By JOE McFARLAND
You won’t find T.J. Bennett’s name in any Lethbridge minor baseball record books. His photo is nowhere to be found, not just in Southern Alberta, but across the province.
So how is it that a young man who was among the Australian Baseball League’s leaders in several offensive categories in 2018 and is continuing his dream of playing in the big leagues a ghost in this province’s diamond lore when his birthplace is listed as Lethbridge, Alberta?
A conversation on Instagram messenger, followed by a chat for Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast, allowed us to discover more about the 6-foot-3, 215-pound infielder’s Alberta roots.
FREQUENT FLYER MILES
Jim Bennett’s minor-league baseball career spanned 13 seasons. In 1988, he signed on with the Seattle Mariners as an undrafted free agent but he wouldn’t go any further than High-A baseball with the San Bernardino Spirit in the California League.
With his playing career hanging in the balance, the well-traveled Bennett was offered a job as the pitching coach for the expansion Lethbridge Mounties of the Pioneer League. Coached by one-time Calgary Cannons second baseman Larry Milbourne, the Mounties finished the season seventh in the league with a record of 24-50.
While it was a season to forget for the Mounties, Bennett had a memorable summer off the field. On July 22nd, his wife gave birth to their son, Tyler James, at Lethbridge Regional Hospital.
“I was born there, scheduled my birth on an off-day,” T.J. told Alberta Dugout Stories. “Baseball has been what my life has revolved around for a long time.”
Living the life of a baseball coach, the elder Bennett packed up his family after the Mounties’ season was over and headed south, where he found a job with the Arizona League Angels.
Hence, the listing of Mesa as T.J.’s hometown, as the family stayed there for a couple of seasons.
“Benny” would go on to coach in Boise, Lake Elsinore, Cedar Rapids, Visalia, Tri-City, Asheville, Arizona (again) and San Jose before going to Australia for the first time in 2014. Little did they all know, “Lil Benny” was going to follow in his dad’s footsteps in being a globetrotter.
PAVING HIS OWN WAY
If you look at T.J. Bennett’s passport, you’ll find plenty of stamps – he’s baseball’s version of the “military brat.”
“Oftentimes, when I meet new people, I pretty much tell them the answer to most questions they ask me is: baseball,” Bennett laughed. “Because in one way or another, my life has revolved around baseball for a long time.”
After growing up in Arizona, Bennett went to college at Oral Roberts University for a year, before heading to Mesa Community College and finally the University of Utah.
He played independent baseball for the 2014 season, then followed his father to Australia in 2015 and 2016 for his first full season with the Brisbane Bandits.
— Couran Cove Brisbane Bandits (@BrisbaneBandits) October 19, 2017
“It’s cool how our careers have crossed paths,” Bennett said. “In Austalia, I got to play for him as a professional and that was pretty neat.”
Not only did they do that, but it was the first of what’s become four-straight league championships for Bennett and the Bandits.
“Any time you get the opportunity to be a part of a championship-winning team, it’s special,” he continued. “It’s cool no matter where you’re at on the planet. It’s a great opportunity and it’s been fun.”
Bennett was a standout for the Bandits again during the 2018-2019 campaign. He hit .303 (16th in the ABL) with 13 home runs (1st) and 39 runs batted in (2nd) in 40 games. In five post-season contests, Bennett bit .261 with one homer and four RBIs.
WHERE IN THE WORLD IS TJ BENNETT?
Australia isn’t the only place where Bennett has been trying to make a name for himself. Between 2016 and 2018, he played at a variety of levels in the San Francisco Giants farm system. He’s made it as far as Triple-A with the Sacramento River Cats.
There’s no doubt he wants to play Major League Baseball (MLB) before too long.
In December, his contract was purchased by the Chicago White Sox. When we talked with him for the podcast, Bennett was back in Arizona training at their facilities in Glendale.
“I was able to take a week, yeah, we’ll call it a week (after the Bandits’ February championship) and got to take some time to myself,” the infielder said. “Got to spend some time with family and friends and be a part of a really special wedding.”
It all gave him some time to get away from the game but he entered Spring Training refreshed and ready to see what he could do.
Bennett said he feels lucky to be on this baseball adventure, regardless of where the next plane lands. When asked about some of his favourite stories from the road, Bennett gives the “how much time do we have” kind of answer.
“I enjoy it and not only do I enjoy it, I truly feel like it’s my calling in life,” the 26-year-old pondered. “It’s something that I love to do, I’m passionate about it and I feel like it’s definitely my purpose to be in this baseball world.”
His goal is to leave a lasting impression, wherever he is. When he was studying mass communications at the University of Utah, he was asked about his post-graduation plans and said he wanted to play professionally and then to help kids.
He also said he wanted to coach baseball and travel, doing camps for kids in the off-season.
“I want to hopefully impact people that I encounter, whether it’s on the field or fans or people in the front office or whoever,” Bennett said. “I hope to leave some type of impact everywhere I go and a positive encouragement. To show people that you can chase your dreams and you can do what you put your mind to.”
What the future has in store for T.J. Bennett is anyone’s guess. With his track record, maybe he will end up back in Alberta, where it all started – for a few months, anyway.