TAMPA — The four-hour drive from Tampa to Tallahassee, with nothing but flat land and pavement and patches of civilization in between, leaves plenty of opportunity for wavering thoughts.
Former Armwood High pitcher Robert Benincasa was there, driving to his freshman orientation at Florida State, just before the second day of this month's Major League Baseball draft began. Like many other high school ballplayers, he faced the toughest decision of his young life: turn pro or play college baseball?
When Benincasa's name wasn't called on the first day, his adviser, former major-leaguer and Tampa Catholic pitcher Rich Monteleone, told him to stay patient. Before the fourth round began, a number from the 414 area code showed up on Benincasa's cell phone. The Toronto Blue Jays, who had long followed him over the spring, wanted an answer: Would he sign for $300,000?
"We know what you're worth," Benincasa said Blue Jays scout Joel Grampietro told him, "but we need to know if you'll sign."
Benincasa couldn't commit, not so quickly, not as he was heading to Florida State on a baseball scholarship. Before the seventh round, as he was pumping gas, the Cardinals called. They dangled $250,000. Benincasa declined. The A's rang in the 18th round, asking how much it would take. The Cardinals called again, asking if his price had gone down as the rounds increased.
"You're there driving by yourself and you're alone and you see all these guys getting picked," said Benincasa, 18. "And you wonder, should I have done something different? Should I have lowered my price?"
No congratulatory call came that day. It came the next morning, when the Blue Jays drafted Benincasa in the 33rd round, the 1,000th pick overall.
Even then, the Blue Jays told him they knew what he was worth, that they saw him as a part of their future. Again, they preached patience.
He heard from Toronto for the first time Wednesday, nearly two weeks later. The message was the same: wait for us.
"I'll say one thing," Benincasa said. "A lot of kids get their heart broken. It's really easy to get caught up in it."
Looking to Dad
Benincasa didn't have many talks about playing professional baseball with his father, Robert Sr. He wishes he had. But when his father died of lung cancer in late November at the age of 67, Benincasa didn't have a solid Division I college offer — Florida Gulf Coast wanted him as a preferred walk-on — let alone the pros.
"The only real talks we had were when I was 10 or 12," Benincasa said. "I used to joke around and say I'd be pushing him to my games in a golden wheelchair."
Robert Sr. played in the Orioles' minor-league system in the 1960s. When the game didn't work out, he turned to a career in construction.
Benincasa's parents divorced when he was 3, which meant suitcase summers between his mother's and father's houses. He moved from Florida to New York back to Florida. Asked the number of homes he has lived in, he loses track at 10.
The one constant was baseball. And Benincasa's father was his No. 1 fan. So in the months since his passing, he thinks back to what his father would tell him about the decision to go pro or head to college.
"He was always big on going to school," Benincasa said. "He turned down Notre Dame to play pro ball. And he was never really big on money. He wore the same pair of Sketchers the last five years of his life. He would wear his socks until the elastic wore out."
Suddenly on the radar
Armwood's baseball season was a memorable one — the Hawks went to the state semifinals for the first time — and a lot of that had to do with Benincasa.
His fastball was reaching the low 90s, and his curveball was steady. Eight major-league teams became regulars at his starts. One American League area scout was confident he could survive in pro ball right away. "Hopefully, if he doesn't sign, he'll be able to develop at FSU and we'll get another crack at him in three years," the scout said.
But as he went into the district tournament in April with a 9-0 record and an ERA below 1.00, major college programs weren't sold. That all changed when coaches from Florida State and South Carolina watched Benincasa throw a complete-game shutout in the district semifinal.
FSU assistant Mike Martin Jr. came away most impressed with Benincasa's mound presence, his ability to pitch inside and the fact that he maintained his velocity throughout the game.
"Our job is to see the little things," Martin said. "It's rare we go after a guy that late, but we really felt he could come in and help us."
USF and FIU offered scholarships, and soon after the Seminoles made Benincasa an offer and he signed. Including Pell grants and Bright Futures scholarships, Benincasa's entire college cost — about $12,000 a year — is covered.
Awaiting a call
The clock is ticking. Teams have until Aug. 17 to sign draftees with college eligibility. But Benincasa's mother, Tina Magnani, hasn't heard from Grampietro, the scout who signed Sickles High's Kenny Wilson last year after he was a second-round pick of the Jays.
Magnani said she still believes the Blue Jays will come with a sizable offer. "I just have a feeling," she said. For now, a contract for $1,100 a month — the salary of a rookie ballplayer — and no mention of a signing bonus, sits unsigned on Benincasa's dresser.
Monteleone, Benincasa's adviser, wouldn't comment, but he said negotiations with the Blue Jays were ongoing. Still, it likely will be a while. The Blue Jays drafted 21 pitchers before Benincasa and have signed just 10.
As for Benincasa, he's leaning toward Florida State regardless. His move-in date would be Aug. 15. If he stays at FSU, he won't be draft eligible until 2012. Benincasa said he believes he could be a top-three round pick by then.
"It's a hard process to take if you're not prepared," Benincasa said. "When I went into it, people said you have the best of both worlds. A lot of people told me that it's a good problem to have.
"And it is."