To Canada and back

Courtesy Photo 
Jason Benson

Courtesy Photo Jason Benson

Brady Fredericksen

Entering the fall semester, former Grand Valley State University baseball player Jason Benson registered for classes the same as the rest of the student body. Double-majoring in history and movement science with a secondary education minor, Benson seems to be an average college student.

And the comparisons stop there. Benson is a little different than a typical student. He doesn’t hop on The Rapid to get to class. Instead, he drives and flies back and forth from Sherbrooke, Quebec, every week. The reason — he is a professional baseball player for the Sherbrooke Expos of the Can-Am Baseball league.

By those standards, Benson is not your average student or even student-athlete, either. From taking classes in Allendale four days a week to pitching back in Canada every sixth day, he has a weekly workload to which even an honors student could pay respect.

“Being a full-time student and baseball player, I really can’t play favorites,” said Benson, who graduated from Holland’s West Ottawa High School in 1999. “It takes up the majority of my concentration, but it’s really nice to be provided the opportunity and that gives me enough incentive to go after both.”

Benson’s journey from GVSU to Quebec was not simple. After spending two seasons (1999-2000) playing baseball at GVSU under head coach Steve Lyon, Benson signed with the Florida Marlins as an undrafted free agent in the winter of 2001.

The team sent him to Australia for fall ball during the 2002-03 season, where he played for a year before coming back to the United States for spring training the following season.

“I really do enjoy the travels that have come with my career,” he said. “I can’t say I never would have wanted to pitch in the majors, but the life experiences I’ve gained from living out of hotels taking seven hour bus rides to games is something a big leaguer doesn’t get to experience.”

That life of constant movement has taken Benson to 12 teams since his spring training with Florida. Those experiences are something that not only have helped him mature as a player, but also a person.

“Traveling and being away from home was a totally different experience for me.” said Benson, who is in his third season with the Expos. “In the sense of taking care of yourself and learning to deal with good times or bad times on your own, it really forces you to grow up fast.”

With thousands of miles worth of bus rides in the rearview mirror, Benson finally found a home with the Expos in Quebec. The 29-year-old pitcher has spent the better part of 2 1/2 seasons there as a starter and reliever, compiling a 1.82 ERA this season and leading the team to a second straight berth in the league’s championship series.

“With our team’s success this year, it’s been extremely overwhelming right now,” said Benson, whose team will compete for the championship this weekend. “It’s just a month and a half commitment where I can possibly obtain two major goals: possibly win back-to-back championships and get my double major finished. I’m happy to be blessed with the opportunity.“¬?

Benson also acts as the manager of the Expos, a job he took over this season after serving as the team’s pitching coach last season. Balancing school and baseball is one thing, but to balance school, baseball and managing an entire team is another. The first-time manager feels the decision making and strategy involved with the job add to the excitement of also being a star player.

“I really enjoy playing and managing at the same time. We have had a good season, so that makes both things easier,” said Benson, who was elected as the manager of the Team Quebec All-Star team this season. “That said, being a manager and a player can be a juggling match; you have to know when to wear the right mask.”

Finding that balance has helped Benson’s current team reach the league’s ultimate plateau, but while his time at GVSU was short, the impact the program has had on him is still apparent today.

GVSU was my first experience with really structured baseball,” he said. “It was one of Coach Lyon’s first years, and the structure for a strong and well-taught program was there as well.”

Coach Lyon, now in his 12th year at GVSU, applauds Benson’s ability to preserve and improve his game as he moved through the professional ranks of independent league baseball.¬?

“Jason’s work ethic and confidence helped him a lot early in his career,” he said. “He has a baseball players mentality: not too emotional, just confident in his abilities and was willing to go out there and compete, which is a big reason why he’s seen the success he has.”

The well-traveled pitcher has been through things an accomplished major leaguer would never witness. The ability to applaud his own unorthodox journey is just another sign of how happy Benson is with the way his career unfolded. Without a Disney-style Jimmy Morris ending, his career will probably lack the experience of pitching in the big leagues, but despite that, Benson said he wouldn’t have things any other way.

“Baseball is a global sport, and people around the world open up their homes to you. I gained so many friendships and cultural experiences throughout my career,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade those experiences and friends for anything, not even one single pitch in the majors.”

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