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Benton's back in baseball on a "Crash' course

For most of his life, Butch Benton tried to be Johnny Bench. So you can only imagine his surprise two weeks ago when he awakened to find himself transformed into Kevin Costner. Tough break, huh?

Actually, Benton isn't so much living the life of Costner as one of Costner's characters, the mortal Crash Davis from the immortal movie Bull Durham. But that isn't so bad, either. One day, Benton is a building contractor working on a house in Clearwater; a couple of days later, he's a professional catcher once more, defending the honor of the Toledo Mud Hens.

"Just call me Crash Benton," he said.

You might as well because the Mud Hens do.He's been Crash Benton from the first time he walked into the team's locker room, his suitcase in his hand, and a tall blond pitcher with spiked hair looked his way and said, "Hey, Grampa, are you lost?"

There were others who looked at him a bit strangely, as if to ask what a man of 33 was doing running a younger man's race. But eventually, Benton won them over. And the Crash nickname was born.

A couple of days after the blond pitcher called Benton "Grampa," Benton got even. He started to call the pitcher "Meat," the nickname Tim Robbins carried in Bull Durham. He even went as far as to toss him a baseball and say "I hear you throw pretty hard. See if you can hit me in the chest."

Benton laughed, something that used to be particularly hard for him to do in baseball.

"I'm having fun," he said. "I talk to fans, and I talk to umpires, and they look at me like "Is this guy for real?' But I think fans can sense when a player is out there having fun."

For Benton, the party began a couple of weeks ago when he received a telephone call from Dave Miller, the Detroit Tigers' minor-league director. The Class AAA Mud Hens had lost two catchers, and they wanted an older head to work with their pitching staff. Someone remembered that Benton had performed well for the St. Pete Pelicans of the senior league.

"When I got the call, I thought my friends were jerking me around," Benton said.

But the call was legit, and the money Toledo offered was legit. Even if his stay was only two weeks, he was assured he would receive a month's salary. So off he went.

"I'm not here as a mad dash to get to the major leagues," Benton said. "It's a short-term thing. I'll be home in a couple of days."

Part of him wants to be home yesterday. He is 33, and he misses his wife April and their six children something fierce. One day last week, he spent $48 in telephone bills while trying to run his St. Petersburg construction business from a hotel room _ just before the Mud Hens clashed with those hated Oklahoma City 89ers. He talks, and even his voice sounds weary.

"The road is why I gave baseball up in the first place," he said. "I don't enjoy being away from my family. This isn't 10 or 15 years ago, when we were all young and crazy guys."

Ten or 15 years ago, Benton was a prospect, the sixth overall selection of the 1975 free-agent draft. He didn't have much fun, then, because he was scowling a lot of the time. But he was going to be a star. Wasn't he?

It didn't turn out that way. Benton hit .162 in only 99 major league at-bats. In 1985, at the age of 27, he turned in his mitt.

But now, he's one step away, and you wonder...

"I guess everyone thinks of that some," he said. "You wonder what they would do if something happened at the major-league level. Dave told me that no one has ruled out the big leagues, and I'd love for it to happen, but I'm not looking for it to happen."

What he is looking to do is to help guide a couple of other players there. Isn't that the role of a catcher named Crash?

"We had a guy go up the other day," Benton said. "I took him aside and just told him, no matter what, to have fun. That it's just a game. Don't let the pressures get to you. Just treat it like a game."

Benton paused. It was clear his speech was one he wished someone had given him back in his younger days, back before his career went crash. And before he became Crash.

"You know, I always liked Crash Davis," Benton said. "I felt a little sorry for him. He loved the game, and he could play a little bit. But he never got a break. But he was a good guy, and the guys on the team respected him. And in the end, he did help a couple of them."

Sound like anyone you know, Butch?

"Yeah," Benton said. "It sounds like me."

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