Humble Benintendi to Lead Off

Andrew Benintendi isn't playing basketball anymore, but has a storied past in that sport. He'll anchor center field for the Diamond Hogs.

Arkansas assistant coach Tony Vitello was asked to think of a good starting point for an interview with freshman Andrew Benintendi.

"Ask him if he's so good at basketball, why is he playing baseball in college," Vitello said.

It seemed like a good idea since Benintendi was the Cincinnati Enquirer's state Division III basketball player of the year after averaging 25.5 points in the hot bed for south Ohio basketball talent. A two-time All-State point guard at Cincinnati Madeira, Benintendi can light it up with a basketball.

Of course, he's won more accolades for his baseball. He was a four-year star at Madeira in both sports, but made national headlines when he won Rawlings player of the year award last year. At 5-10, 170, Benintendi said he knew for some time he was going to be a baseball player in college and the measureables told the story

"Size probably," Benintendi said. "I've never been too tall. I do love it. I grew up playing basketball, playing all my life. It's always been there and I enjoy playing with my friends.

"I was point guard and shooting guard. The way we played, everyone was a guard. We didn't have any real designated positions.

"I liked to shoot. It's fun to score, but it's not all about that."

Benintendi was not afraid to pull the trigger from deep beyond the 3-point line.

"Naw, I wasn't," he said. "Those lines are there just to give you the point value. They were not there to restrict you."

Benintendi doesn't miss Arkansas basketball game. He relished the victory over Kentucky. He grew up 90 minutes from Lexington, but had never been to a game at Rupp Arena. He grew up a Cincinnati basketball fan. He lived 10 minutes from that campus.

"The fans were unbelievable at the Kentucky game," Benintendi said. "The atmosphere was great. The fans are great here in every sport. It's one of the big reasons I came here.

"I'm looking forward to the baseball season starting and seeing all our fans."

The recruiting process started when one of his summer league buddies, catcher John Clay Reeves, picked the Hogs and gave him good reports.

"I visited for the South Carolina series," Benintendi said. "It was a little different landing at XNA and seeing cows in the fields because I came from a city. But I loved it. I liked the school, the facilities, the players, the coaches and just loved the atmosphere at the game. I committed pretty quickly."

Benintendi, at just 5-10 and 170, knew "deep down" it was always going to be baseball, the sport his father Chris played in college at Wittenberg.

"Basketball is now a different kind of athlete," he said. "The size of these players are just unbelievable. Look at our players at Arkansas. They are massive. I came into a realization when I became a freshman in high school."

Benintendi played all four years in both sports, earning All State twice in basketball at Madeira High School, a Division III school. That's a middle-sized school in Ohio, where there are five classifications.

"I graduated with a class of 120," Benintendi said. "We weren't a big school and we weren't in the bigger class."

Benintendi can hit home runs, but he'll be the leadoff hitter for the Hogs. A good base runner with better than average speed, he'll steal some bases. But his job is not to try to power the ball into the prevailing south wind that always seems to be screaming over the bullpen in right, a definite pitcher's wind against a left hitter like Benintendi.

"I didn't know it blew in here," he said. "I figured it out the hard way."

That happens early in fall practices. Benintendi said it really doesn't matter except when he's in center field. He's always played a shallow center.

"You need to know the wind out there," he said. "Lately, in our January workouts, it's been crazy. Some days, it's been blowing straight in from center, then we get (the north wind) that's blowing straight out. You better know it when you head out there. It plays a factor on defense, to me, more than offense."

Playing shallow may be something new for Arkansas fans. There's been a great run of fine outfielders in the middle going back to Craig Genry, Jake Dugger, Brett Eibner, Jacob Morris and Matt Vinson. All played medium depth and had great speed.

"Andrew has good speed and he can really go back," said assistant Tony Vietello, who works with the outfielders. "He glides when he runs. He's very confident. He plays it like a defensive back out there, can really go back.

"I know they have had some centerfielders here," Vitello said. "I recruited Eibner and I've seen some of those guys who played out there here. Some of those guys may have had more tools than Andrew, but no one has more savvy than he does."

Benintendi likes to think he looks smooth in center field. What's a glider?

"I think he means someone who looks effortless out there," Benintendi said. "There's a lot of room out there in this park and you have to cover some ground. I just try to stay on my toes, don't let my heels hit so my eyes don't bounce. I enjoy defense. I think defense gets overlooked. I like defense."

Defense let the Hogs down last year. Errors came in bunches, but head coach Dave Van Horn thinks that is behind them.

"I think we are definitely improved on defense," Van Horn said. "I think we are good in the outfield again. I don't know that anyone is going to be as fast as we were in the outfield last year, but this group with four or five is pretty good. Benintendi is good in center. He's very smooth."

You'll get to see him going back for drives, because he's going to play shallow.

"Like I said, there's a lot of room out there and I do play shallow," Benintendi said. "I feel much more comfortable going back than coming in."

Vitello likes his approach to center.

"He does things in a unique way," Vitello said. "I do think his basketball ability to move his feet helps him out there. He plays shallow and you may even see him move like a defensive back in football. When he goes back, he can cover some ground and he just glides."

Vitello sees "God-given talent" in Benintendi's ability to handle a bat. He's hit at every level, usually well over .500. The Cincinnati product holds the Ohio high school career record with 199 career runs scored, ranks second with 213 career hits, fifth with 166 career RBI, eighth with a .542 career batting average and 12th with 112 career stolen bases

There's power in his bat, but Van Horn thinks he'll be a "three hole hitter" at some point in his college career. For now, he's staying in the leadoff spot that he held for four years in high school and most of his summer teams.

"I just want to set the table for our older guys in the lineup," Benintendi said. "For this team, I'm not going for power. I don't think they need power from me. I'm here to get on base, score runs and let the bigger guys hit."

Vitello said Benintendi's strength is knowing the strike zone, perhaps the number one tool a leadoff man can possess.

"He knows how to process things," Vitello said. "Not many freshmen can do that. He does have God-given talent. He has ability to slow the game down.

"I compare him to Johnny Manziel. Things around him could be going really fast, but it didn't get to him. I saw Manziel taunt our fans before a big fourth-down play last fall. It was time to play, he focused in and made the play. Now, Andrew is not like that. He's quiet, humble kid, but the game does slow down for him and he can focus in on the moment. It is slow and easy for him."

Quiet and humble comes up a lot with Benintendi. Van Horn liked the way he fit into the locker room in the fall. There wasn't much talk from his freshman star, just work and team thoughts. He put his game on display in practices and scrimmages.

"I do think I'm humble," Benintendi said. "I'm quiet, shy. I'll open up after I get to know you. But I'm not a talker. Coming in here, I knew I was a freshman. I have to pay my dues. The worst thing you can do is come in here and irritate the older guys with a lot of talk. I wasn't going to do that.

"The way to do it is to focus on hard work. That was the way I hoped I handled it last fall."

It's a nice combination to find a hard worker so talented. His high school baseball coach, Jack Kuzniczci, said he's the most talented player he's had in 23 years of coaching.

"I retired this year to follow my son in college," Kuzniczci said. "There was a chance he was going to Eastern Illinois at one point and they play Arkansas early. So I thought maybe I'd see Andrew on that trip. I'm coming down to Arkansas at some point.

"Andrew is the best I've ever had. So much ability and so humble. He went about it the right way here in both sports. He went about it like it was a job and he did his job for the team.

"We thought he was a Division I basketball player, maybe Ohio Valley or MAC. He was very good.

"He started on the basketball team as a ninth grader and scored 1,700 points. That's a lot of points in a career. He wasn't very big, a little weak, so much younger. The older kids we played tried to intimidate him, bump him, knock him around because he was young and little. He didn't back down. He was never flustered and was immediately one of the better players."

Jim Reynolds coached Benintendi for four years in high school at Madeira. He said he's replaced Benintendi's 25.5 scoring average this year — with three.

"That's what it's taken to fill what he left," Reynolds said. "He was just a great player, never backed down, never thought he couldn't make the play to win the game.

"He was a great shooter, great with either hand and so good at handling it that you couldn't box and one him. He'd go right, go left, or he'd split the double team. He never turned it over."

Benintendi will step on the field as a 5-10, 170-pound lefty, the clear starter in centerfield as a true freshman. Reynolds remembers getting him as a 5-8, 140-pound freshman shooting guard.

"We knew he was good," Reynolds said. "He could have easily gone to Moeller High, but he probably knew he'd play four years for us. He wasn't very big, but he still was a very good player as a freshman."

There weren't many tough outings, but Reynolds remembers a scoreless night as a freshman.

"They put a muscular senior on him and he got knocked around and he didn't score," Reynolds said. "It was a tough night because we relied on him for perimeter scoring.

"I told him, ‘Your skills are great and you are going to be a good player — but if you are going to be great, you are going to have to get stronger.' And, he did. He worked so hard in the weight room. He's strong now. He was home over Christmas and had that surgery on his thumb. It killed him not to work out (on weights). That's the way he is now."

The son of Chris and Jill Beintendi has the right genes. His father played college baseball at Wittenberg. His mother was a 1,000-point scorer in high school.

"He comes from a great, great family," Reynolds said. "His mother and father went to fierce rival high schools in rural Ohio. His mother was a great player. I believe Andrew gets his competitve fire from her and he does have a great inner belief that he's going to be successful. He won't say it — because he's humble — but I believe he thinks he can be a major leaguer."

Reynolds witnessed some great basketball performances.

"He scored 41 for us twice," he said. "We lost one conference game and the second time we played, Andrew scored 41. We were down 17 at half. He scored 19 in the third quarter and went for 41 and we won by three. He was dominant against a very athletic pressing team."

Reynolds tried to help him find a college before he picked Arkansas. His son is director of basketball operations for Sean Miller at Arizona.

"They were in the process of winning (the College World Series) and I asked my son to tell the baseball coaches about Andrew," Reynolds said. "You know how that goes, sure your dad knows a player. But the Midland Redskins (with whom Benintendi toured in the summer) are well known. Once he mentioned that it was a different deal. The baseball coach checked and came back to his office and said, ‘Sorry, he's pretty good, isn't he?'

"It really was all over at that point. He came back from Arkansas and was in love. It was so early in the process, but Andrew liked it from the time he stepped on the campus. He liked everything about Arkansas.

"There were a few basketball coaches that called about him, but most knew he was going to play baseball. I had one call who begged me to talk him out of baseball. But that wasn't going to happen.

"He's just a great, fun kid, very grounded. What you see, such a humble kid, is exactly what he is. There is nothing behind that. I've got a four-year relationship with him and I know what Arkansas is getting.

"I didn't coach him in baseball, but I saw him play. He's going to be a great lead off man. He'll take pitches, foul them off and work the count and get on base. And, he's going to compete. He won't back down."

There were little doubts he could handle a big role at an early age in baseball, too.

"The Midland Redskins, that's the big summer league organization here, a great travel team," Kuzniczci said. "I took Andrew down there to tryout when he was 16. They had some 18-year-olds that were high draft picks. Andrew fit right in with them and was not intimidated. They said the only 16 year-olds that started from the jump for the Redskins were Barry Larkin and Ken Griffey, Jr. That says something."

The Cincinnati Reds drafted Benintendi in the 31st round, a shock to some that he would fall so low.

"I asked his dad about that," Kuzniczci said. "He said it was not a shock because they told everyone that he would go to college. They were asking $1 million. Remember, his dad is a lawyer and his mother also has a college degree, great family. They value a college degree and made that clear."

Were there any pickup basketball games where he could show off his God-given ability in that sport?

"You gotta be smart," Benintendi said. "I don't think they want me to tear up an ankle playing basketball. I've been out and shot the ball a little bit. But I haven't been in any games. Oh, I'd love to. I had a lot of fun playing basketball."

Right now, he's having all the fun he can handle playing center field and hitting leadoff for Dave Van Horn.

"I know I have big shoes to fill out there in center for this team," Benintendi said. "Coach has had some good ones out there like Craig Gentry and Brett Eibner. I just want to do my best and help this team win."

Andrew Benintendi with sisters Olivia and Lilly on signing day.

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