Joe Benes had given up the game he loved and had played since he was a boy. Baseball was slipping into memory.
Benes, currently a senior nuclear planner at OPPD, was an All-Metro pick his senior year at Omaha Ryan High School, where he was a first basemen on the school’s final championship team. But he had no offers to play college ball.
Growing up in the St. Thomas More area, he lived next to an elderly couple who loved watching him goof around in the front yard as a boy, swatting imaginary home runs. In Benes’ senior year of high school the old man was dying of cancer.
One day, Benes saw him sitting on the porch and walked over to chat.
“How’s the season going,” he asked.
“Looks like this is the end of the line for me, the dream’s over,” Benes said. “I don’t have any offers, so I’m going to go to Universal Trade School. I like working with electricity, I like wearing a tool belt.”
The man rose and went inside. When he came back, he slipped something into Benes’ hand.
“He gave me this dollar, an Eisenhower dollar… just a 1977 dollar,” Benes said. “He said ‘you’re going to be a special ballplayer someday, you mark my word.’”
He died a few weeks later, but his words resonated.
In November, Benes, got a call from a former coach telling Benes he had been elected to the Nebraska Baseball Hall of Fame.
The call was the culmination of 55-year-old Benes’ baseball career.
Decades earlier, another call revived his baseball career, which had nearly ended before it ever really began.
By the winter after Benes’ graduation his well-worn cleats had been replaced by a brand-new tool belt. A former teammate, who had gone on to play baseball in college, called to urge Benes to play one final year of summer legion ball. Though out of high school, Benes was still young enough to play.
After some prodding and a few choice words, Benes agreed. That summer, he ended up playing a position he’d rarely played: pitcher.
“I could always throw hard,” he said. “But I didn’t start pitching until the end of my senior year.”
It was a great fit. During that last year of legion ball, Benes was called to pitch early and often – usually against the area’s top teams. He made the most of it.
One game against a Bellevue team really stood out. Benes took the mound, facing several players headed to college baseball careers. He struck out 15 batters.
In attendance at that game was then-University of Nebraska at Omaha Coach Bob Gates, who was scouting other players.
“I probably threw the ball a little harder that night trying to make an impression,” Benes said. “(I thought) if I didn’t impress him tonight I’ll never impress him.”
Gates left without a word, but the next morning the coach called to offer Benes a full-ride scholarship.
The baseball dream had new life.
Now, Benes sees how the pieces of the puzzle were fitting together. Since receiving the induction call, Benes has been reflecting on his career and its winding path.
Of course, highlights stand out. How he played three years at UNO and, as a sophomore, led the nation in strikeouts per nine innings with 15.9, or when he pitched more than 17 no-hit innings, overpowering hitters with his low- to mid-90 mph fastball.
At UNO, Benes was an all-North Central Conference pick, and after his junior season, he received the call he’ll never forget. This call came from a scout with the Texas Rangers, informing him that he’d been selected in the 10th round of the amateur draft.
“Getting drafted was a life-long dream” he said. “I don’t know how to describe that phone call. Mom and dad were crying…To have this turnaround that I had, going from Universal Trade School to UNO and eventually pro ball…”
Benes played three years in the Rangers and Seattle Mariners organizations before he was released.
His playing days are long behind him. But, while Benes looks like he still might have a couple fastballs in that left arm, baseball holds a different place in his life now.
It is still dear to him. He helped coach his sons from Little League to Omaha Central High, and all three went on to earn baseball scholarships. The youngest boy still plays for a college in Texas.
Benes learned plenty on those dusty ball diamonds: how to deal with adversity; the need for mental, and not just physical, toughness; and the importance of a strong work ethic, pride and perseverance. These are all skills he’s used in his 27 years at OPPD.
“You want an award you work for it. It’s like that in life, you don’t get a participation medal in your working life.”