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.
With the pressure on him, Bender came back with three possibilities for Bench: starting second baseman Manny Trillo, as it stood to reason a still-productive Pete Rose would move over to accommodate Bench; a catching prospect named Ozzie Virgil, and a solid middle infield prospect named Ryne Sandberg.
Sandberg was playing shortstop in the Phillies system, but he wasn’t dazzling anyone in the field. Much as the Phils had a former Gold Glover at shortstop in Larry Bowa, the Reds did too in Dave Concepcion. But to Bender, that didn’t matter. As much as he liked Ronnie Oester at second base, or Ray Knight at third, he was certain that Sandberg had a better bat than either one and would transition into an adequate fielder at either position.
As for Trillo, he had played sparingly for two World Series winners in Oakland before moving on and establishing himself as a Gold Glover and key contributor for the Phillies. That was the upside. The downside was that he was already 30, and for the Reds, taking on a veteran like that was a short-term option. Wagner wanted to win now as well as later.
After an 89-win season in 1980, one in which Joe Nolan had pretty well taken over the catching duties from Bench after coming over from Atlanta, Wagner felt good about his current core.
“Let’s do the prospects, two-for-one,” he told Bender. “And for both our sakes, one of these kids better turn out.”
Then he called Bench in again.
Johnny knew. He felt like hell about it, and he knew Wagner would make him the scapegoat in Cincinnati. He knew he would catch hell for this in Philadelphia – those fans were merciless. But he also knew he was right – he wanted to play, he wanted to win, and he wanted to be able to walk without a knee replacement when he was 45. If he continued catching, he had serious doubts about his ability to do the latter.
So, he settled it in his mind: He was going to Philadelphia.
On the other side, Paul Owens couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He’d been aggressive in building the Phillies into a contender during the 1970s, and the fruits of his labor were sitting in a trophy case down the hall. As a GM, he was just right for Philadelphia – he wanted to win and he was not afraid to do anything that it took to make that happen.
With Bench, he’d have one position player too many, really – Gary Matthews had just signed and was going to play in the outfield somewhere, and Trillo was a Gold Glover at second.
With Pete Rose being a vital part of the team, and a big reason the Phillies had won the World Series, that left the odd man out as right fielder Bake McBride. McBride was also an integral member of the World Champs and a favorite of manager Dallas Green, who loved his consistency. But something had to give, and besides, McBride was playing with a bad knee. Moving him to a part-time role might keep him fresh.
“Done,” Owens told Wagner over the phone. He couldn’t believe his luck – he’d added another power bat to the defending champs without having to give up any Major League talent.
“Dallas, they might as well send us the next trophy,” he told his manager.
Green, a straight shooter who knew baseball wasn’t that easy, simply replied, “We’ll see.”
Johnny Bench arrived in Clearwater, Florida, at Jack Russell Stadium early in the morning. His plan was to unload his bags, get dressed, and hole up in the trainers’ room before any of the media showed up for the morning. The Phillies were just across Tampa Bay from where the Reds held spring training, so Bench didn’t have a terrible commute.
His hopes at going unnoticed were dashed as soon as he got in the clubhouse, however.
“John, thanks for coming in early,” said Dallas Green, his new manager. Green, hair jutting out from under his maroon Phillies cap, looked just a tad like a cowboy from the movies, weathered and clean-shaven, serious and tough. “Let the clubbies take your bag, I want to talk to you, get to know you a bit.”
This was not quite how Johnny wanted to start. He felt like a naughty schoolboy caught sneaking around who was now getting called into the principal’s office. How he missed the days of Sparky Anderson, who understood how to treat star players. Anderson, who led the Reds through most of the 1970s, was famous for telling his team in spring training there were four stars while the rest were turds.
Johnny, for the first time in his life, felt like one of the turds.
They settled into the cramped manager’s office, and Green smiled.
“John, I want you to know one thing right off: I’m not someone who beats around the bush,” he said. “I feel like you’re the same way.”
“Well, I try to be honest,” Bench replied.
“Good,” said Green, leaning forward on his desk. “So, what exactly are you bringing to my team?”
This was the most important thing to Green. He knew the group he had could have repeated. He also knew with Greg “The Bull” Luzinski moving on in the offseason that there was a bit of a gap. The Bull had a down year leading up to the postseason, with only 19 home runs, but he was clutch in the playoffs and World Series. He was also a popular player in Philadelphia whose fans related to his everyman image.
With Bench, there was nothing everyman about him. He was a star, and he brashly portrayed himself that way since first arriving in the big leagues in the summer of 1967.
“Dallas, this is what I’m bringing — a bunch of broken bones, aches, and pains, and a body that needs to be shot up and rubbed down to be productive,” Bench said. “But I’m also bringing you Johnny Bench, and no matter how much my knees or shoulder or back hurt, my bat feels as good as it ever did. I’m here because I want to win, and win now.”
Green sat back with a smile. That was what he wanted to hear — honesty, and a desire to win.
“Alright, John, this is what we’re gonna do,” Green started, as he laid out a plan to keep Bench in the lineup enough to be productive yet rest enough not to break down. He’d spell Boone behind the plate when ace pitcher Steve Carlton was on the mound, and maybe another day here and there. He’d play first base the rest of the time he was in the lineup, and he’d get day games after night games off, with another day each week.
This plan would allow Rose to stay in the lineup, whether at first base or his old position in right field, and get McBride in two or three games a week, so he wasn’t totally out of the picture. It wasn’t perfect, but it was as good a way to play his hand as Green knew.
Bench, for his part, readily agreed. It was pretty well what he’d asked from the Reds, a plan they had apparently not been willing to offer him. His resentment for his former team settled into his gut, where it burned. He suddenly had an overwhelming desire to face them in the NLCS and eliminate them en route to his third World Series victory. It would be poetic justice.
He walked back out into the clubhouse, where a familiar voice greeted him.
“Hey John!” called Rose, his voice ringing with enthusiasm and mischief. The boyish Rose was now 40, but he would never grow up while he played baseball — it was just too much fun. He loved the dirt, the cheers, the jeers, the way the ball felt when it impacted the bat, the way the sun beat down on him while he stood in the infield dirt, but nearly as much, he loved this: the clubhouse, with it’s nothing-off-limits, no-holds-barred banter. It was the last place in the world men could just be men, at least the way Rose saw it.
“Hey John!” he called again, grinning that cocky grin teammates and opponents alike had gotten to know over his nearly two decades in baseball. “You know what they call a catcher that can’t catch?”
Bench hesitated, waiting for the inevitable Rose punchline.
“Johnny Bench!” Rose crowed.
There were some chuckles from other Phillies gathered in the clubhouse. But Bench, who had been part of such back and forth with Rose while they were both Reds, rose to the occasion.
“Well, Pete, what do you call a big league hitter who can’t hit home runs?”
Rose grinned. He knew the answer. But since arriving in Philadelphia in 1979 as, at the time, the highest paid free agent in baseball, he’d become a leader. He knew that by allowing Bench to get the better of him right off, it would go a long way toward getting the new guy accepted into the clubhouse, into the team. The sooner Johnny Bench felt accepted, the sooner he’d start hitting home runs, Rose figured.
“Pete Rose!” Bench exclaimed. There were more chuckles at that. Rose, a well-known line-drive hitter, had hit one lone home run during the 1980 season, and despite playing for 18 years, had only 155 career home runs — or roughly five years’ worth of work for Johnny Bench.
But he had a comeback at the ready, as he usually did.
“You hear that, Larry?” he said, turning on the Phillies shortstop, Larry Bowa, who was known much more for his glove than his bat. “Johnny doesn’t think you’re a big league hitter!”
Even Bowa laughed at that. In 11 season, he had only 13 home runs, making even Rose look like a slugger by comparison. But he’d been around, and while he displayed a toughness on and off the field that belied his slight build, he also understood what was going on, and accepted it.
“Remember that when I save your ass in the field, old man,” he called back to Pete.
Bench sat at the folding chair in front of his new locker. The ripping continued, with other veteran Phillies joining in, nobody giving — or getting — as good as Rose.
Bench smiled slightly to himself.
It was good to be home.