The White Sox found the last missing piece of their broadcast puzzle, and they went well off the board to do so.
According to the Chicago Tribune's Ed Sherman, the White Sox will announce later today that Jason Benetti will take Hawk Harrelson's place in the play-by-play chair for half of this coming season. The vacancy opened as the result of Harrelson shifting to an almost all-road slate.
Benetti a fascinating choice on multiple levels. For starters, Harrelson's replacement isn't even half his age. Benetti is a 32-year-old native of Homewood who has worked his way up the ladder:
The Sox chose Benetti, 32, after an extensive search. A graduate of Homewood-Flossmoor High School who grew up in Homewood as a Sox fan, Benetti has been doing play-by-play on college football and basketball for ESPN since 2011. He was on the call Thursday for the network's coverage of the Illinois-Michigan State game. On the baseball side, Benetti, who attended Syracuse, did five years of play-by-play for the Syracuse Chiefs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, through 2014. [...]
"He got the job because he's really a good broadcaster, not because of the side stories," Brooks Boyer, the White Sox chief marketing officer, said. "What stands out is his ability to broadcast a game."
The other "side story" to which Boyer refers besides "local boy makes good" -- Benetti was born with cerebral palsy.
The story is even more unlikely given the challenges Benetti has faced. The only child of Rob and Sue Benetti, Jason was born 10 weeks premature. After being diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a condition that primarily affects body movement and muscle coordination and often is caused by damage to the brain before or at birth, he went through three extensive surgeries that left him in casts from the waist down. Benetti spent part of first grade in a wheelchair and eventually had to wear braces on his legs.
Sherman notes that Benetti walks without braces now, although Benetti acknowledges his significantly compromised gait by linking to "The Ministry of Silly Walks" on his Twitter bio.
We've spent plenty of time discussing the two paths the White Sox could choose: a former player who could be shepherded by Steve Stone, or a true play-by-play guy who could set him up. The White Sox have bet heavily on the latter, and it'll be a massive change of pace.
(Sherman didn't get into Benetti's thoughts on analytics or anything modern, but Len Kasper is an advocate for him.)
The best news is that White Sox fans won't be exposed to a learning curve the way we were with Darrin Jackson and Chris Singleton. Paired with unconventional former players as unconventional play-by-play broadcasters, they had a difficult time defining their role, and even their syntax, in the early going. With a more traditional voice accompanying an experienced analyst, the Sox broadcast booth should sound befitting of a professional team, and assuming Kasper isn't trying to damage the crosstown brand, it stands a great chance of being far more informative, too.
The main concern -- and it's legit -- is whether he'll be able to distinguish himself from the other young, polished, college-trained broadcasters around the country. Even Harrelson haters have to admit that he turned some big plays into indelible moments on the sheer strength of his personality. Since Harrelson will only get three chances to call a walk-off hit in 2016, Benetti has some big shoes to fill.
Here's an updated, CERTIFIED sample of his work. He's on the microphone up to 45 seconds, and everything after the 1:25 mark, too.
Benetti called Chiefs games for five years -- here's another good story from the Washington Post -- and he developed enough of a following to receive an emotional send-off in 2014:
Broadcast partner Kevin Brown lined up 42 recorded messages of farewell to play in breaks during the game, ranging from former Chiefs broadcasters to the hostess at Benetti's favorite local restaurant to his parents.
"Some of them, when I heard their voice, it was like, this is your life. Every half-inning, there was someone else,'' Benetti marveled. "I think I have friends and people who care about me. But the fact that they kept coming was constantly overwhelming.''
And since we'll be seeing him as well as hearing him, here's a brief sample of his on-camera work: