Just in deep knee bends alone, the position is hell. You try catching 200 pitches a game from a frog's squat for 1,776 games. That comes to 355,200 pitches, not counting exhibition games or practice. Try 13 years of equipment changes, foul tips, bunts, dribblers, wild pitches, crossed signals, rookie pitchers, fallible umpires, Lou Brock, Omar Moreno, home-plate collisions, trips to the mound, trips to the screen, trips down the first-base line, ethyl chloride, Butazolidin, cortisone. And yet some people, including a number of teammates, still don't understand Why Johnny Can't Catch—at least not as often or as well as he once did.
Johnny Bench has hit more home runs (323) than any catcher in history. Only he and Bill Dickey have been able to catch 100 games or more for 13 consecutive seasons, and Bench is just 187 regular-season games shy of the alltime record held by Al Lopez, who needed 19 years to catch 1,918 games. With Bench behind the plate the Cincinnati Reds won six division titles and played in four World Series. He has won two MVP awards and been named to 12 All-Star teams. Surely a plaque awaits him in the Hall of Fame.
The price he has paid includes six broken bones in one foot, four in the other, a network of scars on his left shoulder from surgery on the acromioclavicular joint, a broken right thumb, a fractured left pinkie, lower-back spasms, circulation problems in his hands and grotesque toenails from balancing on his haunches for 2,000 hours. "I'd have been scratched if I was a racehorse, with all the Bute I've taken," says Bench.
The curse of this man in the iron mask is that he made catching look so easy for so many years that folks just assumed he could go on indefinitely. Even Al Lopez (six broken fingers on his right hand), after whom the Reds' spring stadium in Tampa is named, says, "Johnny had such great rhythm as a catcher that I thought he'd last longer than this." So last August, when Bench told the Reds and the press that he wanted to catch only two days a week in 1981, people facetiously asked if Tuesdays and Saturdays would be all right.
Bench wasn't joking. In September he met with Reds President Dick Wagner, who said the club would honor his request. In October Cincinnati picked up another catcher, great-glove, no-bat Mike O'Berry from the Cubs, as more a backup type than a regular. In January Bench said he was going to bring four different gloves to camp and try to win a job. In February Wagner was quoted—out of context, he says—in a speech to the Dayton Agonis Club, an organization of ex-jocks, as saying that Bench's request was a contract ploy (his paycheck, reportedly, is $450,000 a year, while George Foster and Ken Griffey earn nearly double that figure). Bench got angry. Which matched the mood of his teammates, who were saying things like catching certainly hadn't hurt Johnny's golf game. Manager John McNamara was baffled. The only positions Bench could shoot for besides catcher were first base, third base and righfield, but at each the Reds already had capable players.
"I quit catching day games after night games last year," says Bench. "I did it one time in August and felt it for four or five days. Sometimes I just wanted to stay in bed all day. Catching is mentally and physically exhausting. One day of catching is like five days at third base."
This is no crybaby. Trainer Larry Starr, who has been with the Reds for 10 years, says Bench has a very high pain threshold. "He hurts more than he ever lets on," says Starr. In 1972 Bench waited until the season ended to determine whether a lesion discovered on his right lung was cancerous. It wasn't, and it was removed surgically. He is very serious about cutting back on his catching and just as serious about playing every day. "They tell me I've put them on a spot," he says. "Sure I have. But I kept them off the spot for 13 years."
Needless to say, Bench's desire to have a crack at their positions hasn't sat well with First Baseman Dan Driessen, Third Baseman Ray Knight and Rightfielder Dave Collins. "The only way he can put himself at first base is if he's the manager," says Driessen, "and he ain't the manager yet. Suppose George Foster suddenly told the team he wanted to pitch or play shortstop."
"One hundred thousand guys want my position, and Johnny's one of them," says Knight, an All-Star. "If he's better than me, he can play third base. But nobody gave me this job. I won it. He's going to have to win it from me."
"I sat on the bench three years ago, somebody got hurt, and I've hit .300 the last two years," says Collins, who also stole 79 bases last year. "I don't plan on giving my job to anyone." Griffey, who moves from right to center this year, has expressed his reluctance to play between Foster and Bench, neither of whom is Edd Roush. "I don't blame them," says Bench. "That's what I'd say if some catcher came in and told me he was going to play my position."
What's a manager to do? McNamara, himself a former minor league catcher ("I was lucky with injuries—all I had was a sick bat"), says, "The agreement was made, and we'll have to live with it. We'll just have to use common sense and play it by ear. It's a delicate situation, but I think it's a solvable one."
Bench has expressed a desire to get 400 at bats this year. After all, he doesn't want to become Johnny bench, small b. But catching twice a week would only give him 54 games behind the plate, about 200 at bats. Unless an injury occurs—and the Reds could be forgiven for wanting one, to solve the problem—Bench could be worked into maybe another 27 games without ruffling anybody's feathers. That would still leave him far short of 400 ABs. Wagner says, "We agreed to honor his request to catch twice a week. We didn't guarantee him a job anywhere else."
Obviously, the Reds are hoping he'll capitulate. Although his throwing skills have diminished, the Reds are a better team with Bench behind the plate. He can still control a game better than any catcher; he knows the hitters and calls pitches astutely. Equally important, if less apparent, is that Bench has a great talent for handling young pitchers. It won't do the Reds' relatively young staff much good to have to work with a different catcher every time out. But Bench is a prideful man. Too prideful, says his friend, the former Tiger catcher, Bill Freehan (16 stiches in left hand, 12 in right hand, 12 on top of head, dislocated thumb, spinal fusion, 30 cortisone shots). "Pride has a lot to do with his desire to get out," Freehan says. "Look, there's always some beered-up guy in the stands who's yelling that you can't throw anymore. There comes a point when you realize he may be right. But even after I couldn't throw, I knew I could run a game better than any other catcher. I still felt I could sit behind the plate. Johnny should forget about the bum in the stands. He's still a great catcher."
Indeed, last Saturday, in Bench's first game this spring as a catcher, a ball sailed away from him, and he had to chase it to the screen. According to Bench, "Some guy yelled, 'You can't even catch once a week, much less twice.' "
There is always the possibility of a drastic solution—trading Bench—and though Wagner denies any thought of that, he has let Tony Perez, Pete Rose and Joe Morgan slip away. Rose says, "If Johnny wants to come to the Phillies, I'll be happy to find another position." Bench conducted a small survey of American League designated hitters in the off-season to find out how they like their jobs. His findings were not of the nature to send him knocking on doors around the AL. Ironically, the National League came within only three votes of approving the DH last year. The staunchest opponent of the DH in the NL is Dick Wagner.
During his career Bench has been an immovable object for at least a dozen aspiring Cincinnati catchers: Bob Barton, Dan Breeden, Jim Coker, Pat Corrales, Vic Correll, Johnny Edwards, Hal King, Don Pavletich, Bill Plummer, Sonny Ruberto, Jimmie Schaffer and Don Werner. And the catching corps behind Bench is as strong now as it's ever been. The nominal starter this year is the bookish-looking Joe Nolan (two knee injuries), a good journeyman catcher and left-handed hitter who had the highest batting average (.312) on the club last season, in only 154 at bats. By his own admission, though, Nolan has no power and only an average arm. Last week in an exhibition game against Kansas City, the Royals stole five bases on him in the first inning.
Behind Nolan is O'Berry (injury-free—he's only 26), a major league receiver with a minor league batting average of .206. However, O'Berry worked during the winter with hitting master Harry (The Hat) Walker. The Hat, who was wearing a straw number while watching O'Berry play the other day, says, "If I had him with the '66 Pirates, we would have won the pennant that year. If he played regularly, he could hit .270." Already this spring, O'Berry has thrown out the Pirates' swift Moreno.
The Reds also have two promising catchers in the farm system, Dave Van Gorder and Steve Christmas, whose honest-to-goodness nickname is "Tree." Van Gorder was being groomed as Bench's eventual successor, but he tore up his left knee in a home-plate collision last June and had to have surgery, thus setting back the timetable.
Unfortunately for the Reds, the combined skills of these catchers-in-waiting couldn't equal Bench's in his prime. "He elevated the whole profession," says the Reds' non-roster catcher, Greg Mahlberg (broken forearm, broken fingers, left-knee problem). "He was the guy who made it known that catchers just don't strap on the gear." Says Rose, "He was the greatest I ever saw, the greatest there ever will be." Bench knows it, too. "Some guy once came up to me with his alltime all-star team," he says. "He told me I was third on the list of catchers. Third? I almost lost my dinner right there.
"I know that I'm Johnny Bench because of catching, and because of the Reds, and I'm grateful for all of that. But I want to be able to help this club three or four years down the line, and I can't do that if I'm catching every day, and I can't do it if I'm sitting on the bench. I've been in four World Series, and I've played with the greatest—Morgan, Perez, Rose, Foster. I've taken great satisfaction in bringing along young pitchers like Tommy Hume.
"Only half my life is over, and I want the second half to be just as fulfilling as the first half. I want to play golf and tennis, hunt and fish. But I see guys like Randy Hundley and Tom Haller hobbling around because they caught too much. I don't want to be like that."
Bench is really the Reds' last hero. Although attendance in Cincinnati was a healthy 2,002,450 last year, it has been slipping gradually from a record 2,629,708 in 1976. First Perez went (1976), then Rose ('78), then Morgan ('80), and the Reds haven't been in the Series since 1976—they can't afford to lose Bench, in the stands or on the field. As Collins says, "We need J.B., his leadership, his experience, his hitting." Yes, he can still hit: 24 homers and 68 RBIs in only 360 at bats last year.
Bench's decision, though, has divided not only the team but the fans as well. The Dayton area supplies much of the crowd at Riverfront Stadium, and Dayton's The Journal Herald asked its readers two weeks ago: yes or no, should the Reds honor Johnny Bench's request to catch only twice a week? The results were split down the middle. In fact, there were 297 affirmatives and 297 negatives with only three votes left to be counted. They all turned out to be yes.
Typical of the nay-sayers was the anonymous fan who tacked this note onto his ballot: "He signed a contract to catch for the Reds. Now he can catch until his contract runs out. Then he can take his two-day crap to Yankee George."
Then there was the opinion of a Bench warmer: "I hope John gets to spend the rest of his life doing whatever he wants to do. He has already given so much of his super talent to the game. If the Reds lose J.B., there will be little if any reason to spend time and money at Riverfront Stadium."