MINNEAPOLIS Joe Benson went to Venezuela this winter with the intent of playing baseball for Tigres de Aragua in the offseason. He ended up getting much more than he bargained for.
Benson, a 23-year-old outfielder in the Minnesota Twins organization, was robbed at gunpoint when the taxicab he was in hit a boulder and crashed. As the Spanish-speaking cab driver was making a call from his cell phone, three gunmen approached Benson. They took everything he had except for a bag that contained some baseball spikes and a few T-shirts.
"When you don't speak the language, there's not much you can do," Benson said. "You can't really beg for your life. You can't ask them not to pull the trigger. You can't beg for mercy. I kind of sat there in silence, let everything happen."
The cab driver was also robbed, losing his belongings. It could have been much worse for both men, however.
"It wasn't a set-up. He wasn't in on it," Benson said of the cab driver. "He lost everything he had. The National Guard thankfully showed up about 10 minutes later and took me to a local police station where I was picked up by some of the front office guys from the Tigres."
After the incident, Benson stayed for the rest of the week before flying home Monday to gather more belongings. Despite being robbed, he returned back to Venezuela to finish out the season with the Tigres.
But the incident was still fresh in Bensons' mind -- and for good reason, as his run-in was an all-too-frequent occurrence in Venezuela. After Benson's season was done, former Twin and current Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos was kidnapped and missing for several days. The story made national headlines before Ramos was eventually rescued and returned to safety.
"I had been released already by the team, but I was down there when it happened," Benson said of Ramos' kidnapping. "Immediately, I had had my personal body guard, Randy, come over. He stayed with me (through) the night, didn't let anybody in and out of the room. The hotel doubled their security to where they did checks on people trying to get up and down the elevators. Thank God Ramos came back safely."
The three gunmen that robbed Benson were never caught as they took off into the mountains with Benson's personal belongings. Yet while Benson lost some of his material items, he gained valuable experience on the baseball field during his time in Venezuela.
Benson broke into the majors with the Twins late in the season, playing 21 games in September. He reported to Venezuela on Oct. 6 and stayed for over a month. In 17 games with the Tigres, he batted .216 with two triples, four doubles and four RBIs in 51 at-bats.
"I'd say even though I didn't do too well down in Venezuela, that was probably the best thing I had done in an offseason as far as preparing for another season," Benson said. "I got another month of at-bats against major league, Triple-A pitchers who are out there to get you out, do their job winning baseball games."
When Benson joined the Twins as a September call-up, he did so by completely bypassing the Triple-A level. He spent 2011 with Double-A New Britain, where he hit .285 with 16 homers, 67 RBIs and 13 stolen bases.
He struggled to adjust to big league pitching, however, batting just .239 with a .270 on-base percentage in 71 at-bats.
"The game's faster. The pitching is more consistent, day in and day out," Benson said of the majors. "In the Eastern League, we faced numerous guys who made their major league debuts. . . . You face that kind of talent in the minor leagues, but day in and day out the game is much faster up in the big leagues."
Now that he has a taste of the majors, Benson will approach the upcoming spring training with the same goal of many others: to break camp on Minnesota's 25-man big league roster. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire will likely be looking for outfield depth behind Denard Span, Ben Revere and Josh Willingham.
Benson hopes it's him.
"I'm just going into spring training telling myself I want to play hard," Benson said. "I want to hustle and leave another good impression with the coaching staff, make Gardy notice me and leave the rest of the decisions up to the front office and personnel."
Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter @FSNtylermason.