By: Cole Bradley
ORLEANS, Mass- On arguably the most important day of his life, Donovan Benoit (Tulane) decided to pull a prank.
Surrounded by his family, the towering right-hander sat on the couch in his Pensacola, Florida home waiting for his name to be called on day two of the 2021 MLB Draft. As the end of the ninth round drew near, he got a call that put him on the edge of his seat.
“I got a call from my advisor saying, ‘Hey, it might happen,’ but with the draft you can never be too certain,” Benoit said.
After receiving an overwhelming amount of calls over the course of the afternoon, the next was the one every young ballplayer has dreamed of answering.
“All of a sudden I get another phone call from him and he says, ‘Hey, you’re gonna be a Cincinnati Red,’” Benoit said. “It was a really cool moment for the whole family. Overall it was a great day, I got to be with the family and I got picked by a great organization.”
While Benoit was aware of his fate in the current moment, the rest of his family was not — they stared into his face as he took the life-altering call, hoping for him to show some sort of reaction. Instead, he played it off, sitting back down on the couch to patiently await the official selection.
Right before the Reds pick was revealed in the 10th round no. 300 overall, Benoit stood up.
“Right before they announced the Reds’ pick, I was like, ‘Alright make sure everyone is recording,’ and they were caught by surprise,” Benoit said. “It was a really cool moment. I thought it would be nice for me to surprise them like that.”
People familiar with Benoit know that he’s loose, easy-going and charismatic, so it’s no wonder he pulled a trick on his family during the most pivotal moment of his baseball career.
Though his career itself to this point has been anything but easygoing and he’s experienced his fair share of ups and downs, Benoit’s finally reached a new pinnacle as he prepares to enter the professional sphere.
The former Orleans Firebird has suited up for three different schools over his collegiate years, moving from a highly touted SEC powerhouse to an American Athletic Conference headliner. He’s moved all over the country since he was a child, gone from position player to pitcher almost overnight and experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
But he wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world because he now gets the chance to chase his big league aspirations.
“It was definitely a rollercoaster of emotions because every call could be one that gets you drafted,” Benoit said. “It’s been quite a journey, and I have a lot of people to thank. My parents and all my coaches, my advisors that are always behind the scenes and don’t get enough credit, couldn’t have done it without them.”
Following his commitment to the University of Tennessee before his junior year of high school, Benoit hit .355 at the plate and set a Pensacola Catholic High School record with an impressive 0.55 ERA in 51 innings of work. It was then that he realized his future in baseball wasn’t just a dream, but one that had the potential to become reality.
However, it wasn’t long before he came face to face with adversity.
A few months before Benoit began his freshman year at Tennessee, the staff that recruited him was replaced by current Volunteer skipper Tony Vitello and a new crew of assistant coaches. While it wasn’t ideal for him, Benoit still played through his first season, racking up 21 innings out of the pen against mostly SEC competition.
“It was a lot of waiting in the dark,” Benoit said. “I had to move to Knoxville and I asked, ‘Do I really want to decommit and find somewhere else to play without knowing the coaches,’ so I stuck with it.”
Despite the personnel challenges, Benoit’s stint with Tennessee did help him zero in on pitching, a skill he didn’t refine until coming to Knoxville after being labeled as a two-way athlete.
“I went to Tennessee mostly to hit so I kinda had to transform everything I did,” Benoit said. “That whole year I worked on my mechanics. I had a bunch of people telling me that they thought my arm was better than my bat. I look on TV and I throw just as hard as some of these guys with breaking balls I try to emulate.”
His up-and-down freshman campaign eventually led back home to Florida, where he spent a year at Santa Fe College in Gainesville before landing in Tulane with the Green Wave. That same summer led him to the Cape, where he first broke out with the Firebirds.
He made the most of his two weeks in Orleans before heading to summer school, pitching 5.2 innings out of the bullpen without allowing a run. Along with bettering his craft, he got the chance to build a relationship with Field Manager Kelly Nicholson, Pitching Coach Mathew Troupe and the rest of the coaching staff.
The all-time Firebirds moment that sticks out for Benoit is when he pitched at Fenway Park, taking the same field that his beloved Red Sox had so many times before.
“I left for the summer after I pitched at Fenway, which was the coolest experience of my life,” Benoit said. “My dad and I were huge Red Sox fans, so pitching there was awesome.”
“At first I was kinda hesitant coming out to the Cape, I didn’t know the whole summer ball scene. One of the things coach Kelly said that stood out was that the Cape is basically like the Minor Leagues. It was a great experience, one of my favorite times playing baseball was up in the Cape.”
Following his two summers in Orleans, Benoit left a lasting impression on Troupe, who remembers him for his character and personality.
“My first impression of him was how good of a human being he was,” Troupe said. “He was very polite and obviously raised right. I also said, ‘This is a big dude and I can’t wait to watch him pitch.’ His first outing in 2019 he got out of a bases-loaded no-out jam and didn’t give up a run. Everyday when shows up to the field he’s a gentle giant, he’s just a walking good vibe.”
Of all the triumphs and defeats that come with baseball — and Benoit has had his fair share of both — the line that divides the good from the undeniably special is how well one handles failure and adversity. Troupe looks at Benoit’s final outing as a Firebird in Hyannis as evidence, when Benoit had his best outing yet after spending a month improving on his changeup and refining his command.
Benoit’s only blemish was a two-run home run that he gave up on that changeup in the first inning, one that would normally deter any confidence in that specific pitch. But Benoit didn’t falter, instead going right back to it for a strikeout later on.
“That is professional baseball in a nutshell,” Troupe said. “That’s the separator between those that make it and those that don’t. It’s baseball, you’re gonna get hit and give up runs, but it’s how you bounce back. That’s where I was so proud of Donovan, after that one little moment in Hyannis I knew that if he can embody that mindset moving forward he’s going to be in a great place.”
After an up and down senior year, and everything that came before, Benoit put a firm stamp on his amateur career earlier this spring.
Benoit finished up his collegiate run on the mound against University of South Florida, one of the hottest teams in the country at the time. It also just so happened to be in the AAC tournament, in a do-or-die situation with Tulane’s season on the line.
From May 27-29, Benoit pitched twice against the Bulls and only gave up one earned run across six total innings. In the latter of the two outings, he went 4.1 strong and punched out nine in relief.
“I started to really click with everything, I felt really good,” Benoit said. “We ended up run-ruling them in the second game and I remember thinking, ‘Holy cow I feel confident in every single pitch I have.’ It was the best way to go out.”
The road to the show is still far from over for Benoit, but it’s hard not to reflect on his journey without wondering how long it will be until he finally summits that mountain. Troupe thinks it’s only a matter of time.
“He was up to 97 this summer, but part of me believes he’s got 99 in him and I’m not gonna be surprised if he touches triple-digits,” Troupe said. “If he’s doing that, I think it’ll be tough for an organization not to put him in the back-end of their bullpen. He wants to be a starter though, and I know he’s gonna work to get there and when he looks me in the eye and says that I believe him. I think he was an absolute steal in the Draft.”
Benoit’s goal coincides right with that, and he sees himself in Cincinnati very soon. He’ll be waiting patiently for the next life-changing phone call, except this one will be hard to prank.
“Ever since I was a little kid I believed in myself and I knew I could do it, so I don’t see why I can’t do it now,” Benoit said. “The goal is to be playing on TV and wearing a Reds jersey.”