Derek Bender Wants to 'Make Baseball Fun Again' Regardless of What Life Throws His Way

Derek Bender Wants to ‘Make Baseball Fun Again’ Regardless of What Life Throws His Way

By Mojo Hill

From behind the home plate batting cage at Spillane Field, a new face rose from the dugout. Built like a football player, but carrying himself with the liveliness of a young kid, he sauntered over to the cage with his freshly bleached hair and sharply groomed mustache.

The man shook hands with each intern observing batting practice, greeting everyone with a sincere and attentive nod. He introduced himself as “Bender.”

On the field and around the dugout, it’s not rare to find him riffing on a random subject or talking to anyone within a 50-foot radius. He exudes joy, enthusiasm and a whole boatload of personality. But a quick glance at him wouldn’t tell you that he played four instruments in high school, or that he’s a Women and Gender Studies minor at Coastal Carolina University, or that he has the initials of his friend he lost to suicide tattooed on his wrist.

His name is Derek Bender, and he’s here to live his life just the way he wants to.

Braves fans have already reaped the rewards of what Bender brings to the field; since showing up, he hit just the third cycle in the last 12 years of the Cape Cod Baseball League, which led to Player of the Week honors. He’s led the charge of a revamped Bourne offense that has completely turned its season around after a slow start.

But he wasn’t always this good.

“Oh my God, I was one of the worst Little League players you’ve ever seen,” Bender said. “I was bad. I was unathletic.”

Bender has preached that the key to improvement is having self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses. If you know what your limitations are, then you know what areas you need to specifically improve on. So he did just that.

“I’m a naturally tight athlete,” Bender said. “My joints don’t move as well as other guys. I might not be the fastest runner. I might not have the most athleticism you’ve ever seen. But I know what I do good, and I know what I’m capable of. And I use that to my advantage. That’s just what it was — using that awareness to get better, and working on weaknesses and making those into strengths.”

He played a wide variety of sports growing up; his dad coached football, and he played both football and basketball all throughout high school. He also did wrestling and boxing. But he started focusing on baseball around age 14-15, and he knew going into his sophomore year of high school that he wanted to commit to a university.

He showed up to a travel ball circuit that summer, and he recalled being struck by how tense and serious everyone was.

“Everybody’s playing so tight,” Bender said. “Everybody’s playing so, like, ‘Oh man, I gotta get these looks here. These coaches are here to see me. I gotta play well.’ I started this motto: Make baseball fun again.”

Bender began living by that mantra in small ways, whether it was running after foul balls down the line or sprinting on and off the field for no reason other than the pure joy of playing a game. Thus, the player Braves fans have been blessed with this summer began to take shape.

“Nobody remembered how to play the game anymore. Everybody was so focused on showcases and trying to get offers,” Bender said. “I was just like, ‘How can I have the most fun I can have?'”

A lot of Bender’s identity was molded by former independent league pitcher Dan Sausville as well. Sausville was actually Bender’s hitting coach.

“I learned everything I know from him,” Bender said. “Just how to go about life the right way. He taught me more than just on-field stuff; everything I know about growing up and life comes from him and everybody around that facility in that environment.”

These days, his penchant for having fun can be recognized in his bleached hair alone, which he retains a strong commitment to. Matt McDermott, a senior on Coastal Carolina during the 2022 season, started the trend. The Chanticleers kept it going this year during their NCAA postseason run, and Bender liked the look so much that he kept it.

Bender is joined by two fellow Coastal Carolina teammates on the Braves: catcher Caden Bodine and pitcher Liam Doyle. Bodine has been hitting nearly as well as Bender, but with a more subdued personality and a lack of bleached hair. Despite the different auras they bring to the park, Bender and Bodine have both said they feed well off each other.

“It’s definitely different, but you gotta love it,” Bodine said of Bender. “He definitely beats through his own drum. That’s what makes him who he is.”

Bender said he’s been able to bounce ideas and tendencies off of Bodine, remarking how similarly they think. So much of what Bender brings to the ball club, both on and off the field, stems from the connections he’s built with his teammates. He even has connections with players from other schools, professing that he bets he knows at least one person on every team in the CCBL.

And for Bender, the connection he built with McDermott during the 2022 season holds strong. Bender recalled that McDermott always wore a purple sleeve and purple cleats in the name of suicide awareness, honoring a friend he lost in high school. Bender started wearing a purple sleeve on his own arm, and he still wears it today during every game and every at-bat.

In 2021, Bender lost his own friend to suicide. Ahmad Praileau was described in a classmate’s eulogy as an extraordinarily talented track and field athlete with “unfaltering humanity” — someone who showed up every day, never complained and always smiled no matter what was going on. In many ways, the way Bender lives his life is akin to this description.

“You never know the struggles that somebody’s going through. You never know what people are dealing with behind closed doors,” Bender said. “How can you have a positive impact on people’s lives every day? How can you make people smile? And most of all, how can you make yourself have the most fun in life?”

Bender has the initials A.P. tattooed on his wrist as a constant reminder to keep living life in this way, never taking anything for granted and always having as much fun as possible.

And he finds this joy in the dugout with his teammates every day. Even the ones whom he just met mere days ago, he’s already hanging around and joking with like they’re lifelong buddies. Jackson Castillo has been his pregame hitting partner, while Bryce Eblin likes to mess with him in a way that’s playful but keeps him humble. He also named Pete Ciuffreda, Garrett Michel and Josh Kuroda-Grauer (“JKG”) as teammates he’s bonded with.

“They’ve really come to appreciate me as a person and really take me in,” Bender said. “It’s kind of hard because I am really talkative. I am really outgoing. So some of the guys might be really cautious to get around to me, because I might seem too outgoing, too full of myself. But they’ve been really awesome, and they make showing up to the field that much more fun.”

Bender said he’s been able to learn things from everyone he’s met in and around the team, including but not limited to MLB veteran Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who serves as an assistant coach for the Braves, along with manager Scott Landers and every other player and coach he’s interacted with.

“It’s great, as long as he’s staying away from me in the dugout,” Landers said with a laugh. “He brings good energy on a daily basis. He’s a guy that it’s good to have in the dugout when he’s playing, when he’s not playing. I think it gets contagious a little bit. It’s a good thing. We’ve got a bunch of those guys. He’s just kind of the ringleader.”

Bender’s enthusiasm for the game extends to the field, where he’s willing to play anywhere for the sake of the team. Case in point: last Saturday’s game against Brewster, where he stepped in in left field despite his lack of experience there. He grew up as a catcher, and still considers himself one despite playing mostly first base and DH for Coastal Carolina this season. He’s already shown impressive defensive skills at first base with Bourne, with one particular stretch and scoop on a throw in the dirt sticking out.

Before games, you can even find him warming up at shortstop.

“I’ve always messed around at shortstop. It’s always good for the hands; it’s good for the hips to move around,” Bender said. “That’s always been my thing as a player, is find ways to make practice harder than the game. Always trying to find new things to do.”

Bender had a strong season at the plate as well for Coastal Carolina, posting a .341/.399/.635 line in 62 games. The campaign made him a semifinalist for the Dick Howser Trophy, which is awarded annually to the best player in all of college baseball.

This summer, he said his goal is to channel his energy into a more controlled and selective style of play, while not losing any of the flash or power he brought to the Chanticleers. So far, it’s paying off, with an absurd .538/.600/.923 line in his first 30 plate appearances.

“Just cutting down on my strikeouts. Getting in better counts and swinging at pitches I’m on time for. Just really trying to get better with that,” Bender said. “Being aggressive, but being more finely aggressive, because I find myself getting out early on pitches I’m not really looking for that I can hit but I can’t hit well.”

Bender sets the mood from the very beginning of each game at Doran Park. In his short time here, he’s already become in charge of the pregame playlist, bringing his phone up into the press box and letting the Bourne staff play his selections over the microphone. He’ll often stay in the press box as well, working with baseball operations interns to study the day’s opposing starting pitcher.

“A bunch of guys were complaining about how bad the music was,” Bender said. “I just decided to stay up one night and go through all the clean songs on Spotify and throw it in the playlist. Everybody really appreciates it because nothing makes showing up to the field better than good music.”

Speaking of music, Bender proudly admits he was a band geek in high school. He was a brass guy, playing trumpet, trombone, baritone, tuba and even a little piano.

Despite his focus now, which is to pursue a professional baseball career, he also still loves boxing and does it whenever he can. He enjoys hockey as well, and said if he wasn’t playing baseball that he’d want to be a hockey player — despite not knowing how to ice skate.

“I love hockey, and I wish I knew how to skate because I would so rip, stick and puck,” Bender said. “That’s my other passion.”

And who knows, perhaps there’ll be time for Bender to pursue one of these other passions when his baseball career is all said and done. It certainly wouldn’t be wise to put it past him; he was allegedly the worst Little League player you’ve ever seen, after all.

But regardless of what he’s doing, or whatever tragedies life throws at him, he wants to be remembered as somebody who maintained a strong mind through it all. In the far future, if somebody were to bring up the name “Derek Bender,” he would want them to think of “somebody that showed up to the park and was the same guy whether he was 4-for-4 or 0-for-4,” he said. “The game in life never slowed him down for what he wanted to do. And he didn’t really care what people thought about him.

“That’s how I want to go about life; I’m gonna live my life the way I want to do it,” he continued. “I’m gonna be the same guy, whether rain or shine. No matter what’s going on in life, I’m always gonna have a smile on my face. I’m always gonna be enjoying the game. I’m always gonna be an infectious guy and somebody people want to be around.”

If he ever struggles to live by that philosophy, he just looks down at his wrist, sees “A.P.”, and remembers how important it is to appreciate the value of life and to make the most of the time we all have here.

“At the end of the day, life’s gonna kick you while you’re down, and there’s nobody that’s gonna be there to save you but yourself,” Bender said. “So if you can’t find something that you cherish and can help yourself get out of these holes that life likes to throw you down, it’s really imperative that you have that within yourself. And if you don’t, call somebody. Text somebody. I’m always there for anybody. My friends could call me anytime, and I’m always there.

“That’s the biggest thing I’ll say. If you’re dealing with something, please say something, because there’s always somebody that cares about you, that loves you, that wants you here and that you have a purpose for in life. There’s nothing more that hurts when people do take that route; it’s because they feel that there’s nowhere they can go. They’re in a wall, and there’s no break. Life is just so awful, and life is kicking them so bad that that’s the only route.”

As part of his ongoing efforts to raise awareness, he announced he’ll be donating part of the NIL money he makes next year to suicide prevention organizations. He said he’s excited to work with multiple nonprofits toward the cause he’s most passionate for in his life.

And maybe, with time and effort, more people will live their lives according to Bender’s mantra. He’s not just trying to make baseball fun again; he’s trying to make life fun again, and he wants to show people that there is a light. There is a way out. And he wants to increase the opportunities for people to get help when they need it, because nobody is ever alone in their struggles.

“It happens so much in our generation and in today’s society,” Bender said. “I just wish there were more outlets for people like that. It’s now starting to get a little more traction, but I feel like we, as athletes, can use that platform a little better to spread the awareness and spread that message that you have a purpose. You are loved. There’s a reason for you to smile today.”