How the Reds’ Will Benson was shaped by the brother he never met

CINCINNATI — There’s evidence of a future major-leaguer throughout Will Benson’s childhood room, a sports-adoring, adrenaline-thirsting teenager’s sanctuary that has remained untouched during his baseball journey.

There’s the bat bearing the signature of Hank Aaron, one of baseball’s luminary sluggers, especially to an Atlanta kid with dreams of powering baseballs into the outfield seats. The bat displaying his own name, presented to him the night he became a 2016 first-round draft pick. His geometric painting of the MLB logo. The two team pictures from the Duke baseball program, which Will nearly joined, with the maxims: “Trust your process” and “Preparation has no offseason.”

The most telling hint, though, that Will was destined for a big-league batter’s box is the busted violin that, for 20 years, has collected dust on the top shelf.

Will’s father, Ted, wanted Will to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Theodore Charles.

TC’s primary passions were violin and T-ball. But Will’s mother, Ramona, barged into Will’s room — TC’s old room — and caught her son swatting baseballs with the stringed instrument. The damaged tailpiece signaled the end of Will’s orchestral career.

Now, at 25, he pummels fastballs with a burgundy Chandler maple bat.

Will’s big-league ambition, his insistence on aiding Atlanta kids and his drive to reward his parents – and reimburse them for violin repairs – all trace back to an afternoon 28 months before he was born.

TC’s spirit has propelled Will throughout his baseball journey, one that has taken him from the brink of early retirement to the front line of a pennant race with the Reds. TC reminds Will why the Bensons hold onto family bonds with an unrelenting grip, especially as Will blissfully stares at the cutout of his baby boy’s face that dangles from the mirror in his Jeep.

Theodore Charles’ presence permeates every part of Will’s life – even though they never met.

One spring morning in 2018, Will stood near a back field at the Indians’ complex in Arizona and cried, reflecting on a note he received from his mom a few weeks earlier.

There aren’t 29 days in February but between today and 3/1 is the 22nd anniversary of your brother’s death. Today you made the darkest date of the year brighter. Love you to the moon and beyond. — Mom

That spring, a 19-year-old Will, sporting No. 66, pinch-hit in Cleveland’s final Cactus League tuneup. He smacked a two-run homer that clanged off the metal overhang over the right-field concourse.

His mom’s message, he said, reminded him why he so desperately wanted to thrive on the diamond.

That home run reminded him that he could.

Will convinced himself he would reach the majors a year after he was drafted, a teenager with a gap-tooth smile who carried around a lucky foxtail keychain, wreaking havoc on a league full of grizzled pitchers with a decade’s worth of big-league scars.

“Baseball,” says Will’s lifelong friend and former Cleveland teammate, Xzavion Curry, “is not just a smooth ride.”

That applies to a prospect with athleticism oozing from his 6-foot-5 frame, with enough muscle to plan to walk on to Coach K’s Duke basketball team, with enough speed to swipe bases and cover miles of outfield terrain and with enough power to produce a four-homer game in A-ball. And, as Ramona is quick to remind him, with enough flexibility to complete an arabesque — he begrudgingly learned that from his mom and sister, both dancers — which helped when stretching to snag a fly ball or when contorting to corral a missed jumper.

At the end of each minor-league season, his mom would meet him in whatever small town he spent the summer. They packed up his belongings, shut off his utilities and trekked back to Atlanta.

But in 2019, Will preferred a solo trip home from Lynchburg, Va. His parents waited for him at the front door, ready to praise him for trudging through another marathon.

Instead, Will told them he was done with baseball. The kid who every waking moment of his childhood needed a ball to rebound or swing at or kick, the kid who took batting practice with a violin — he was ready for something else.

“This defeated person was standing in front of us,” Ramona says.

He still loved the sport. But after repeating A-ball and suffering through a rotten second half, he just didn’t think he was capable.

They countered with encouraging statistics and home-run highlights. They asked him to stick with it for one more year. The following summer, when the pandemic wiped out the minor-league season, Will limped through two months in the Constellation Energy League, a four-team outfit tossed together in Sugar Land, Texas.

He took longer than he preferred to adjust to each new level. He was passed over in the Rule 5 Draft. He grappled with the purpose of it all.

But last summer, as he fetched Taco Bell for his then-girlfriend, he received a call informing him the Guardians were promoting him to the majors.

“It’s a beacon of hope for people with similar stories,” Will says, “people with similar backgrounds.”

In his first full major-league season, Benson hit .268/ .359/ .498 for a 127 OPS+ and stole 15 bases. (Dylan Buell / Getty Images)

On Feb. 29, 1996, Ramona received a call at work to rush to the children’s hospital.

Amid the chaos of afternoon dismissal, with children spilling out of Fickett Elementary School, her 5-year-old had been run over by his school bus. By the time Ramona arrived, TC had died.

Five days later, they held his funeral service at Wheat Street Baptist Church. A gathering necessitated by an inconceivably devastating, paralyzing tragedy carried an uplifting tenor.

“Life is a gift that is not promised,” Ramona says. “We never know how long we’re going to have, so you have to appreciate every moment as it occurs. When something happens that I can’t change, I have to immediately find a way to get through it and accept it. I was so immensely grateful for the fact that if TC had to die that day, he died knowing that he was loved every single day. Who has that? I had not had a chance to disappoint him, because he was only 5 1/2. I had not had a chance to destroy his image of how wonderful the world is, because parents do that. We talked about the things that we were grateful for and we celebrated the good things in his life.

“Everybody grieves differently and that’s how we got through it is that we accepted that from everybody. Do what you have to do to get through this.”

Ramona described the loss of their son as a tornado merging with a hurricane, their world overrun by howling winds and static rainfall. They abandoned their bid to purchase a new home. They delayed their plans to have a third child, “a tiebreaker” who would tilt the advantage in the Benson household, since Ramona and Heather found themselves on the opposite side of Ted and TC in every debate.

“It really derailed so much,” Ramona says.

Ramona preserved a memory box for each of her three children. Each box contains the onesie they wore home from the hospital, their favorite childhood book and other keepsakes. When Will’s sister, Heather, had a baby girl, Ramona bequeathed Heather’s box to her daughter. Will’s box included “Charlotte’s Web,” which he used to call “The Spider and the Bugs,” and a copy of “Pocahontas.” When Will welcomed his son, Ramona passed along Will’s memory box.

“The thing that’s so hurtful for me is that there will never be anybody to give TC’s box to,” Ramona says.

She has finally reached a point in which the precise number of years, months, days, hours and minutes since her son passed no longer flash constantly in her head. She isn’t sure if her mind is slipping with age, or if it’s because she has two children and two grandchildren to keep her occupied.

On March 1, 2023, a non-Leap Year, with no exact anniversary of TC’s passing, Will and his fiancée, Lindsey, welcomed their first child.

“Family was there when there was nothing but you in a diaper,” Will says. “That’s what I’m seeing being a father. Somebody had to do that for me. They made the sacrifice for me to be where I am today.”

Since the day he was drafted in 2016, Will has discussed partnering with his friend Curry and other Atlanta-rooted big-leaguers to create a baseball Mecca in Fulton County, with an array of diamonds surrounding one, main field, a haven welcoming anyone with a passion for the sport.“Why else are we doing this?” Will says. “Obviously, yes, to provide for our families. But also, to give another kid an opportunity just like I had, to make it more accessible, using the leverage and platform that I have.

“You’re going to see me and know that what I have is real and it’s attainable. I can set that example.”

Will and Curry had been inseparable since they played as Little Leaguers for the Sandtown Red Sox. They even began their climb through professional baseball together. Last February, as they finished the same weightlifting routine at the Guardians’ complex in Goodyear, Will noticed he had a missed call from team president Chris Antonetti. He knew what that meant.

Here he was, three weeks from becoming a father, his personal life headed for a metamorphosis. And now his work life was about to be flipped upside down, too.

Four months earlier, he was completing a gender reveal at Progressive Field, exploding a baseball to spread blue dust across the infield dirt. He was a wide-eyed rookie contributing a small role in pushing the Guardians to an AL Central title.

As the new season approached, Will was fixated on proving himself, carving out a regular role and rewarding the Guardians for their seven-figure investment and their patience.

So as he retrieved his phone to connect with his boss, he told Curry — the two were called up to Cleveland within two weeks of each other in 2022 — he was going to refuse to be traded.

“Look, I know what this call is for,” Will said to his friend, “and you better be coming with me or I ain’t going.”

Will had no actual say on the matter, of course. Antonetti told him he was being dealt to Cincinnati. For spring training, Will was only relocating a half-mile away on S. Wood Boulevard. He could wave to his old teammates each morning as he drove to the Reds’ facility.

“I don’t care what anybody says, there’s still a boy in there who doesn’t like rejection,” says Ramona, who had crocheted onesies with the Cleveland logo in anticipation of her grandson’s arrival.

“That whole time period was very testing,” Will admits.

Will Benson celebrated Father’s Day with his dad, Ted (left), and his son, Theo. (Courtesy of the Benson family)

Before Will’s first major-league home run whizzed past the right-field fence at Great American Ball Park, Ted was high-fiving his wife.

Ramona was fixated on the TV, which lagged a minute behind Ted’s MLB Gameday app. He’s too impatient to wait for the results to unfold on the broadcast, so as his wife sat on the couch, anxiety swallowing her whole, he couldn’t contain himself.

After Will connected with Evan Phillips’ fastball, he turned to the Reds’ dugout, shouted and slammed his bat to the ground. He initiated his trot around the bases, knowing his teammates would be waiting at home plate to toast to his walk-off blast.

The previous half-inning, between pitches, Will started mapping out the sequence in the outfield. He knew he was due up second. He knew the Dodgers would turn to their top righty reliever. And then, boom, a signature moment to punctuate another victory for a team announcing its arrival in the NL Central.

Every game, Ramona fields texts from high school friends and from her Westminster Wildcat mom group. The group thread for Will’s Oldest Fan Club, a collection of his aunts and uncles, never relents. She hears from parents of local Georgia players who consult the Bensons for advice on the scouting and drafting process and on how to navigate the professional ranks. When the Reds faced the Cardinals earlier this month, Ramona exchanged messages with Jordan Walker’s father, Derek.

Anytime Will hits one into the seats, Ramona’s brother sends the proper number of flexed bicep emoji to reflect his home run total.

Will’s emergence started last summer, when a conversation with longtime big-leaguer John McDonald spurred him to study video of Barry Bonds and Mike Trout. Will marveled at how they resisted chasing pitches, and how that made the pitcher sweat. He trimmed his strikeout rate at Triple A and, this year, he has compiled elite chase and walk rates. When he does connect, he inflicts damage. His .857 OPS ranks second on the Reds and fourth in the league among rookies with at least 300 plate appearances.

“Doing what I always knew I could is obviously awesome,” he says. “But the work is not done. I won’t look up until I’m done playing.”

That’s because he knows how quickly a career can evaporate. He was booted to the minors in April and every cell in his body told him to sulk and stress about the unlit road back to the big leagues. He referred to it as the most difficult juncture in his career, a real “moment of tribulation.”

And then he thought about his newborn. What sort of message would that relay? Could he share the saga of his career without feeling ashamed?

“I couldn’t tell my son that I gave up,” he says. “I can’t tell my son to keep going when my life work doesn’t replicate that. I wanted to give him an example and this is the most pure example you can give.”

Said his manager, David Bell: “It was incredible. It was very real. I felt like right then, he was going to get back and he was going to be better when he got back.”

As the Reds attempt to seize a Wild Card berth, Will’s parents will be watching – Ted in real-time and Ramona on a minute delay.

They traveled to Cincinnati for the weekend series against the Pirates. They caught a Reds series in person in Atlanta in April. The family also gathered for Father’s Day in Houston, where three generations of Benson boys finally united.

There was Ted, the reserved, 6-foot-9 former Purdue center and the subject of Ramona’s book, How to Babysit a Grandpa.

There was Will, the big-leaguer working to solve, simultaneously, life in the majors and life as a father.

And there was his baby boy, Theo.

(Top image: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photo: Rob Tringali / Getty Images)