For Dayton Dragons reliever Joel Bender, 2010 was the best of times — and the very worst.
That year the Delhi Township native graduated from Oak Hills High School near Cincinnati, was drafted by the team he adored as a kid — the Cincinnati Reds, in the 27th round — and accepted an offer to pitch at the University of Louisville. But his life tumbled after his father died of cancer in December.
His dad owned a popular bar along the skywalk in Cincinnati that ran from downtown to Riverfront Stadium. His childhood home was adorned with the Reds logo. Unable to pass on signing with his hometown team, Bender eschewed college and agreed to a contract with the Reds, something his father was able to witness prior to his death.
“He owned that bar and knew everybody,” Bender said. “The players used to come in after games. He was always around the game and that’s how he raised me. Being here with the Reds and in Dayton probably means a lot more to me than it would anybody else.”
The road to the majors has continued to be rough. Bender began the season in Dayton, but after posting an ERA over six, he was demoted to extended spring training in Arizona. Making matters worse was another loss — his uncle died this year.
But the affable Bender has found a respite on the mound. He returned to Dayton and has become the core of the bullpen along with fellow relievers Tony Amezcua and Alejandro Chacin. What could have been a weakness for Dayton due to promotions, demotions and injuries has been steady. As a result, Bender was named Dragons pitcher of the month for July after going 4-0 with a 3.38 ERA in 10 relief appearances. For the year he is 4-2 with 4.28 ERA with one save.
Dayton manager Jose Nieves has been impressed with his performance on the mound and dealing with the adversity in his life.
“Someone so young, they can be devastated losing two loved ones in such a short period of time,” Nieves said. “When this happens to a player, you want to make sure they are all right emotionally. But he’s handled it very well and been professional, but we want them to know that if they need to talk we are all here.”
Bender is a left-hander with a 90-mph fastball. After his promotion back to Dayton, he returned with an improved change-up and more velocity. He hopes the improvements continue long enough for that kid from Delhi Township to take the mound at Great American Ball Park.
“I was born and raised a Reds fan,” Bender said. “Every little kid in that town is going to wear that hat. My first time in spring training, I got to be around all these guys I watched every night on television for years. If I ever pitch on that mound, it will be indescribable.”
Dayton at Fort Wayne, 7, 980-AM