you have to see it to believe it,” Douglas said of Fields, the former Ohio State football standout and current Chicago Bears quarterback.
Douglas said Curry, who was armed with a wicked fastball, led the Red Sox to a win over Sandtown’s top 8-year-old team as a 7-year-old in his first start. Douglas recalled a game at the American Amateur Baseball Congress World Series the following year in which Benson made his pitching debut and went 4 for 4 with three home runs and a double at the plate. Curry, who played shortstop when he wasn’t on the mound, came on to close out the win.
“Will and Zay always pushed each other,” said Douglas, who retired from coaching two years ago. “The kids from those teams, they all still talk. They have a big group chat.”
Benson’s parents wanted him to play basketball as Benson’s father, Ted, had at Purdue, but Douglas helped convince him to stick with baseball. Douglas laughed about an early turning point in their relationship as player and coach.
“Will loved to play around, so I put him on the bench for one game when he was 8,” Douglas said. “I was happy because it bothered him to the point where he woke up. He came back to the next practice focused, and then he never looked back. That one time was all it took.”
Cleveland selected Benson with the 14th overall pick in the 2016 MLB draft after a standout high school career. Curry played three seasons at Georgia Tech before the Guardians selected him in the seventh round in 2019. The two were teammates on the Class AAA Columbus Clippers this season before Benson was called up and, with his family in the stands, scored the winning run in his major league debut Aug. 1.
After graduating from Sandtown’s rec league, Benson and Curry remained involved with the Red Sox, helping mold Douglas’s next generation of players when they were able. Douglas credited Benson’s work with one of his former players, Tyson Roberson, for the first baseman earning a baseball scholarship to Southern. Benson told the Athletic he dreams of building a youth baseball complex in Fulton County that would make the sport more accessible to kids in the area.
Douglas, who spoke to Curry a day before his major league debut and texted him after Monday’s start, is planning a trip to a Guardians game in Cleveland with a few other former Sandtown coaches before the season is over.
“At Sandtown Park, we all played a part in so many kids that have gone on to be successful, whether it be in sports or something else,” Douglas said. “Will and Zay, they’ll always be kids. I don’t think they even realize they’re in the pros. They think they’re playing Little League baseball.”