Although it may not be the first ball-and-stick game that comes to mind when talking about elite Oneida athletes, for Oneida Indian Nation Member Benjamin ‘Benny’ Welch (Bear Clan), his passion for and ability to excel at baseball has opened doors to a bright future.
Benny, a recent graduate from Chittenango High School, is beginning to reap the rewards of years of hard work and dedication to the game he loves. In May of this year, Benny received the news that he was among only 44 American Indian high school baseball players throughout the U.S. and Canada to be invited to participate in the second annual Native American All-Star Baseball Showcase in Atlanta, GA. The event provides an opportunity for aspiring American Indian student athletes to highlight their skills and potential to professional scouts and collegiate coaches.
While players representing 30 tribal affiliations from 13 states and Canada were invited, Benny was the only one to earn the recognition from the entire northeastern United States.
“I felt honored,” said Benny on his selection. “I was grateful for the opportunity to get to a higher level in my baseball career. I was nervous about going. Would I do well? Who would be there? But the chance to walk onto an MLB field was more than I could ever ask for.”
Benny, a catcher for the Chittenango varsity baseball team, received news of the invite prior to a game at Marcellus, perhaps giving him a little extra boost as he hit a sixth-inning homerun to tie the game.
“That was a good day,” he added.
While in Atlanta, Benny and the other participants met with Major League Baseball scouts from Atlanta and Arizona and participated in a Home Run Derby and showcase game, which Benny’s team won 2 – 0. Benny’s incredible experience also included a pro-style workout with retired MLB catcher Johnny Estrada (pictured).
“It seemed to go by so fast, it was hard to take it all in,” he said. “The two best feelings were walking up to the Atlanta Braves’ home plate to hit and sitting behind the dish to catch.”
Benny has played organized baseball since the age of five, beginning with Chittenango Little League T-Ball. At age 11, he began taking hitting lessons from Dan Almonte, a popular local hitting, catching and fielding instructor. He then was given an opportunity to play travel ball, eventually joining the Sports Yard Dirtbags – the team he currently plays for on the 18 and under level.
“I found through travel ball I was able to play baseball with kids who, like me, wanted to play baseball all of the time,” he said. The team has participated in tournaments in New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Maryland. Benny also continues to train with Almonte.
Next to the pitcher, a catcher is one of the most important positions in baseball and is a position where Benny thrives.
“It’s the best view of the game,” he said. “I like catching and I like seeing the whole field. As a catcher, I am able to have control in the game. The catcher needs to be the leader on the diamond.”
While attending Chittenango High School, Benny played Modified and Varsity baseball. This year, he was nominated for mid-season MVP and received the award for Outstanding Senior Baseball Player during the end-of-year Senior Awards.
Benny is looking forward to the next chapter of his young baseball career as he plans to play while attending Mohawk Valley Community College in the fall while majoring in Business Administration and Sports Management. While earning his degree will require focus and attention, Benny still has his sights set on an even bigger goal – playing for the major leagues.
“I think the experience in Atlanta gave me the solidification that the MLB is where I belong,” he added.
Family Plays Important Supporting Role
While players such as Aaron Judge and Mike Trout are the typical pros many young ball players look up to nowadays, including Benny, he also admires the play of eight-time MLB All-Star and five-time Gold Glove Award winner Salvador Perez, a catcher for the Kansas City Royals. But when it comes to the backbone of support and inspiration for Benny, family is where it is at.
Benny’s mom, Patty, shared early memories of how it all began.
“At the age of 3, Benny would hang out with his father watching TV, and asked ‘what are you watching Dad?’”, she recalled. Benny’s father Kelly was watching the New York Yankees while eating peanuts.
“Benny was interested in eating the peanuts, so Kelly gave him a little cardboard box, showed him how to shell the peanuts and thus the love of baseball for him was born,” Patty continued. “They would sit together quite often over the next couple of years, shelling peanuts. Benny learned some of his numbers from the jerseys and fell in love with the game.”
When Benny was five years old, his parents signed him up for Little League, bought him his first glove and took him to his first practice. As he got out of the car, Patty said he saw all of the other kids and said, “Hey Dad, do you think the Yankees are watching ME today?” His father’s reply was simple – “I’m sure they are son, I’m sure they are.”
Throughout his years in baseball, Benny’s older siblings, Maegan, Nickolas, Taylor and Elizabeth, have been there to support him, attending as many games as possible.
“They have come to my games when they can, ask me how things are going and if I need some venting time, they all take the time to listen,” he said.
Benny also credits his parents for supporting him along the way, and his Uncle James Patterson. But who does Benny consider his best cheerleader? His grandmother, Kathleen Patterson, or ‘Grammie’ to Benny.
“She loves watching me play and a hug at the end of a not-so-good game from her is the best,” he said.
The road to Benny’s budding success has been a long one, figuratively and literally. Just ask Patty. The duties of a baseball mom are never ending – from providing transportation to lessons, practices and tournaments, to securing the right equipment, to delivering the emotional support a young athlete needs. With his family in staunch support, Benny has remained the driving force in overcoming the many challenges of balancing school with baseball, and not to mention being a teenager.
“As a parent, proud doesn’t even begin to describe it,” Patty said. “This journey to do baseball is just incredible, and to watch my son step up to the MLB Atlanta Braves home plate was everything that a baseball mom could ever dream of. But with all of the amazing things, the one thing to remember is to be humble. It’s up to him to keep it going, and no matter what, I am proud of the young man that he has become.”
Part of growing up is making tough choices. When Benny realized that the opportunity to go to Atlanta came at the same time as his graduation ceremony, the choice was easy – baseball. Patty contacted the Chittenango principal and superintendent to see if the school could somehow accommodate Benny’s chance of a lifetime.
“The school was amazing,” she said. “Benny was able to attend the graduation rehearsal and actually graduated a day early with his class in attendance. It meant the world to me.”
Family traditions are also important for Benny and his family. Each year, they attend the solemn commemoration of the Battle of Oriskany on August 6, a tradition started by Benny’s great-aunt and Bear Clan Mother Marilyn John, who passed away in 2007. Benny now credits his grandmother for keeping the tradition alive.
Attending this event to recognize and honor their fallen Oneida ancestors has taken on new significance in recent years. The family has discovered they are direct descendants of Seneca Tenh-Wen-Nyos “Chainbreaker” Governor Blacksnake, who was at the Battle of Oriskany fighting on the side of the British.
“Learning that our existence today is a result of both sides is incredible for our entire family,” said Patty. “We are grateful to learn of the past and the visit each year brings more information to help us to be the best people that we can. This event is extremely personal for us all.”
This summer, whether at the gym working out, at the practice field, or on the road, baseball will continue to be the focus for Benny. He would not have it any other way.
Benny and his family at his early graduation ceremony. (photos courtesy of Patty Welch).