Johnny Bench was having fun, and Carl Yastrzemski wasn't.
Late this summer the two men came to the last days of the last year of their magnificent careers, and the contrast in their moods was the final, ineluctable fact of the matter, just as it's cold fact that Johnny Lee Bench, 35, after nearly 16 full seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, owns two World Series championship rings and that Carl Michael Yastrzemski, 44, after nearly 23 years of playing for the Boston Red Sox, does not own any.
On the afternoon of a day off in Cleveland, Yastrzemski sat in the near-empty bar of the Hollenden House, pouring bottles of beer into glasses filled with ice cubes. At that moment, Yaz had played in 3,291 games of big league ball, only seven shy of Henry Aaron's alltime record, which Yaz would soon break; had 11,928 at bats; had scored 1,813 runs; had 3,408 hits, including 2,253 singles, 645 doubles and 451 home runs; had 1,840 RBIs; had 5,524 total bases; had earned seven Gold Gloves in left; had been named to 18 All-Star Games; played in two World Series; and was a cinch for the Hall of Fame, but....
"I never had any fun at the game," Yastrzemski said, referring to something that writer Roger Angell of The New Yorker had been quoted recently as saying. "He said he'd interviewed me, and it never appeared that I enjoyed the game. He probably hit it right on the head. I had to work so hard. It's a funny thing to say. I loved the game. I loved the competition. But I never had any fun. I never enjoyed it. All hard work all the time. I let the game dominate me. It ate me up inside. I could never leave it at the ball park. I thought, as I got older, it would be easier, but it got harder as I got older because then I had more to prove...."
October 2, 1983
"More?" his listener blurted incredulously.
"When you're young and going bad, they say, 'He's having an off year, he's just in a slump.' But as you get older, they say, 'Oh, he's all done; he's through.' I thought as I got older, maybe, maybe, it would be nice to play the game just to have some fun and say, 'Screw it, I don't need the money,' so if I had the bad year I could quit. It never came about. As I got older, everybody kept watching for me to stumble one time. I wish to hell I could have left it at the ball park!"
And, since wishes are free: "I wish I could have played for 23 years at Ted Williams' size [6'3", 205 pounds]. I was 5'11½", about 185 pounds. When I went to hitting home runs in 1967, it took a whole change. It got to a point where I had to be a perfectionist at the game, where I couldn't make a mistake because of my size. Everything had to be perfect. Absolutely perfect. I wish I'd had Williams' ability."
Two days later this man who never had fun playing the game came to the plate in the third inning against Rick Sutcliffe, an Indian righthander, with Boston leading 3-2 and Wade Boggs on second base. As in other cities he was visiting for the last time, the crowd gave him a standing O as he came to the plate, but he didn't acknowledge it. No disrespect intended, of course, only: "I appreciate the tremendous ovations. But when you step out of the box and tip your hat, that sort of breaks your concentration. Once I leave that on-deck circle, I want to go: Let's get it going!"
He got it going on a 1-0 pitch. With the clean, quick stroke that has been a Yastrzemski trademark, he drove the ball on a line to rightfield, where it landed in the seats about 380 feet away. Grimly, he trotted around the bases and, head down, made for the bench. The fans stood clapping. Without raising his head, he disappeared into the dugout.
Before the season, many of the clubs in the American League had called the Red Sox to inquire about having Yastrzemski Days, about what kind of gifts to give him, just as National League clubs were calling Cincinnati to ask about celebrations for Bench.
Yaz wanted nothing. He would accept no gifts, make no speeches. "They've thanked me enough over 23 years." he said. "The clubs always gave me the field on afternoons when I needed to hit. They didn't have to do anything else. It's just not me, as far as gifts are concerned. And I didn't want to disrupt the club in any way. I didn't want a Day in each town. They always have those things half an hour before game time, and that's when I start loosening up, doing my exercises, getting mentally involved in the game. At five o'clock. I start psyching myself up. My time's very important to me."
As Yaz withdrew, Bench went on a kind of national tour, doffing his helmet and waving, bowing and blowing kisses and saying thank you while the crowds stood in salute and the gifts descended on him—cowboy boots, a golf cart, a Ford Bronco, a gold-plated putter, a shotgun, a bronze statue of a horse and cowboy, a clock, plaques, a ruby-encrusted silver plate, a rocking chair and what all. There have been Johnny Bench Days and Nights in eight cities.
"The people have been so fantastic," he says. "In my career I played every game with my head on the field, not in the stands. I played hard. You didn't really have a lot of fun. Catching, I was so mentally involved in the game, I closed everything out, but I never took it home; I knew how to turn it on and off. Now it's nice to have the freedom of being able to look around and smell the flowers. The fans recognize all the work I've put in. It makes it all worthwhile."
Yastrzemski does not know exactly when he decided finally to retire—in fact, there were occasional reports that he was reconsidering the decision, though he scotched them. Bench, however, not only recalls the day of his decision precisely, but since then he has also been like a prisoner counting the days until parole. He made up his mind to quit late on Tuesday morning, May 17. The Reds were in Pittsburgh. Bench was lying on his bed in his Hilton Hotel room, wailing to go to the Fulton Theatre with Pitcher Tom Hume to see Blue Thunder.
The Reds had just dropped four straight to San Francisco, and Bench felt frustrated and drained. "The enthusiasm just wasn't there," he says. "I wasn't enjoying the prospect of going to the ball park. I was hitting .320 or something and playing third base, but I wasn't doing things the way I wanted. This club is still a couple of years away from being a contender, and I couldn't see two more years. I guess I was spoiled by the winning in the '70s. You've got to be a realist. You've got to know there will be a time when you can't do it. We had the draft coming up, the trading deadline was coming up, and I wanted the club to know what I was going to do so the guys in the front office could make decisions on young people."
Hume was the first to know. Bench told him after the movie, as they walked to Three Rivers Stadium for that night's game. "I've decided this is my last year," Bench told him. Hume did not believe it. "You're kidding," he said.
No, he wasn't. So Bench quit, turning his back on the final two years of a three-year contract worth $3 million. "I could push it and take the money," he said at the time, "but I wouldn't feel right about it." So, for him at least, the fun began, with Bench sitting there on the wood, watching and even playing now and then, as a first baseman, third baseman, pinch hitter and, one more time, as a catcher. On Sept. 17, Johnny Bench Night at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, he strapped on the gear for the last time. If his fire had died, his gift for the dramatic had not.
The Astros were in town. Signs hung everywhere: CATCH YOU IN COOPERSTOWN, J.B. read one of them. A stand was rigged up behind second base. There were speeches, songs, a parade of guests and more standing Os. Bench loved it.
The party lasted so long that he never had a chance to warm up. He looked nervous and unsteady, especially in the second inning, after Houston's Jose Cruz singled and then stole second. Bench didn't even make a throw on Cruz. He'd been unable to get the ball out of his glove. The silence was awkward—which made his appearance at the plate in the third inning all the more electric.
The Reds were down 2-0 with Paul Householder on first. Bench was the tying run. Pitcher Mike Madden, ahead 1 and 0 in the count, offered a fastball down the pipe. Bench ripped it, sending it on a low line over the fence in left for a home run. The ball just missed hitting a sign that said GOD LOVE HIM. Bench raised his right hand in the air as he circled the bases. Coming home, he leaped in the air to give Householder a high-five. The whole house rocked. "The greatest night in my life," Bench said.
On the date Bench was honored in Cincinnati, Yastrzemski went 0 for 4 at Fenway Park, but it was his 3,299th game—the record breaker. By then, plans were already under way for a Yaz Day at Fenway, Oct. 1. When Yastrzemski found out that Bench's celebration had lasted nearly an hour, he was horrified. "We aren't going to make a big deal out of mine, are we?" he asked. "We can do it in five or 10 minutes, can't we?"
In their times, Bench and Yaz were two of the most productive hitters in baseball, defensive players without peer, and both were men who played hurt as much as not. And each played for the same team throughout his career. All of which, in Yaz's case, has obscured the fact that he almost didn't make it. He was a minor league phenom—he hit .377 at Raleigh in 1959, .339 at Minneapolis in 1960—but there was no way any man could start in leftfield for Boston in 1961 and measure up. That was the year after Ted Williams had retired. "They were comparing me with the greatest hitter ever to play the game," Yastrzemski says. The weight of that was overwhelming. "It almost broke me," he recalls. "I struggled the first 2½ months. You start having doubts: 'Can I play in the big leagues?' I was hitting about .220. Finally, I said to myself, 'You're not Ted Williams.' I started hitting the way I could hit. I think that was probably the best thing ever to happen to me over the 23 years. It toughened me so, mentally. No pressure ever bothered me again."
Nothing could shield him, however, from the silent torture of playing for the Red Sox in the early 1960s. He batted .321 in 1963 and led the league in hitting—he was a line-drive hitter to the alleys back then—but so what? "I was always discouraged," he says. "I'm the most optimistic person in the world, but when spring training started I knew we had no chance. The games we finished behind! The clubhouse was so quiet. I sat by my locker, all alone all the time. It was terrible. You played for small crowds, the fans were unhappy, you were embarrassed to be a member of the team. Other teams were laughing at us from the bench."
The laughter stopped in 1967, the year of Yaz. That winter he had worked out like a prizefighter, hitting a speed bag and jumping rope, swinging a lead bat and raising weights attached to pulleys. "It was the first time I really worked out hard during the off-season," he says. And he became a power-hitting pull hitter by getting more of his hips into his swing. He became the game's dominant figure.
Has anyone played better than Yastrzemski did during the last five weeks of that year? He won games in the field and at the plate. By then, he was playing the Green Monster like a fiddle, quite literally by ear. The bottom 15 feet was then cement. "When you heard it hit the cement wall, you stayed back a ways because it came off there hard," he says. "Above the cement, you had squares of tin with rivets in them. If the ball hit the tin, it made a thud, and the ball dropped straight down. If it hit the rivets, it could do anything, come straight down, shoot to the side."
During the last two weeks of the season, with Boston in a four-way fight for the pennant, Yastrzemski hit .523, with five home runs and 15 RBIs. His last two games, against Minnesota in Fenway Park, he went 7 for 8. The Red Sox had to win both to win the pennant. "I never slept for both those nights," he says. "I was so uptight. After six years, we had a chance to win a pennant! I moved out of the house into a motel. I remember walking around a golf course at three, four o'clock in the morning. Riding in the car for two hours in the middle of the night. Sleeping like a baby in the training room. This is it. We have a shot to win it all."
In the World Series against St. Louis, Yastrzemski hit .400 and played spectacular defense, but all for naught. The Cardinals triumphed in seven games. Yastrzemski had won the Triple Crown—.326 average, 121 RBIs and 44 home runs—but the game ate at him.
"It's fun when you finally win it all," he says. But the Red Sox never would. He was 36 in 1975, and time for him was growing short when Boston won the pennant and beat Oakland in the playoffs. And Bill Lee took the Sox into the sixth inning of the seventh game with a 3-0 lead over the Reds. "Bob Gibson beat us in 1967, he was just too much," says Yaz, "and in 1972, it simply wasn't meant to be. But I thought we should have beat Cincinnati in '75." They didn't, losing that seventh game 4-3. It was the first and last time, outside of All-Star and exhibition games, that Bench and Yaz ever played against each other. Neither had a particularly remarkable Series, but both came to it on the way to the Hall of Fame. Bench had been sighted moving that way for years. One minor league team, Peninsula of the Carolina League, had retired his number after he had hit 22 homers in 98 games. He came to the bigs as cocky as he could be.
In 1966, before he even got to the majors, he was sitting in the stands at Cincinnati, nursing an injured thumb and watching the bullpen work. Sammy Ellis, a Cincinnati pitcher, recalls Bench yelling down, "If any of you guys are catchers, you'd better remember me. I'm going to take one of your jobs." Two seasons later he was Rookie of the Year.
In March of 1969, Bench spotted Ted Williams at spring training in Pompano Beach, Fla. and approached him with a baseball for an autograph. "Would you please autograph this for me, sir?" Bench asked with uncharacteristic deference.
Williams signed it: "To a Hall of Famer, for sure."
A dread of failure had pushed Bench early in his pro career, and what he called an "inner conceit" had sustained him. "So many people from my hometown, Binger, Oklahoma, were following me when I left," he says. "People lived through you, everybody adopted you. That was their way out of Binger. It was a heck of a weight on me. That's the trouble with being 17 one day and 22 the next. I didn't want to let them down. I wasn't going to let myself down. I had enormous confidence that I would succeed."
He exuded it. "I can throw out any runner alive," he said when he was 22. At times he was downright arrogant behind the plate. There was the day in 1969 when he was catching Jerry Arrigo against the Dodgers. "He thought he had a fastball," Bench recalls. "He was pitching against a hitter I knew he couldn't possibly throw it by. I called for a curve and he shook it off, a curve again and he shook it off, a curve one more time and he shook it off. He finally threw a fastball outside." Bench reached up and caught it bare-handed. He heard the Dodgers howling. "They were rollin' on the floor of the dugout," Bench says. On the mound, poor Arrigo squeezed his hands together over his heart. "Like it was a big grape, and I'd dried it into a raisin. I didn't want to show him up, but...."
As Yastrzemski had 1967, his MVP year, so Bench had 1970, when he hit .293 and led the league in home runs, with 45, and in RBIs, with 148. "I think that was the best team I ever played on," he says, even though it didn't win a World Championship. "The best pitcher I ever caught was Tom Seaver—smarter than all of them—but the best stuff I ever saw was Wayne Simpson's in '70. He'd lost one game before the All-Star break, and I don't know how he lost that one. The most moving fastball I've ever seen. And he had an off-speed curve that just stopped dead. Just stopped—dead! Then he got hurt and never was the same."
The Reds picked up Joe Morgan after the 1971 season, and in 1972 the Big Red Machine really got rolling. Bench was MVP again—he led the league with 40 dingers and 125 ribbies—and got them into the World Series, against Oakland, with the most timely home run of his career: fifth game of the playoffs. Reds at bat in the bottom of the ninth inning, facing Pittsburgh's Dave Giusti and trailing by a run. "As I went to the plate," recalls Bench, "I heard my mom hollering my name: 'Hit me a home run.' I thought: 'I wish it were that easy.' "
But it was. Going with the pitch, Bench hit a home run to right centerfield to tie the score and keep the Reds alive. They won the pennant, but then lost the Series to Oakland in seven. They came back to win it all in '75 and again, against the Yankees, in '76. They swept New York that year, and Bench hit .533.
There has been a certain orderliness about Bench's life, as if he had a list of things he wanted to accomplish in baseball and ticked off each goal as it was fulfilled. When he got to the end of the list, when he had become all he'd wanted to be, he began to sense it was all over. By the time he had turned from catching in 1981—he felt arthritic changes in all his major joints and feared becoming a cripple—he had hit more home runs (313, since increased to 325) than any catcher in history. "I lived for home runs," he says. "I wanted the record. Hitting them was my job."
Increasingly, he felt the job was over. "I've looked forward to retirement a long time," he says. "When I first came up here, I thought I'd play until I was 35, and I did. I wanted to be a millionaire when I was 30; I was. I knew those things were possible if I lived up to how good I felt I could be. I played as well as I thought I could. I was lucky to be able to sign with the Reds and to be able to play with Hall of Fame players. When I was a young player I couldn't afford to think about condos in Vail, a place in Fort Myers, a big house. But if you plan your life and get yourself on the right track and save your money, if you work hard in the off-season, you prepare yourself for this day, knowing it has to come.
"Now, I want to travel, maybe go fishing in Alaska or Canada, and I'd like to fish the streams in Montana, all over America. I want to catch the world's record largemouth bass. Maybe go to Africa and see the animals. I want to play a lot of golf and participate in the U.S. Amateur. I don't have to work. So if I want to see the Masters, I can; if I want to go to the Kentucky Derby, I can. I don't want any restrictions. I don't want to get back in a grind. I want to enjoy my life after baseball. I worked hard, but I got an awful lot out of it."
Compared with Bench, baseball success came much harder to Yaz. He was the grinder who took today's pitchers home with him last night. He and Walt Hriniak, Boston's batting coach, worked hours in the cage the last seven years. "I've changed stances, made adjustments," says Yaz. "How many hours Walt and I spent working on mechanics, mechanics, mechanics, mechanics. It's been worth it, oh yeah. I haven't embarrassed myself the last few years. I've helped the team. I guess that's the reward."
Yastrzemski says his career is over by his choice. "There's no doubt in my mind I could play next year," he says. "But I've had enough working out and doing what I had to do. I never really accepted the DH role. If I really wanted to go all out, dedicate myself all winter, I could come back and play in the field. I don't think I would at this stage. I think I've just had enough. We've been in the hunt the last four or five years and it keeps you going. I never understood until this year that that's what keeps you going."
He realized it in late August. "We were 14 games out and something went out of me," he says. "Can't explain it. It's like everything inside me went out—all my energy, all my desire. I still try to do the best I can, but somehow I know I'm lacking something."
What is missing is the quest for The Grail, the chance for the ring. Boston missed in 1967, '72, '75 and '78, when Goose Gossage popped up Yaz in the last of the ninth to win an American League Eastern Division playoff for the Yankees. "It's the one at bat I'd like back," he says. "It tore me up inside."
Yastrzemski lives in a big seaside house outside Boca Raton, Fla. that he happily lifted from Sam Snead for $300,000 seven years ago. He sounds a lot like Bench. "I want to see the United States outside of an airplane," Yaz says. "I'm sick of airplanes. I want to see the country. I want to see everything. Call Bobby Doerr and spend a couple of weeks with him in Oregon. Spend a couple of weeks on the Snake River and fish for salmon. Go to Minneapolis and float down the St. Croix or Mississippi rivers, float with the current, cast for bass, walleyes, northerns. Just get off a schedule after 23 years. I don't want a schedule."
He will continue to work for Kahn's & Co., which is headquartered, ironically enough, in Cincinnati, marketing meat products, not promoting them. "I'm not a——jock hanging around. I know the meat business," he says. "We're going to be Number One. We're going to beat out Oscar Mayer! We're going to do it."
That's all he ever wanted the Red Sox to be. No. 1, and now some of that fervor will be given over to Kahn's. He won't fall asleep, however, counting hot dogs.
"Would you give your place in the Hall of Fame for a World Series ring?" Yastrzemski was asked in the Cleveland bar. The waitress had brought another beer. Twilight was near. "What?" he inquired. The question was repeated. He paused. He nodded. "Probably," said Yaz.