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?
“If Johnny wants to come to the Phillies, I’ll be happy to find another position.”
The words could have been considered tampering. The speaker could not have cared less.
The speaker was Pete Rose, doing what Pete always did, having fun with the sportswriters. Why not? His Phillies were world champs, and there was no reason to think they couldn’t repeat, just like his Reds teams did in the mid-70s. Back then, he had one of the greatest players at his position alongside him in Johnny Bench, just like he did now in third baseman Mike Schmidt.
The Phillies didn’t really have room for Bench, what with the solid Bob Boone behind the plate, Schmidt at third, Bake McBride in left (with young Lonnie Smith ready to take over), and the newly arrived Gary “Sarge” Matthews in right field. Sarge had averaged over 20 home runs and 70 RBIs across the four years before for the dreadful Atlanta Braves as one of the few bright spots for that woeful franchise.
Pete was about to turn 40, but he felt strong. His knees were still good, and as long as he had those, he felt like he could not only play, but play at the high level to which he’d grown accustomed.
He didn’t really think much of his comment — but when it made it to the papers in Tampa, Reds GM Dick Wagner thought about it. A lot.
Wagner had taken a lot of flak in Cincinnati for trading Tony Perez, even though former GM Bob Howsam engineered that deal, as well as for letting Joe Morgan and Rose leave via free agency. Wagner had become the villain who destroyed the Big Red Machine in the minds of Cincinnati fans. The fans didn’t understand how baseball economics were changing and how the players were ruining the sport with this free agency nonsense. If they kept this up, no one would be able to afford to buy or run a ballclub, and then where would they all be?
Wagner was used to being unpopular. Before he became the GM, he was the contract negotiator for Howsam, and he certainly wasn’t very popular with the players doing that. He didn’t care, as he had a responsibility to the club and not to validate any one man’s feelings.
So what was his responsibility now, in the spring of 1981, with a productive hitter who could no longer catch and didn’t have another position on the field?
Dan Driessen was now well-established at first base, which would be the most logical position for an ex-catcher. Driessen was also the reason Perez was traded, following a disastrous attempt to make Driessen a third baseman in 1974. He was a solid hitter and evolved into a major-league first baseman, so he probably wasn’t moving. Ray Knight was coming off his best year yet at third base, and the outfield corners were manned by two of the remaining Big Red Machine members, the powerful George Foster and the sweet-swinging Ken Griffey.
So what should he do?
He pondered that question over breakfast, then went out onto his hotel room balcony with a cigar, turning that thought over again and again.
He knew what he had to do before he went down to Al Lopez Field that morning. They wouldn’t thank him for it — hell, they might fire him for it before his plans paid off. But that didn’t mean he was wrong, and to hell with anyone who couldn’t look at the big picture.
Because the big picture was that Wagner had to trade the greatest catcher he’d ever seen — and he was going to lay the blueprints for the return of a Big Red Machine in the 1980s when he did it.
“John, sit down.”
Johnny had sat across from this man, Dick Wagner, many times before, and he knew it couldn’t be good. What’s more, manager John McNamara wasn’t present, which was also a bad sign. Mac was a baseball lifer, a guy that players liked and respected. If he wasn’t there, this couldn’t be about finding a new position for Johnny, so what was this meeting all about?
“John, we respect you not wanting to catch anymore,” Wagner started.
“It’s not that I don’t want to, I don’t know that I can,” Bench quickly said. “I’ve got to think about my health…”
“We get all that,” Wagner cut through his star player’s interruption. No matter how big Johnny Bench thought he was, no mere player was bigger than the ballclub in Wagner’s mind. “And like I said, we respect it.”
“But we don’t have anywhere else to play you.”
Wagner went silent after that. He was putting the ball back in Bench’s court. If he could saddle up one more time, like the cowboys the slugger so admired, if he could reach deep into himself and strap on the catcher’s gear for one more year, this team had a legitimate shot at a pennant. But Johnny had to see that for himself. Like the Reds’ other megastar from the big Red Machine, Pete Rose, you couldn’t simply tell Johnny Bench something. He had to think it was his idea, or he would get stubborn about it.
Bench, for his part, was stunned. After all he’d given the Reds, all the awards, all the aches and pains, playing when others wouldn’t, sacrificing his body for this team, this organization, he was being told he couldn’t settle in at a new position?
Why couldn’t he play first base? Sure, Driessen was a decent guy, a good teammate, and at times he was a productive hitter, but he wasn’t Johnny Bench. Or what about Knight at third? His power numbers went up a little last year, but he wasn’t putting up Johnny Bench numbers. Bench knew he could outhit Ray still, and if he didn’t get to as many balls down the line as Ray did, so what? He’d make up for it when it mattered at the plate.
So he stewed, and then he said the words he thought he never would.
“Then trade me.”
That was it, the out Wagner had wanted. This wasn’t on him. Sure, he told the press he wanted Bench to retire as a Red, but now he had his out. It wasn’t Wagner being the bad guy, it was Bench being demanding, being unreasonable to the club, being a bad teammate, wanting to take another guy’s job. It was like Knight or Griffey or Driessen were insisting on catching and taking Bench’s job, wasn’t it? And Foster was hitting more home runs lately, anyway.
Nope. This was how it had to be now, but Wagner knew the Reds owed Bench more than shipping him to San Diego or Seattle or some other baseball Siberia. He knew the club still had to maintain an image, and they had to get back something special for Johnny Bench.
“Okay, John, if that’s what you want,” Wagner said. “But I promise you this — you’ll go to a contender if I can help it. You won’t be put out to pasture like some old nag. You’ll go where you can contribute, and maybe win — maybe an AL pennant?”
That stung. Bench, like most National Leaguers, considered the American League an inferior form of baseball, where pitchers didn’t bat and threw more offspeed stuff. No way was he going to accept a trade to an American League team. He wanted to play baseball still, not go be a DH like his old teammates, Hal McRae or Lee May. He could play first – he could play first for anybody, even the world champs!
“You know what, Dick?” Bench said as he stood. “I want to go to Philly. I want to play for a winner, right now. I’ll take first over from Rose — he’s 40, for God’s sake! I’m younger and still in my hitting prime.”
“Send me to Philadelphia, Dick. That’s all I ask,” Bench finished.
After he left, Wagner grinned. He’d gotten what he wanted — that was going to count as verbal permission for the trade.
All he had to do know was decide which prospects he wanted, and he’d be on his way to rebuilding the Big Red Machine — his Big Red Machine, not Sparky Anderson’s or Bob Howsam’s, the former manager and general manager of the Reds.
Wagner allowed himself a smile, because he had a pretty good idea of how he was going to do it, too.
To be continued…