Mets fandom plays part in teacher's life, memorial
Former New York hurler Dickey attends service after learning of Benton's story, impact
On the day of the memorial service for the love of her life, Meredith Benton wore her black Mets jersey stitched with orange and blue, just as Jim would have wanted it.
She stood in the receiving line at Harpeth Hills Church of Christ on that October day, clutching her 10-month-old daughter, Adalyn, and accepting the condolences, receiving the hugs and sharing the tears of those who had been touched by her husband's all-too-short life.
Throughout Meredith's hometown of Nashville, Tenn., the story had spread of the 33-year-old teacher who had suddenly collapsed and passed away during a class excursion.
It spread to California, where Jim grew up and where he and Meredith first met. It spread to Nottingham, England, where Jim, an ambitious world traveler, had completed his studies in education and human development. It spread to the hundreds of kids whose lives had been positively impacted by Jim's teachings, his enthusiasm, his humor and his genuine care and compassion.
And it spread to the soon-to-be Cy Young Award winner who happened to live around the corner from the church and felt compelled to pay his respects.
Meredith had just finished hugging a friend when she turned and was startled to see the man who bore an eerie resemblance to her late husband.
"Oh my God," she said, as tears welled in her eyes, "you're R.A. Dickey."
The Mets will play host to the All-Star Game on Tuesday, and Citi Field will be the focal point of the sporting world. Maybe, under better circumstances, Jim Benton would have been there. It was, after all, one of his life's goals to make it to the newish home of his beloved ballclub, especially once he had fulfilled another, bolder travel goal of setting foot on all seven continents.
At worst, Jim would have tuned in to the television coverage and bragged that his Mets, for one night at least, were in the limelight.
"Jim was already intolerable during baseball season," Meredith said. "This would have made it even worse."
He was the eternal optimist. And to be a diehard Mets fan, that's a prerequisite. But Jim took his fandom to the extreme, and his allegiance was never in question.
"His classroom had Mets stuff everywhere," recalled Amanda Gee, a student in Jim's algebra class when he taught at Medea Creek Middle School in Oak Park, Calif. "There was a hat on the TV, a jersey hanging up. I remember there was one guy in class who was a big Yankees fan and would always wear his Yankees hat. Every time that guy would walk into class, Mr. Benton would say, 'Take that hat off right now!'"
Strange that a person who grew up in the San Joaquin Valley of California would leave his heart in Queens. Jim, though, reached his baseball cognizance in 1986, the year of Keith and Kid, Doc and Darryl, Nails and Knight. The year of Bill Buckner and a World Series title still awaiting an organizational encore.
So for the rest of his life, Jim enjoyed the heroics and endured the heartbreak of Mets fandom, and those around him enjoyed and endured it with him.
"Every year before baseball season, he'd be like, 'The Mets are looking great, this is going to be their year!'" Meredith said. "Halfway through the season, he'd be a little more crestfallen and maybe realize it's not going to be the year. But that was always the way Jim was. He was always fighting for the underdog."
Jim was something of an underdog himself. He didn't come from money, and as a teacher, he certainly didn't make a ton of it, either. But he pooled what he had into his travel fund.
In Meredith, Jim found a kindred spirit in his quest to explore the world. Though they attended Pepperdine University at the same time, they didn't meet until several years later, at the wedding of a mutual friend in 2007. Jim talked to one of Meredith's friends that night and said he was thinking about spending New Year's Eve in Machu Picchu, knowing full well Meredith and her friends had been planning to visit the historic archaeological site but had not yet picked out dates. Soon enough, plans were put in place for the whole group to go together.
"He told me later," Meredith recalled, "that his whole intention was to get me to Peru to fall in love with him."
They hiked the trails for six days, and by the end, Jim's plan had played out to perfection. Peru, they would joke, was their first date. Their fourth date lasted 17 days. In Egypt. They saw the ancient pyramids, explored Petra, took a boat trip on the Nile. It was the penultimate step in Jim's goal to see all seven continents before the age of 30.
Oh, and it also included a layover in New York City. With a quick visit to a ballgame at Shea, of course.
"That's a fond memory," Meredith said. "There's this orange Mets hat that he bought for himself that day, but he gave it to me. I wore it on all of our trips."
Jim crossed his seventh continent off the list in December 2008, when he and Meredith eloped in Antarctica.
Yet for all their global travels, arguably the most meaningful journey Jim and Meredith took together was a simple drive from Tennessee to Ohio. That was in December 2011, when they hurriedly tried to make it to the hospital in time for the birth of their adopted daughter. In the weeks leading up to the birth, they had deliberated over names for the child. For the first name, they chose Adalyn, a pseudo-reference to Meredith's father, Allen. The middle name was trickier, but Meredith had a revelation while looking in the bathroom mirror one day and taking note of the Mets memorabilia hanging in the room.
She proposed the idea to an astonished Jim.
"Are you kidding?" he said, mouth agape. "You would do that?"
She would. And that's how Adalyn Shea Benton got her middle name.
Jim died on a Monday. And Meredith is quick to note that he died doing what he loved.
It was Oct. 22 of last year, and Jim was chaperoning a school group from Grassland Middle School on a bus trip to the Jamestown Settlement in Williamsburg, Va., to explore the seeds of American colonialism.
Jim loved these trips. When he taught in California, he was the leader every year on a trek to Washington, D.C., and his textbook knowledge of the District's many historical sites blew his students away.
"Outside and inside the classroom, he was willing to be your friend and was so easy to come to," said Gee, who would refer to Jim as her "hero" in her high school graduation speech. "I went on the D.C. trip with him, and it was so amazing and inspiring how much passion he put into everything. He knew every single historical site and all the information about it, and he just wanted to pass that knowledge on to us."
Jim hadn't taught at Grassland long. He and Meredith moved to the Nashville area last June, so that baby Adalyn could grow up close to Meredith's family. When Jim was applying for jobs, Meredith reviewed his résumé and discovered that, unbeknownst to her, he had been named the top teacher in his entire school district in 2007. He had never bothered to tell her.
"That was the kind of man he was," Meredith said. "So humble."
The students at Grassland were only just beginning to get to know that man. He had been on the job but nine weeks at the time of his death. They were boarding the bus that morning, ready to return home, when Jim suddenly collapsed and never regained consciousness.
To this day, Jim's death remains a mystery. He was physically fit, and he monitored his diabetes carefully.
"The medical examiner was crying on the phone when she was telling me everything," Meredith said. "She said, 'I'm looking at a perfectly healthy 33-year-old man.'"
All the doctors could tell Meredith was that Jim had an enlarged heart.
In a figurative sense, this was something she already knew.
When a mutual friend relayed word of Jim Benton's memorial service and suggested Dickey attend, the knuckleballer had some reservations.
Dickey had just wrapped up an astonishing 2012 season with the Mets, and his public profile had grown by leaps and bounds, not just for his success on the field, but his inspirational story off it. He had released his autobiography, "Wherever I Wind Up," earlier in the year, and in it he relayed the details of the childhood sexual abuse, suicidal thoughts and infidelity that had led him down some dark roads. He had come out of those experiences a better man, a more open and honest man, and he was hailed far and wide for the way he had reshaped his life.
At first, Dickey feared his presence at the service celebrating the life of a man he had never met might be a distraction, and the last thing he wanted to do was upset a family that had already been through so much.
On the other hand, the friend had told Dickey a bit about Jim, and further research revealed what a palpable presence the Mets were in Jim's life. That presence carried on until the end. In Jim's obituary in the Nashville Tennessean, attendees of the memorial were instructed to wear orange and blue.
As the unmistakable face of the Mets at the time, Dickey knew the right thing to do.
"I know what it's like to be passionate about something," Dickey said. "I'm not necessarily passionate about the Tennessee Titans, but I know what's inherent in that attribute. To live a life without being passionate about something, be it a sports team or poetry or art, would be a really hollow life. So to see someone be passionate about something, I respond to that. It's a good thing, and I appreciate it. And there's no doubt he was passionate about baseball, in particular the New York Mets. So I felt a connection to him, even though I had never met him."
Dickey arrived unannounced and took his place in the receiving line. Nobody recognized him at first. In fact, his resemblance to Jim was so strong that some wondered if he might be a relative of some sort.
But when Meredith saw Dickey, she knew instantly, and tears of joy, trusting in the knowledge that Jim was looking down and smiling, streamed from her eyes.
"It was just such a comfort," she said. "Jim would have been incredibly excited."
Out of respect, Dickey didn't linger too long, but he did hand Meredith a two-page, handwritten note and a Mets hat he had worn on Independence Day. She treasures those items, just as she treasures the hundreds of letters Jim's former students gave her to pass on to Adalyn, so that one day the young girl will be able to learn what an incredible man her father was.
Something interesting, though, about that hat from Dickey. On it, he wrote, "To Meredith and Adalyn -- May God give you the courage to live with strength and authenticity! Go Mets."
Asked about that word -- "authenticity" -- Dickey expounded.
"In my personal story, I was afraid of that word for a long time, because I was ashamed of what had gone on in my life," he said. "Once I came to the realization that God had called me to a different life and it was important for me to be honest and open and transparent, I started to see things move and relationships improve and people to be more valuable. I started to feel very liberated and free. So for me, that word became a life mantra: How can I live an authentic life?"
It's some sort of cosmic coincidence that Dickey would use that word. Because in preparing for the memorial service, the preacher had asked Jim's friends for the one word they would use to describe him. That word, it turned out, was "authentic." And shortly after hearing it during the eulogy, Meredith returned home and read Dickey's note.
"I got chills," she said.
As the Mets prepare to provide the center stage for baseball's most star-studded event, they can do so knowing Jim Benton is there in spirit. His time on this earth was far too brief, yet he made the most of every moment, not just for himself but those around him. In life -- and in Mets fandom -- he was as authentic as they come.