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SEATTLE - For most of the Montreal Expos, last weekend's visit to Seattle was just another way station in what's become an already forgettable 2004 major league baseball season.
But the interleague trip to play the Mariners held more meaning for rookie relief pitcher Chad Bentz.
Bentz, a 1999 Juneau-Douglas High School graduate, was making the closest visit to his hometown for the season and dozens of current and former Juneau residents went to Seattle hoping to see him play. Before the gates of Safeco Field opened for the series opener on Friday, June 11, Bentz said he was looking forward to getting to play close to home.
"It'll be fun to play at home, or as close to home as we get," Bentz said in the visitor's dugout while watching the Mariners take batting practice. "I love the weather. It's not cold. It's comfortable."
At the time, Bentz was wearing a pair of shorts and a sweatshirt, and one of his teammates was ragging him about getting pneumonia in the 60-degree temperatures. Later, Expos manager Frank Robinson sent a batboy back to the clubhouse to get him a jacket - "the heavy one" - while he watched the Montreal players take batting practice.
"The way I look at it, this should be a pretty full weekend," Bentz said. "It'll be nice to have a lot of people here. It'll be a lot of fun. I grew up watching the Mariners."
This has been a roller-coaster season for Bentz, who is the second player to grow up in Alaska and then make the major leagues.
Bentz is still a little bit of the wild-eyed rookie, taking in all the trappings of being in the major leagues. A left-handed reliever, Bentz is used in late-inning situations with mixed success. Going into today's game, he has an 0-2 record and a 5.21 ERA - but in one of his outings earlier this month Bentz struck out Cincinnati Reds outfielder Ken Griffey Jr.
"It's been fun, a lot of fun," Bentz said. "I'm learning a lot. Atlanta was a tough series (he gave up three runs and got nobody out against the Braves on May 31). I'm looking to go out here, throw strikes and get after them."
"It's been a good learning experience for him," Expos pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "He's a young kid who made the jump from double-A, and there's a lot of adjustments to make. Every day is an experience with new situations for him. We coaches have been in the game for 20, 30 or 40 years are still learning new things, so it's a big transition for a young player like Chad."
As part of the ritual rookie hazing in major league baseball, Bentz had to carry a flowered pink kids' backpack on road games, filling it with candy and bags of sunflower seeds to take out to the bullpen for the veteran pitchers. Bentz was the newest pitcher on the staff until last weekend, when the Expos brought up rookie left-handed reliever Joe Horgan, who took over pink backpack duties.
Bentz is an anomaly among left-handed pitchers because he's had better success against right-handed batters than lefties. Bentz throws a 94 mph fastball, which is fast for a left, but he doesn't have the sweeping curveball or slider most lefties use to keep left-handed hitters from digging into the batter's box. St. Claire said the Expos are working with Bentz on developing a slider, but they're taking their time with it because of the other pressures Bentz faces as a rookie.
"Usually you develop breaking pitches in the minor leagues," St. Claire said. "He's got the ability and the stuff (to pitch in the majors), but what will determine if he makes it is his mind. You can see a lot of guys who had the talent to play, but they didn't have the mind for it."
While waiting for the gates to open on Friday, Bentz was interviewed twice by Fox Sports Net, which broadcasts Seattle Mariner games in the Pacific Northwest. During the interview, Bentz was asked about playing close to home, and he was asked the inevitable questions about his hand. Bentz was born with a deformed right hand, so he uses his left hand to field the ball as well as pitch.
"It's a birthmark, not a handicap," Bentz said, using what's become his standard answer when the hand question comes up. "If people want to consider it a handicap, they can slap a sticker on my truck."
Bentz, who donates $250 to Montreal children's hospitals for every inning he pitches, said the hand issue is "interesting to people, but I'm not anything different from the other players on the field. I'm just trying to get guys out. Off the field I might be a little different."
When the gates finally opened, several current and former Juneau residents stopped by the stands next to the visitor's dugout to say hello to Bentz. Among the first to stop by on Friday were former JDHS baseball player Tim Kissner, who is now an area scouting supervisor for the Philadelphia Phillies, and former JDHS principal Ron Gleason and his wife Rosemarie. Others to stop by included the Urata family - Bob, Chris, Kiel and Koko - and Axel Thibodeau.
"It's not every day you get to see a kid from Juneau, Alaska, in the big leagues," Kissner said.
"We're going to St. Petersburg, Russia, for three years, so had to do this before we left," said Ron Gleason, adding that he'd also made a call to Carlos Boozer's family that week to congratulate them on Carlos' selection to the Olympic basketball team. "You couldn't ask for a couple of better kids to have this success. That's what really counts. There are lots of people with athletic prowess, but not many have the same sense of civic pride as Chad and Carlos. It's a credit to their families and the community. Enough good things can't happen to these kids."
Bentz didn't get into Friday's 1-0 loss to the Mariners, a pitchers' duel that Seattle won in the bottom of the ninth on a pinch-hit single by Pat Borders, their first run in 29 innings.
Before Saturday's game, Bentz was introduced to Austin Bordeaux, a 10-year-old from Tacoma, Wash., who has a similar "birthmark" to his right hand. Bordeaux's father, Tom, said Austin and his brother Brodie had been watching ESPN one day when they saw a feature on Bentz and called him over to watch it. When Tom Bordeaux saw the Expos were scheduled to play in Seattle, he called Mariners head groundskeeper Bob Christofferson, a family friend, to see if he could set up a meeting.
"My idols are Jim Abbott and him," Austin Bordeaux said as he pointed at Bentz, who'd given him a ball signed by Robinson and another he signed. "I golf, play basketball, soccer, tennis and baseball."
"Who knows what kind of impact something like this will have on that little kid's life," Christofferson said.
In Saturday's game, the Mariners touched Expos starter Claudio Vargas for single runs in the first, second and third innings before Robinson decided he'd had enough. With a runner on first and one out in the fourth inning, Robinson called Bentz from the bullpen. Bentz got Randy Winn and Rich Aurilia to hit into fielder's choices at short to get out of the inning.
Bentz struck out Ichiro Suzuki to open the fifth inning, as Suzuki fouled off three 1-2 count pitches with off-balance swings before finally striking out. Bret Boone then singled just over the shortstop, then he walked Dave Hansen on a full count and John Olerud on a 3-1 count to load the bases. The next hitter, Scott Spiezio, hit a 3-1 count flare to left that Expos left fielder caught and then threw to home to get Boone trying to score for a double play to end the inning.
The Expos went on to lose Saturday's game 3-0. But Bentz's 1 2/3 innings were his second-longest outing of the season.
"I came in and got some ground balls, and then I struck out Ichiro," Bentz said. "But I battled my curveball a little and I got behind. I'm not going to give in and give up. I just wanted to go out there and make good pitches. I tried to do that. It wasn't the nicest inning, but as long as I gave up a zero I'll take it. I've got to stop walking guys."
On Sunday, it was Little League Day at the ballpark, so thousands of Little Leaguers paraded around the edge of the field as the teams warmed up for the afternoon game. Sneaking into the parade was JDHS football coach Reilly Richey, who coached Bentz when he was a linebacker and fullback for the Crimson Bears.
Most of Bentz's family and about 20 friends sat behind home plate for all three games, but Chad's older brother, Josh, didn't arrive until Sunday's game. Josh, who is a rookie state trooper in Fairbanks, was originally scheduled to work during the weekend, but he picked up an extra day off when Ronald Reagan died and he used it to head to Seattle.
"I was at work yesterday watching him on Game Day," said Josh Bentz, who said it was his first visit to Safeco Field. "We used to watch the Mariners every night. I was at work yesterday, and I was getting phone calls asking if I'd seen Chad."
Bentz didn't get into Sunday's game, an 8-1 loss. While the Expos were frustrated with their lack of hitting for the series - they scored one run in three games - Bentz said it was nice to see his family and friends. He greeted them in the tunnels under the stadium, posing with a sign they made, before heading for the team bus with his wife Christy, who is due to give birth in August.
"It was great," Bentz said. "It's always nice to have some friends come watch you play. It's a bummer we can't come back."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.