Wednesday, June 24, 2009


It was a storybook ending.

I am talking about Tuesday night's Atlantic League All-Star Game at Newark, NJ, and not at all about the celebrity softball game which preceeded the classic and featured show business star Queen Latifah and Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith. That event was fun, too, as the crowd announced at 6,491 will attest.

I was so happy to have made the 90-minute trip, which primarily was for this week's Independent Baseball Insider column. It also provided a good opportunity to keep up with friends.

The storybook part did come at the expense of longtime major league closer Armando Benitez, who is trying to make his way back by playing for the host Newark Bears. Too bad, but I suppose there always must be a victim along with a hero. It was Benitez's turn to be the victim.

The host Freedom Division took a 5-3 lead into the top of the ninth inning.

A swinging bunt single and another misdeed on a grounder to third got the 36-year-old Benitez into trouble, as a number of major league scouts looked on and captured his fastball as high as 94 miles per hour.

With the tying runs eventually on third and second, the stage was set.

Up to the plate came Liberty Division second baseman Mike Just of division-leading Southern Maryland, who happens to be the only one of the 44 All-Star players who has not had professional experience above the Independent level.

Twenty-five-year-old Mike Just, a New Jersey resident no less (Woodcliff Lake), who has made his way through the Frontier League (River City, O'Fallon, MO in 2006), the Northern League (Fargo, ND, 2007) and last year played for the All-Star host Bears. But he has never been tabbed by a major league organization. He is listed at 5-foot-11, perhaps on tiptoes; Benitez looks every bit his 6-foot-5.

David vs. Goliath.

The count goes to 3-0, then a nifty slider makes Just look a bit overmatched. The right-handed hitter gets a little piece of the next offering. Full count.

Then Just made solid contact, shooting a hard smash just out of the reach of a diving shortstop Ramon Nivar, also of Newark.

Two runs score, tie game, 5-5. Bridgeport, CT third baseman Luis Lopez slaps another single to left, and Just scurries home. Jon Knott of Camden, NJ made Benetiz's night longer with a run-scoring double, setting what would be the final score at 7-5 for Butch Hobson's winning Liberty Division.

The MVP announcement came a moment later from Atlantic League Executive Director Joe Klein. It was Mike Just, the only player on the field who has not gotten beyond Independent Baseball to this point.

It was fitting and deserved.

We will have more on the All-Star Game, including Just's thoughts, in Thursday's Independent Baseball Insider column.

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