The first-ever Gene Bennett Baseball Classic got started right around noon on Thursday with some of the best amateur baseball talent in the country on display.
Six teams, one from as close as Portsmouth (Post 23) and one from as far away as Dallas, Texas (Dallas Panthers), are vying for the title with games being played through Sunday.
At the opening ceremonies Thursday Bill Warnock introduced Gene Bennett, senior special assistant to the Cincinnati Reds general manager and long-time local baseball scouting legend, and thanked the crowd for turning out.
The crowd was treated to a refurbished stadium that had been pieced back into good condition thanks to the hard work of volunteers and donations of local businesses — all done to touch up a local landmark and leave a good impression on those competing in and viewing the tournament.
Among those in attendance were former Pittsburgh Pirate Al Oliver, who signed seemingly countless autographs for little leaguers that were in attendance to stand on the field during pre-game ceremonies. Oliver, a native of Portsmouth who recorded 2,743 hits in an 18-year MLB career, said it was nice to Branch Rickey Park in good condition once again.
“They took really good care of this field and it took a community effort to get it back in real good shape,” Oliver said. “Having the first Gene Bennett Classic makes it worthwhile. If anybody in Scioto County deserves to have a classic named after them it is Gene... It’s good to see the crowd that’s out here today and to see the little leaguers come out here to see quality baseball. What that does is give them incentive that they can make it too.”
Bennett said he was pleased with the turnout on day one of the event.
“We’re kind of happy with it,” Bennett said. “We had a lot of little league players in here and several college coaches in here and a few scouts which wasn’t too bad. Hopefully next year we can make it bigger and make it better.”
The games run through Sunday with a big contest taking place tonight as the Ohio Warhawks face the Midland Redskins at 6:30 p.m. at Branch Rickey. Games are also being played at Valley and Minford High Schools. Also at tonight’s contest CDs are available with proceeds benefitting the special olympics.
One constant mentioned among conversations during the opening ceremonies was Gene Bennett himself. The beloved Wheelersburg native has been a big name in baseball circles for 58 years and has been honored with nearly every award a scout can get.
“Sometimes you almost get embarrassed with all the hullabaloo that you get and all that,” Bennett said. “They don’t know how much I appreciate all those good remarks. I know when I got the Legend of Scouting award I got calls on top of calls and the same thing with the Scout of the Year award and the Reds Hall of Fame. These people don’t forget.”
Ohio Warhawks 5, Post 23 3
Post 23 took on the Ohio Warhawks, a team that won a national title in 2009, in the first game of the Gene Bennett Classic at Valley High School on Thursday and fell 5-3.
Post 23 trailed by as much as 3-0 in the contest but battled back late. In the sixth inning a single and a bad pick off attempt by the Warhawks allowed Post 23 to get a runner on third. Back-to-back doubles scored a pair of runs and a single scored the final run for Post 23.
The Warhawks were able to generate offense, but not much more, as Post 23 kept things close with the national powerhouse. Post 23 coach Jack Branon attributed that to his pitcher.
“I thought TJ McCloud threw an awfully good game for us against a very good team,” Branon said. “That’s a good hitting team. They were national champions last year... and we were in position to win the ball game and TJ kept us there.”
Post 23 got a 3-for-3 performance from Zach Bukiewicz and 2-for-3 performances from Matt Ratcliff and David Shultz in the loss.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, Post 23 left runners on second and third.
“I think we still need to do a better job of hitting situationally...,” Branon said. “You have to have a different mentality when you go up to the plate with nobody on and when you go to the plate with men in scoring position. I’m not sure if we have that offensive aggressive mentality yet and we’re leaving a lot of runners on base.”
Post 23 9, Huntington Hounds 8
Post 23 won its second contest in the Gene Bennett Classic against Huntington.
After the Hounds went ahead in the top of the seventh on a pair of balk calls Post 23 would come back.
Josh Myers hit a line drive to right and the Huntington right fielder lost the ball in the sun and it fell for an error. Myers made it to second on the play and was driven in by Bryce Hall on a single to center. Hall advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored the winning run when Wes Loop hit a ground ball that went through the legs of the Hounds’ short stop.
Nick Kemper hit 2-for-4 with a triple and two RBI in the contest while Myers was also 2-for-4. Hall was 1-4 with a squeeze bunt and two RBI.
Post 23 trailed by as much as 5-0 in the contest before fighting back.
“This was a back and forth game with a lot of twists and turns,” Branon said. “We finally got some big hits with runners in scoring position. We also battled back from a 5-0 deficit with five runs in the second. We had better at bats and better approaches at the plate. We played well defensively, as we try to improve that phase of our game. Josh Myers battled through some early difficulties and controlled the game in the crucial middle innings, and Anthony Knittel got two big strikeouts to stop a Hound’s rally in the top of the seventh.”
Post 23 (3-4-1) continues play in the Gene Bennet Classic today, facing the Midland Redskins at 10 a.m. at Valley High School before taking on the Dallas Panthers at 3:30 p.m. at Branch Rickey.