Springfield has a rich tradition of high school baseball excellence and few, if any, were better than Doug Bennett when it came to throwing a baseball.
Bennett led Hillcrest High School to the 1988 state championship as a senior, then went on to earn all-conference honors for the Arkansas Razorbacks before a professional career with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
If not for an arm injury, which shortened his pro career to two minor-league seasons, Bennett’s high school coach is convinced he would have made it to the big show.
“There was nothing about Doug that didn’t make you think, when you saw him perform on the mound, that this guy looks and moves and acts like a future big leaguer,” said Dave Davis, his high school and American Legion coach. “It’s the closest I came to coaching a big leaguer, waiting to happen.”
Just as Bennett’s baseball career ended all too soon, so did his time as a teammate, family member and friend to so many. Bennett died on Sept. 3 in Springfield at the age of 52. According to his obituary, the passing was a shock to all, coming in his sleep. Bennett had been giving private pitching lessons for several years.
One of the best to come out of Springfield
“Best-ever” lists are tricky, especially when comparing athletes from different generations. But if Bennett wasn’t the best pitcher to come out of Springfield, he was among them.
This was a guy who, on the day he announced at a school ceremony his commitment to play baseball at Arkansas, went out and threw a no-hitter against crosstown rival Glendale a few hours later.
“All the people that I have seen in my career and you have to try to beat, he was the best,” said Mark Stratton, Glendale’s assistant at that time before a long-time career as head coach at Glendale and Drury.
“I promise you, when you hooked up with Doug you had to bring more than one lunch box because it was gonna be an all-day job,” Stratton added.
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Diamond 9 award just one of many honors
Bennett was recognized in 2017 by the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame as a Diamond 9 award winner. He told the Hall that the highlight of his career was hard to pinpoint in one game or moment.
“The highlight was that I got to meet a lot of wonderful people that became life-long friends, and I had the opportunity to visit many incredible places that I wouldn’t have been able to on my own,” Bennett said.
The 1988 graduate of Hillcrest was an all-state pitcher his junior and senior seasons and was the 1988 Missouri Gatorade Player of the Year. Bennett then pitched three seasons for Arkansas, winning Southwest Conference Newcomer of the Year honors in 1989 when he helped the Razorbacks reach the College World Series. He started the opening game in Omaha.
He also was part of the Team USA Juniors who won the 1989 World Championship and the 1990 Team USA Seniors who won the Goodwill Games. Bennett was drafted twice, by the New York Mets (12th round after his senior year at Hillcrest) and the Dodgers (5th round in 1991).
Davis recalled the Mets negotiating with Bennett after his shutout victory over Cape Girardeau Central in the 1988 state semifinals and the 3-2 title-game win over Blue Springs that he closed out in relief.
Unflappable on the mound
Along with a fastball that consistently clocked at 92-94 miles per hour, Bennett’s demeanor on the mound could be described as unflappable.
“He may come out and give up two hits or give up seven and it never affected him,” said Rick Hammers, Bennett’s catcher his final two high school seasons. “He never was rattled on the mound. He never wore his emotions on his sleeve. He just came out and competed.”
Added Stratton: “You never knew if Doug had four aces or a throwaway hand. There was no messing around. He was just gonna come and get you.”
Bennett completed his senior season 11-0 and became a must-see attraction for local fans, regardless of their rooting affiliation. When not pitching, Bennett also played first base as a switch-hitter with power, particularly from the right side.
“Doug had told me in February of that year, ‘Coach, when scouts start calling and asking what it’s going to take to sign, if they draft me, tell them it’s going to take $100,000. Anything less, I’m going to college.’ He never came off that,” Davis said. “The Mets got up to I think $85,000 and they wouldn’t come up.”
A ‘special time’ to be at Hillcrest
In a story by the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame before his Diamond 9 induction, Bennett said Davis’ influence on his career was large.
“Coach Davis was a wonderful guy with a very positive attitude that was really a lot of fun to play for,” Bennett said. “He has great knowledge of the game and truly made practice and games fun experiences. And he knows more baseball trivia than anyone that I have ever met.”
Davis said it was a special time to be at Hillcrest, a school with a rich baseball tradition rooted to the 1960s with the legendary coach Dick Birmingham.
Many of those players from the late 1980s remain close and Bennett’s death hit them hard while also bringing back great memories.
“It’s tough to lose a teammate. It’s tough to lose a friend,” Hammers said. “Our bonds over at Hillcrest grow deeper and are deeper than just playing baseball and being teammates.
“Many of us guys still hang out and Doug was part of that group. We were all northsiders.”
Added Davis: “In my mind’s eye, I see Doug on the mound with that long, loose arm and just that smooth windup.”
Bennet remained connected to baseball, teammates
After his baseball career was cut short due to the arm injury, Bennett remained in the sport as an instructor and had a career working in sales.
“Those that truly knew Doug knew he had a big heart and would do anything for a person,” his obituary read. “Even though the good Lord took him away from this world, his loving heart left a beacon of light for all in the community.”
Bennett is survived by his daughter, Karsen Bennett, his parents, Dr. and Mrs. Lee Bennett of Springfield, sisters, Kim (Carl) Leonard and Paula (Robert) Palmer and a brother, Todd (Kendall) Bennett.
A private graveside ceremony will be held at a future date in Cameron, Missouri. In lieu of flowers, contributions to the Hillcrest Legion Baseball Program (in care of Ryan Schaffitzel) are desired.
“This is a horrible thing to happen,” Davis said. “It does take you down memory lane. It makes me and most of the guys think of the good times and how we benefited from knowing Doug and having him on our team.”