Benny Distefano changed my life.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out …

I spent the first two years of my baseball card collecting career with one of those hard plastic Cincinnati Reds replica batting helmets screwed to my head.

I wore that thing everywhere because, well, the Reds were my team, and I needed them with me at all times. Especially during the summer months, I didn’t go anywhere without my Reds helmet, Cincinnati Reds Batting Helmeta wad of Big League Chew in my mouth and the pack in my back pocket, and a box of baseball cards.

That was mostly fine with my parents, but it got a bit dicey when we went into antique shops full of fine china and other delicate items.

See, those batting helmets weren’t meant to withstand the squirming and snap movements of a pubescent boy, and the hat tended to fly off my head at the most inopportune moments. I can’t tell you how many close calls we had when my red and white beauty bounced across the floor of some hoity-toity shop or careened off a display case.

Nothing was ever actually destroyed that I can remember, but there were plenty of skipped heartbeats among the adults involved. And that’s where the “screwed on” part of the helmet came into play — my dad adjusted the band small enough that he had to shoehorn it on my head every time we went out, and he shoved it down so far into my scalp that I still have dents from where the inner plastic caging bit into my flesh.

It was worth it to me if it meant I could keep wearing my helmet,  but even those extreme measures eventually weren’t enough. Finally, after another hot and sticky summer outing when my sweaty, smelly1985 Topps Benny Distefano red shell threatened some store owner’s wares, my parents delivered the bad news — the hard cap had to go.

I was sad, of course, but they offered me the consolation of a new soft-side Reds fielders hat. It was gorgeous and much cooler on my aching head, but I missed my batting helmet and felt like part of me was gone. At least I could still wear the cracked-plastic beauty when I was playing ball in the side yard.

Goodbye Old Friend … Hello Stranger!

Around that same time, I was digging deep into the 1985 baseball card sets right as the rookie card craze was heating up in earnest thanks to the likes of Don Mattingly, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, and even my Reds’ own Eric Davis.

Collectors and speculators alike scooped up all the cards of those players we could lay our greedy little hands on. When the  line for that font of cardboard grew too long, though, we turned our attention — for maybe the first time ever — to the second and third and fourth tiers of rookie cards.

I mean, hey, if a guy was good enough for Topps to devote a swath of cardboard to him in their annual mega set, he must have had the chance to develop into something special. Right?

And among that group of nobodies who might, someday, develop into somebodies with rookie cards worth more than the standard 3 cents of the commons bin, two players intrigued me more than any others: Buddy Biancalana and Benny Distefano.

Both seemed to me to be Average Joe types, and both had unforgettable names. And, of course, they were (nearly) unsung rookies in the 1985 sets, which made them worthy of my consideration.

Biancalana, of course, became a phenomenon as his Kansas City Royals puttered toward a World Series title, thanks mostly to the attention heaped on him by David Letterman.

Meanwhile, Distefano didn’t appear in even one game for the Pittsburgh Pirates that summer, though I wouldn’t realize that until I looked at his stats this morning.

His status on the Pirates ultimately didn’t matter to me, though, because somewhere along the line that summer, I came into possession of a classic Pittsburgh Pirates cloth pillbox cap with yellow stripes on its round sides, a yellow button on top, and a yellow ‘P’ on the front.

It was just like the one that Benny Distefano wore on his 1985 Topps rookie card, and on his 1985 Donruss rookie card, for that matter.

Naturally, I was reluctant to even try on the Bucs cap at first, but it helped that the Reds and Pirates weren’t direct competitors in those days — Cincy was in the old NL West, while Pittsburgh was in the East.

Hardball TransformationPittsburgh Pirates Pillbox Hat

So one sunny afternoon, I ventured out to my ball field — a swath of land punctuated with “bases” that included a tree stump, a badminton pole, and the road — to take some toss-and-hit batting practice under the shade of my new Pirates hat.

I dug into the grass with my sneakers, flipped the ball into the air, and cocked my bat backwards, then slashed a rope that nearly hit the outfield “wall” — a wire fence separating our yard from the hog pen next door.

I couldn’t believe how vicious the hit was, like nothing I’d ever mustered before.

I felt like one of those tobacco-spitting, spikes-flying, gritty denizens of the diamond from the turn of the century who ate sand and gravel for breakfast and spent their winters building barns from trees they cut down by hand.

I felt like … Honus Wagner.

Right away, I knew that the hat had transformed me, just like a new pair of tennis shoes can make you run faster and jump higher.

That evening, I pulHonus_Wagner_1911_battingled out my 1985 Topps cards again and thumbed through them until I landed on the stack of Distefanos that were nestled somewhere in the middle of the box. His happy smile and slender build were still the same as I remembered.

But while those attributes may have subconsciously turned me off of his potential as a ballplayer before, the beautiful pillbox perched on his head told me he might just work out after all.

Over the next couple of years, that Pirates cap became my default weapon in whatever pickup games I was able to finagle my way into. As I moved through my middle teens and it became obvious I wasn’t going to be physically imposing, I began to appreciate the classic middle infielder types.

Guys like Sammy Khalifa and, especially, Rafael Belliard, who is almost exactly my size.

And, as it so happened, both of those guys spent the mid-1980s with the Pirates, and both donned the pillboxes to some acclaim.

But it was Benny Distefano and his 1985 Topps rookie card who helped me find the courage to try something new and fueled another few years of diamond dreams.

I never progressed beyond my side yard, and Distefano fashioned a spotty five-year career that fell one campaign short of Biancalana’s body of in grass

Of course, neither of their rookie cards is worth much these days.

And my Pirates hat?

It’s long gone. My mom, bless her heart, didn’t throw out a single one of my baseball cards, but she had no qualms about discarding smelly, soiled, used-up clothing with extreme prejudice.

But I still can see that hat any time I want and remember the good times we had together.

All I have to do is pull out my collection of Benny Distefano rookie cards.