In the winter between the 1980 and 1981 baseball seasons, one of the best catchers of all time informed his club, the Cincinnati Reds, that he would no longer catch more than two days each week.
What follows is a speculative rewrite of history. What did happen is that the 1981 Reds played Johnny Bench at first base 38 times, where his fielding percentage was .983 — not bad, but not quite the .995 clip of regular first baseman Dan Driessen. Bench contributed eight home runs, one more than Driessen, and batted over .300, the only time in his career he achieved that mark.
But what if Reds general manager Dick Wagner, the man who dismantled the Big Red Machine, took exception to the demand, and dealt with Bench like he did Tony Perez, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Sparky Anderson?
Part I can be read here.
Who would he be if he didn’t catch?
That thought didn’t really surface for Johnny Bench when he told the Reds he wanted to limit his time behind the plate. But once he demanded a trade -– to the World Champion Philadelphia Phillies, no less -– it started to swirl to the surface.
Fortunately, Reds GM Dick Wagner had kept quiet about the discussion the two had about Bench’s future. Bench himself stayed mum, so much so that the media who covered the Reds began to notice. While he could be moody, especially as nagging injuries continued to wear down his body prematurely, Bench was no shrinking violet.
But in the spring of 1981, he was becoming one.
In the meantime, Wagner had longtime Reds farm director Sheldon “Chief” Bender start quietly looking at Philadelphia’s younger talent. Bender, who had spent decades managing in the minor leagues before overseeing the feeder systems for both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Reds, had a way of spotting talent as well as finding scouts who could do the same. Bender had as much to do with the Reds’ success on the field in the 70s as anyone.
Bender got his scouts out, but not en masse. He wasn’t clued in to what was going on, but being a baseball lifer, he knew when and how to trust his instincts. Right now, his instincts told him the club had an aging star in need of a new position without a position to give him, and that meant a trade. He was determined to find a player worthy of Bench as a return.
In the meantime, Grapefruit League contests were played, and a players’ strike loomed over the game. In a way, it wouldn’t matter who played where, since it didn’t look like the 1981 season would be completed anyway. That was a thought had by each man involved, but only privately. No one wanted to voice that fear.
Wagner decided a week after his conversation with Bench, just prior to breaking camp to go north and start the season, that if a move was going to be made, it needed to be before Opening Day. He wanted a complete team from the start, since no one was sure how long the season would go on.
In that, his logic was sound, as it would turn out the 1981 season would indeed be interrupted by a players’ strike starting on June 12. Read the rest of this entry »