Sign ‘Em Up, Gene

Published 3:30 am Tuesday, January 27, 2009

There’s a reason Gene Bennett was honored as a “Legend in Scouting” by Major League Baseball.

He’s a legend.

Bennett, a native of Wheelersburg, began as a player in the Cincinnati Reds organization in 1952. Five years later he hung up his glove and grabbed a clipboard as he began a scouting career that has turned into a 57-year career with the organization.

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Bennett hasn’t signed every player in the past six decades, it only seems that way. Among his signees are Paul O’Neill, Don Gullett, Barry Larkin and Chris Sabo.

For his years of service, Bennett was recently honored by MLB as one of the first recipients of a “Legend in Scouting” award.

“I was fortunate that I was the first guy to get that award. A lot of people deserve to get an award. There were one hundred other guys who deserved the award. I’m grateful to all those players I signed,” said Bennett in his usual humble manner.

Besides the Legends award, Bennett has been named the TOPPS scout of the month 12 times and in 1988 received the TOPPS All-Star Scout Award. In 1996, Bennett was elected to the Middle Atlantic Major League Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame.

Bennett has reaped the benefits of Cincinnati’s success with his players by earning six championship rings for pennants and World Series titles.

“Not bad for a country boy,” said Bennett with a grin.

Now the senior special assistant to the Reds’ general manager, Bennett said picking an all-time Cincinnati team would be difficult because there were so many good players.

“Johnny Bench and Pete Rose would be on the team. Frank Robinson was good and Barry Larkin wasn’t too shabby. Larkin would probably be on the team and Joe Morgan,” said Bennett.

“Paul O’Neill and George Foster were pretty good. So was Don Gullett. I don’t know. When you go to putting a team out there, you have to think about it.”

Even though Bennett has given the Reds plenty of good players, he recalls the one that got away through no fault of his own.

Bennett came to the Reds with a scouting report on a young New Jersey high school player named Derek Jeter. Bennett had Jeter in a tryout camp and discovered the phenom was planning to play college ball at Michigan.

After contacting Fred Hayes at Michigan, Bennett worked out a deal and then-Reds’ general manager Jim Bowden made plans to draft Jeter.

“(Jeter) was going to be the number one draft pick. We had a deal worked out. Our people were told by Jim Bowden we were going to take Derek Jeter and to look at who we were going to pick number two. But we took Chad Mottola. That was very disappointing,” said Bennett.

Mottola was the fifth pick in 1992 and bounced with five teams in five years. Jeter was selected sixth by the New York Yankees and is working his way towards the Hall of Fame.

As for the Hall of Fame, Bennett said the Reds have a lot of great players who deserve to be in the baseball Hall of Fame. His pick for the most overlooked player deserving of such a distinction was Vada Pinson.

“When you look at the numbers, the two players who deserve to be in the Hall of Fame are Vada Pinson and Al Oliver (from Portsmouth),” said Bennett.

“Don Gullett was pretty good. He’d have been in the Hall of Fame if he hadn’t got hurt.”

The subject of Pete Rose didn’t escape Bennett who bristled at the lockout of Rose by commissioner Bud Selig.

“I don’t’ care what the commissioner says, Pete Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame,” said Bennett adamantly.

But the Reds’ veteran scout wasn’t as sympathetic to the players who have used steroids to put up Hall of Fame numbers.

“I believe in sports that if you broke the rules and you know you broke the rules, you should pay the penalty,” said Bennett.