Most people have a particular pride in their own generation, and want it to leave its mark in all the corners of their time. Johnny Bench is the first of my contemporaries to become a baseball player of permanent stature.
As long as the sport has any hold on our culture, Bench will be remembered and revered. When he announced his retirement this week, Bench had the fitting distinction of knowing that he will not only go to Cooperstown, but that the generous majority of fans will place him immediately on the game's all-time nine.
Once we get past Babe Ruth, it's hard to say who should be on history's ball club. Honus Wagner may own shortstop, but even figures as mythic as Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and Willie Mays must endure great debate before being given a spot. That's why it was so appropriate to hear Bench say, in his farewell, "I want to be remembered as the greatest catcher who ever played. I wanted that at 19 years old."
That sense of responsibility, both to his talent and to his place in the game's history, showed in Bench's every moment on a ball field. He carried himself like a man who knew that most of his true peers were in the graveyard. Even in the midst of the great and garrulous Cincinnati Reds teams, those Big Red Machines, Bench surrounded himself with distance. While Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez did the joking, the stoic Bench rarely sacrificed his deliberate dignity. He played the game's position of constant pain and it ill befitted his task to giggle in public.
Bench played the game's most important defensive position and, by something very close to acclamation, played it better than anyone ever had. Statistics say he was the best-hitting catcher of them all and the most durable, too. Since Bench also won 10 consecutive Gold Gloves, it's certainly possible that no catcher ever equaled Bench in any area, let alone all areas combined.
The best hitting catchers--like Roy Campenella, Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey, Gabby Hartnett and Mickey Cochrane--all played in decades, and in home parks, better suited to hitting than those of Bench's time and place. Yet Bench ended up with better numbers--including a record 324 homers (of 382) as a catcher.
Bench had as many 100-RBI years (six--the record for catchers) as Cochrane, Campanella, Harnett and Gary Carter combined. No other catcher ever had two 40-homer seasons; Bench had four seasons with more than 30 homers while Berra, Cochrane, Dickey, Hartnett and Carter have a combined total of two such seasons.
As a receiver, Bench was not only without weaknesses, but almost without flaw. He had his era's best arm, perhaps its best hands (an entire season without a passed ball), its best and quickest footwork behind the plate. No one equaled him at fielding bunts and, in a time when a stolen base revolution occurred, Bench, alone among catchers, seemed to relish the arrival of the thieves. With the slightest help from his pitchers, he thought he could throw 'em all out.
Bench got little help from his hurlers. His whole career seemed spent in holding together weak Cincinnati staffs through long pennant races by force of will.
Bench's intuitive gift for pitch-calling gave him an almost magical hold over the mind of the greatest left-handed pitcher of his day--Steve Carlton. So attuned was Bench to the ways of the pitching mind that he seemed to read Carlton's thoughts. Bench not only hit Carlton, but confidently crushed him.
Whether he was holding nine balls at once in his huge right hand, or hitting 45 home runs and driving in 148 runs as he did at age 22, Bench was an emblem not only of excellence but of victory. In the '70s, a decade he dominated, Bench led the Reds to six division titles and four World Series.
The '80s, however, proved unkind to Bench. "A catcher and his body are like the outlaw and his horse," Bench would say. "He's gotta ride that nag till it drops." Only Dickey equaled his mark of catching 100 games in 13 seasons; in one 10-year span, Bench played 1,487 games, 1,367 at catcher.
Once, he went to the hospital for a foot X-ray. No new break showed, but three old and healed broken bones were found that Bench had never noticed. Finally, after various surgeries that cut him from shoulder to lung to legs, Bench couldn't stand the pain of catching. By 1982, he was a third baseman--and an awful one. He knew that, too.
Before a Reds-Phillies exhibition game this spring, Bench wandered into a confab of past and present Reds, including Rose, Morgan and Perez. Bench was given a serious ribbing about his immobile defense. Quickly, Bench retreated and did not return.
It is pride, as much as pain, that is driving Bench from baseball at the relatively young age of 35. After last season's embarrassments (38 RBI in 119 games), Bench decided to play another year to prove his slump was a fluke.
Now, Bench is hitting in the .280s and seems headed for 85 RBI; he's improved at third. His $1 million a year contract (nonguaranteed) has two years to run and the Reds, who have no other drawing cards, would probably be glad to pay him just to keep the team from being utterly awful.
But even a million bucks isn't enough to make Bench continue as a comic, aging third baseman on a last-place team. Bench wants to leave while his portrait in the public mind still bears some resemblance to the distinguished figure he cut from 1968 through 1980.
For those 13 seasons, Bench was what he wanted to be--the greatest catcher who ever lived. He defined one position on the diamond as no other man in history--not even Ruth--ever did.