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In the Benetti family treasure trove of keepsakes, there’s a letter Jason Benetti wrote in elementary school explaining what he wanted to be when he grew up.
Benetti doesn’t quite remember which teacher gave him the assignment. But the guy who grew up a baseball fan in Chicago’s south suburbs knows what he wrote.
"I said, 'I want to be the White Sox announcer,' " Benetti says. "And then at the end, I wrote in large letters, 'Yes.' "
The "Yes" was a nod to Sox announcer Ken "Hawk" Harrelson and one of his signature calls.
Benetti had big dreams — and one big obstacle to overcome.
Not Just Any Other Kid
Jason Benetti remembers practicing to be a sports broadcaster when he was 12 years old, doing voice impressions of Harrelson.
His announcing booth? Whatever living room he and his friends were playing video games in.
"So I would play Madden or whatever baseball — Ken Griffey Jr. [Presents Major League] Baseball or whatever, NHL 94, like that sort of thing," Benetti recalls. "And I would do play-by-play of the games while I was playing with my friends."
When the games were on, Benetti was in his element — having fun like any other kid. But he wasn’t just any other kid. Benetti was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a toddler. He grew up hearing other kids making comments about the way he struggled to make eye contact and the way he walked.
"You can’t see me, but I walk with sort of a halting gait," Benetti says. "When people see it, they don't really know what to make of it at first. I mean I, in first grade at points, was at school in a wheelchair and then had, like, the 'Forrest Gump' leg braces."
'Because You Can't See Me'
Benetti had a passion for sports, but he wasn’t able to play in organized leagues. So he tried out for the marching band at Homewood-Flossmoor High School.
You’d figure he’d pick up an instrument that was light and easy to carry, right? Wrong.
"Oh, let me go play the tuba because it's the largest musical instrument, like David against Goliath," Benetti says. "Let's go do it writ large, when instead I could've just played the trumpet."
So, how’d that go?
"They put a tuba on a stand for the first couple of tries at marching band for me," Benetti recalls. "And, basically, the band would go kind of in orbit around the planetary 'me' which, if you're not trying to draw attention to yourself, not a great way to do it."
The school band instructor could see Benetti was struggling but didn’t want him to feel left out. So he suggested another way for Benetti to stay involved.
"He sent me up to the top of the press box and had me announce the sets," Benetti says. "And I would say, 'Coming up next, "Our Children," ' or 'Wheels of a Dream,' or whatever it was."
Benetti used his announcing gig to get into his high school’s radio program.
"I think, like, how very transparent I was about everything," Benetti says. "Like, 'Oh, let me go do radio because you can't see me.' "
Benetti graduated from high school in 2001 and continued his radio broadcasting career at Syracuse University. Before long, he was running Syracuse’s sports radio department.
"Oh, let me go do radio because you can't see me."Jason Benetti
On the surface, everything was great. But Benetti's rise through the ranks also dug up some familiar issues.
"I get hired as the sports director, and one of the people who ended up not getting the job put up on instant messenger, 'At least he'll be a great story for somebody's magazine one day,' " Benetti recalls.
Juggling Minor Leagues And A Law Degree
Benetti began to wonder if his disability was all people would ever see in him.
"There was a level of, 'I can't make a mistake. Because if I make a mistake, people are going to then go back to what they saw and think that I'm just incapable of doing not only this job, but any job,' " he says.
So Benetti pressed on even harder. After graduating from Syracuse in 2005, he then started a decade-long stint as a minor league baseball radio announcer — while getting a law degree from Wake Forest University.
The intense schedule and nagging doubts started to weigh on him.
"In the minors, there are just days when you've had games 14 straight days and six-hour bus rides in between. And all of that that comes with it drains you completely and thoroughly wears you out," Benetti says. "And there were moments where I was like, 'Am I going to get out of here? Like, I know I'm good, but when is great gonna come?' "
Benetti realized working in TV could help him get to the top, so he put aside his reservations about being in front of the camera — landing a part-time broadcaster job with ESPN in 2011. He started traveling the country to call college football games. His career was taking off, but he still had moments of frustration.
"I’m at a college football game. I’m at my hotel," Benetti recalls. "And I ask the woman at that Starbucks in the hotel to make a drink. And she looks at me and she goes, 'Would you like this size or this size?'
"And then I start to think, 'Well, what if she had 100 people? Would she talk that slowly to them?' And that's the insidious part, right? I shouldn't spend mental energy on that, because she doesn't mean anything by it."
'I Really Need To Be The Sox Announcer'
Benetti was still waiting for his big break when Chicago baseball found him again in 2015.
"I was living in the D.C. area, and the Cubs came to play the Nationals," he recalls.
Benetti had sent Chicago Cubs TV announcer Len Kasper tapes of his work in the past, and the two had struck up a relationship.
"So I asked Len, 'Do you want to go to lunch when the Cubs were in to play the Nats?' " Benetti recalls. "And he said, 'I can't. It's like a two-game series,' or whatever it was. 'But after the first game, we're gonna go watch the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals. You should come.' "
Benetti took Kasper up on the offer. Soon after that meeting, Kasper mentioned Benetti’s name to a few people in the White Sox organization as a possible future replacement for Hawk Harrelson, Benetti’s childhood idol.
Harrelson was 74 years old at the time. As the 2015 MLB season wound down, reports trickled out that the long-time voice of the White Sox was scaling back his workload with retirement in sight.
Benetti got in touch with Brooks Boyer, the White Sox’s head of marketing, and asked if they could meet. Boyer agreed.
Benetti went in expecting an informal meet-and-greet. It wasn’t. Boyer had brought several high-ranking members of the White Sox communications department with him.
"I ended up being in this room for a couple of hours, and it was a full-fledged interview," Benetti recalls.
Despite being caught off-guard, Benetti felt good about the interview. But the team told him there was one big meeting needed to seal the deal.
"Oh, the last step is meeting Jerry, which — oh, no pressure," Benetti says. "Like, don't look down from the top of the John Hancock building."
"Jerry" is Jerry Reinsdorf, owner and chairman of the Chicago Bulls and White Sox.
"Then I started to say, 'Oh, I really need to be the Sox announcer' ... It was like, please just let him certify this."Jason Benetti
In December 2015, Benetti was sitting in Reinsdorf's office.
"And you're looking around, and it's, like, 'Oh, here are six championships and random Michael Jordan paraphernalia that everyone would kill to have,' " Benetti recalls. "And then he walks in and offers me a cigar, and I don't smoke, and I think the world is over."
Weeks came and went, and Benetti heard nothing from the White Sox.
Over the years, he had set aside his childhood dream of working for the Sox, instead focusing on just being the best announcer he could be. But once the opportunity was within his grasp ...
"Then I started to say, 'Oh, I really need to be the Sox announcer again,' because it kindles this flame inside of you when you get close to this thing that you wanted as a kid," Benetti says. "And it was like, 'Please just let him certify this.' "
The White Sox finally called after the new year. The job Jason Benetti had wanted since he was in elementary school was his.
Benetti couldn’t believe it. The kid who used to do impressions of Hawk Harrelson would soon sit in the legendary broadcaster’s seat.
"Like, the odds of that happening are so infinitesimally small, I get that," Benetti says. "But the odds of Hawk remaining in the job and have me be the one to actually take over for him is — they're even smaller."
Benetti couldn’t help but feel the butterflies before his first regular season call for the White Sox, their 2016 home opener against the Cleveland Indians. But he wasn’t alone: 10 college friends flew to the ballpark to enjoy the moment with him — and keep Benetti loose.
"We had a running gag in college that parties are better when there are pineapples at the party," Benetti says. "So we would always get a pineapple and just have it sitting at our parties. I don’t know how it started, I don't know why it started, but I do know that when I walked into the booth for my first White Sox game, there was a pineapple at my seat. Like, what are we doing here?"
Whether because of the joke or because he’d done it hundreds of times before, the first game flew by for Benetti.
The second did too — until the seventh inning.
"Avi Garcia hit a homer for the Sox," Benetti recalls. "And the ball cleared the fence, and I made the call. And I don't know why but I started to well up. And it was like I'm 12 again. And it all kind of rushed back to me, and I still don't know exactly what it was. And I keep leaning on the power of sports and how much our childhood experiences color who we become."
Benetti officially became the full-time White Sox play-by-play announcer this past season. He also broadcasts college football on fall weekends.
The kid who avoided the camera growing up is making his voice and face known throughout the country. And he says he’s learned something from a lifetime of being different.
"Embrace the fact that you're weird or strange," he says. "That thing that is weird about you is probably the thing that's most fiery and most cared for deep inside of you. And if you follow that weird thing, you're probably going to be a pioneer."
This segment aired on October 12, 2019.
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