Behind Jason Benetti’s bold move to the Tigers’ TV booth

DETROIT — Jason Benetti boarded a plane bound for Detroit, and the emotion he felt triggered something in the recesses of his mind. There’s something about a flight’s take-off and the sense of opportunity it represents. This trip, he said, reminded him of one of the most formative days of his life. One of the most difficult days of his life, he called it.

It was 2001 when 18-year-old Benetti loaded his car and began a 10-hour drive from Homewood, Illinois to Syracuse, New York. Before this, the Illinois native had hardly ever left Chicagoland. The few getaways were usually quick jaunts to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, to catch Indy car races. The pursuit of becoming a sports broadcaster meant leaving home and embarking on something foreign, uncomfortable and frightening.

“It was the hardest day of my life to that point,” Benetti said Thursday, “to get in that car and leave Chicago. And it hurt. And the other day, when I knew that this was very much a distinct possibility, I had that same feeling. Like, ‘Wow, I’m getting in the car again and I am going to Syracuse University.’”

Rather than setting off to college, Benetti was this time entertaining arguably his biggest career change to date. He flew into Detroit to interview to become the new play-by-play voice of the Detroit Tigers. As Benetti explained it, Bally Sports Detroit had inquired with Benetti’s agent, asking if he would be interested in the job. The Tigers then reached out to Jerry Reinsdorf and the White Sox for permission to interview Benetti. Permission was granted, and the wheels for a stunning change were set in motion.

Thursday, the organization officially introduced Benetti as the new TV voice of the Detroit Tigers. And as signs of a brighter future on the field are coming into focus, the 40-year-old Benetti will be part of ushering in a new era of Tigers baseball.

“I got on a plane to come here because in the interview process, I felt and knew,” Benetti said. “It was just a feeling. I knew that I was surrounded by people who want to be so extraordinarily great and forward-thinking, and do this in a smart, analytical way that is just beyond the scope of anything I would have expected in terms of what they also want from their television announcer.”

He may be the Tigers’ most popular acquisition in years.

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Jason Benetti replaced Ken Harrelson as the television play-by-play broadcaster for the White Sox in 2016. (Courtesy Fox Sports)

There is no way to look at Benetti’s move without asking the glaring question: Why is he leaving Chicago?

The White Sox were Benetti’s hometown team. He has called being on their broadcast a dream job. Even as Benetti’s profile has grown and his national duties have expanded — national college football, national college basketball and Fox MLB broadcasts — he has maintained a deep connection with White Sox fans.

“I should have said this first,” Benetti said on a Thursday video call, “but the White Sox hired me. They hired me, a person who doesn’t walk normally, to be the front-facing person in their organization in 2016. And the only reason I’m here is because of them. I know what people might say about me leaving and all of that, but the White Sox didn’t have to grant permission for me to have this opportunity, either.”

Benetti, who lives with cerebral palsy, appeared genuinely emotional as he talked of leaving the White Sox. He mentioned numerous broadcast and production partners, including color analyst Steve Stone, as people he cares about deeply.

Truth is there was more at play, too. As The Athletic’s Jon Greenberg wrote Thursday, Benetti’s relationship with the White Sox had become somewhat strained over the past few years. The team technically approved of him doing national work on college football and basketball, but when he signed a two-year deal before last season, it specified how many Sox games he could miss.

“That was the problem, it was all ad hoc in 2021,” Benetti said last spring. “And then the situation with my games missed was very vague. It’s not vague anymore. So we’re good. That’s done. For me, I thought the work getting better and better and better and better and better might make the level of fairness and respect grow with that. And for some people, it doesn’t. For some people it does.”

Though relationships with certain members of White Sox leadership may have become strained, and though there are indications Benetti may not have always felt properly appreciated within the organization, Benetti was still largely beloved among the fan base. He took that element of the job — the symbiotic connection between broadcaster and listener — seriously. Thursday he thought back to the lockdown months of 2020, when, feeling disconnected from the world, he put out calls on Twitter. He invited followers to send him direct messages. The messages were not meant for him. Rather, he was soliciting notes people wanted to send to loved ones. Benetti would then read and record the heartful missives, narrating personal relationships much like he would call the most intricate moments of a baseball game.

“It was every night I would do one,” Benetti said. “And there were some that I didn’t get to. But the ones that we did mattered deeply to me. And I just found out then that this is not a job that is just a sports announcer. This is somebody who is part of your world, part of your life on a daily basis.”

For insight into how Benetti’s mind works, consider the fact he made references spanning from Paul McCartney to the Mary Tyler Moore Show on Thursday’s introductory call with Detroit media. When he woke up Thursday morning, he said the first person he thought of — “no joke,” he said — was Magglio Ordóñez, who left the White Sox for the Tigers before the 2005 season.

“I was like, ‘What did he do?’” Benetti recalled.

He said he also thought of Freddie Freeman, who maintained a deep emotional connection to the Atlanta Braves even after difficult negotiations led him to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“Today I feel like I am some combination of (Ordóñez) and emotionally Freddie Freeman,” Benetti said.

This was a big, bold decision for both Benetti and the Tigers.

Then again, so was leaving Chicago for Syracuse all those years ago.

“The only way you get to be fulfilled in this world is to take on new challenges, as well,” Benetti said. “Not that this is a challenge, but this is something that’s different for me. But then there is a corner of my heart (where) this was really hard.”

When the Tigers announced they were parting with broadcaster Matt Shepard at the conclusion of the 2023 season, it was clear the organization was looking to add legitimacy to its TV booth.

Shepard took over beginning in the 2019 season, coming on the heels of a dust-up that led to the end of Rod Allen and Mario Impamba’s 16-year run as a popular broadcast duo.

Shepard (whom Benetti praised as a friend and broadcaster) meant well and worked hard but struggled to build a relationship with viewers. The broadcasts could be dull, with interjections of emotion that sometimes felt forced. Tigers’ broadcasts ranked reliably at the bottom of fan polls.

So when the Tigers began searching for a replacement this offseason, they set their sights high. They wanted an established name who could establish instant respect. They wanted a broadcaster who could connect with listeners on an emotional level. They also wanted a modern baseball mind who could better help share the narrative of a young team with new, progressive baseball leadership.

That led them to Benetti.

“It was really important to Chris (Ilitch), Scott Harris, myself and everyone involved to find the right cultural fit,” said Ryan Gustafson, executive vice president and COO of Ilitch Sports + Entertainment. “Jason and all of us share this relentless desire to be great, to build something special, and you see it in everything we’re doing as an organization right now. We’re building something incredible. We’re getting better every day. The fact that Jason is leaving the environment that he was in his hometown to come here shows that.”

Detroit’s sales pitch to Benetti worked. He spoke highly of the organization’s vision for improving its telecast. He also lauded the team’s baseball leadership coming off a season with small but important steps forward.

“I really do think this is a team that’s getting a lot out of its roster already,” Benetti said of the 78-win Tigers. “I’m hyper-interested to see where the roster goes now with a team that already was, to me, playing chess.”

Although the Tigers are showing signs of trending in the right direction on the field, they also have a long way to go. Harris has brought a shrewd style to the organization since he took over as president of baseball operations last year. But it will take time before we truly learn whether said style can produce real results.

Before you view Benetti as just another broadcaster here to carry water, note he poked fun at himself when he started repeating some of the corporate buzzwords the Tigers often throw around these days

“I just imagined working with people who are like-minded about the creative process,” Benetti said. “And now I sound a little bit like a GM. So if I start talking about assets and tradeability and stuff like that, please just say, ‘Hey, I didn’t know you’re talking to LinkedIn right now.’”

Benetti will be an employee of the Tigers rather than Bally Sports. He is signed to call a minimum of 127 Tigers games per season. When Benetti is not on the call, longtime radio broadcaster Dan Dickerson will move over to the TV booth. Dickerson agreed to the change with enthusiasm, in part to help ensure the Tigers could land a TV broadcaster with a national brand.

The Tigers are still deciding on who will pair with Benetti in the booth, though Craig Monroe is believed to be returning for a significant number of games. Additional announcements will come later this offseason.

Regardless of what happens for the Tigers on the field, Benetti already has a knack for speaking a language with which Tigers fans can relate. He talked of viewing a daily baseball broadcast like a crossword puzzle. “There’s a solution,” he said, “and it’s different every day.”

Benetti is known for his embrace of advanced stats, but he threads the needle well in embracing the human oddities of the sport.

“I love nailing the big moment as a group,” Benetti said. “I also love when those rogue people in Row 22 went and stole a large bag of popcorn from the concession stand, and we do, like, a three-act play about it. That happened in Chicago.”

That is Benetti in focus. But zoom out, and there’s more to understand. Benetti was born 10 weeks premature. He endured the first months of his life hooked up to oxygen machines. Spent time growing up in hospitals. His childhood medical difficulties are well-documented, and he spoke Thursday about how they produced a desire to enjoy and embrace the vastness of life. That led him to this career. But the cerebral palsy and its effects on his gait and other physical manifestations still shape him in other, more difficult, ways.

“I don’t want to make a generalization, but part of my life has been … I am somebody who does not walk like the average human being,” Benetti said. “I have an eye that drifts. I have cerebral palsy. That is part of me. And I quite often get reactions that are not completely representative of who I am as a full person. I’m physically different, but mentally I can hold a conversation. And so I do think I get, I guess you would say, underestimated sometimes. And not to say it with a chip on my shoulder, but that’s just the way life works. Sometimes people think I can’t do stuff.”

Benetti quickly formed an analogy with Detroit, a city too often reduced to news clips people may have seen two decades ago.

“Again, gross generalization alarm,” Benetti said. “But from a distance, I think that’s how Detroit gets treated. I think quite often Detroit is not known for its passionate fans or what it’s done for the music industry. I think people reduce Detroit to a couple of statistics, and I don’t like seeing people and the whole place get reduced to anything. And I know how much people care and I know how much people here want to just matter and be seen for what they are and not some overgeneralization.

“So to me, as I’ve thought about this, that is where we link up. … I can’t say we’re going to be the best of friends right away because that’s super presumptuous of me. But that’s why I think Detroit and I really get along.”

(Top photo of Jason Benetti: Courtesy Detroit Tigers)

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