Benson says he’s done pitching

In 1996, the Pittsburgh Pirates made Kris Benson the No. 1 overall pick in baseball’s amateur draft. Within four years, he had thrown more than 400 innings in the majors and appeared on his way to realizing much of the potential he showed as a star at Clemson University.

But Benson underwent Tommy John elbow surgery in 2001, injured his throwing shoulder two years later, and has struggled to stay healthy ever since. On Monday evening he told that he has formally decided to retire.

“I’m done,” the 36-year-old said by phone from his home outside Atlanta. “I decided pretty much after this past season that I wasn’t going to pursue anything. I’ve been putting way too much into it and not getting enough out of it, as far as the rehab, working out, training, and then not getting the type of results I expect from myself.

“I wanted to make this decision now, rather than go into another season on another minor-league deal. I didn’t want to go through the head games of, ‘Am I going to make the team?’ I don’t mind the pressure. I just don’t want to fall into another situation like I had the last couple years, where I busted my tail getting back and then got hurt again shortly after I made the team.”

Benson finished his career with a 70-75 record and 4.42 ERA in 206 games (200 starts). More than half of his major-league starts came with the Pirates, between 1999 and 2004.

Benson joined the New York Mets in the July 2004 trade that sent late-blooming slugger Jose Bautista to the Pirates. The right-hander pitched capably in New York, but the Mets dealt him to Baltimore just prior to the 2006 season. That proved to be the final year in which Benson was healthy enough to make 30 starts.

A 70 percent tear of Benson’s rotator cuff was discovered during shoulder surgery in 2007. He didn’t return to the majors until two years later, when he made the Texas Rangers’ opening day roster. But injuries limited him to 22-1/3 innings.

Last year was all too similar. He signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks during spring training, after the team recognized its shortage of starting pitchers. Again, he made the rotation. But after quality starts against San Diego and Philadelphia, Benson’s shoulder began to bark during an April 28 start at Colorado.

He surrendered four earned runs, left without recording an out in the third inning, and never made it back to a major-league mound.

“By the time I got to the trainer’s room, I couldn’t even raise my arm over my head,” Benson said. “I had two rehab stints in the minors, trying to get back, but it never happened. My last start in Reno (in August), the same thing happened. I had to step off the mound after every pitch, to let the pain go down. After the third inning, I walked up to (manager) Brett Butler and said, ‘I’m done.’

“The last thing I wanted was to have my career end with a trainer walking me off the mound. I basically gutted out those last 12 pitches. I saw a couple doctors, and they told me, ‘You either pitch with the pain, or you don’t.’ I just said, ‘I’ve had six cortisone shots in three months. I don’t think I’m going to do it anymore.’

“So, I just went home. I wanted to enjoy my new house. I haven’t picked up a baseball since.”

Benson underwent three arm surgeries in his career. He won just two games in the big leagues after his 32nd birthday. But he had a better career than several other pitchers selected first overall in the past two decades: Brien Taylor (’91), Paul Wilson (’94), Matt Anderson (’97), Bryan Bullington (’02), and, at least so far, Luke Hochevar (’06).

Benson is proud of the fact that he reached 10 years of major-league service, including time spent on the disabled list. He has more wins, starts and strikeouts than Mark Prior, the No. 2 overall pick 10 years ago who is attempting a comeback with the New York Yankees.

“I can’t complain about one thing,” Benson said. “I wouldn’t change a thing … I’m proud to be the No. 1 overall pick from ’96. That’s another thing I would never change. There’s only one of those every year. Fans might expect you to win 20 games every year, but, from a pressure standpoint, I don’t think I ever paid attention to it too much.”

Benson said his shoulder is healthy enough that he can throw batting practice to his 12-year-old son. He may need to keep his pitching arm in shape for the long term, since he and his wife, Anna, welcomed another son, Devin, last year.

A marketing major at Clemson, Benson also is working to form his own business management company.

“The beauty of my Mets contract was that I got some of that money deferred, so I’m getting paid for the next eight years,” Benson said. “I have the security to relax, take the time to develop this company, and do it right.

“This is a chance for me to be at home with my kids and enjoy the family life, which I’m not used to. It’s something a lot of guys welcome once their career is over.”