Welcome to the Machine (cont.)
That was the Johnny Bench everyone in Binger knew, the cocky kid who signed autographs at the gas station and believed without a doubt that he would play major league baseball, and then he would be a major league star, and then he would marry the prettiest girl in the world. It had to happen that way. Cincinnati drafted Johnny in the second round in 1965 and offered him a measly six grand and some school tuition, a pretty insulting offer. But Reds scout Tony Robello knew just how to make the deal happen. He said, "John, if you make it, you will have more money than you could ever want." Johnny signed the contract. He knew that he would make it.
He played the next year for the Class A Peninsula Grays in Newport News, Va., and he was something to see. He hit long home runs -- 10 of them over the HIT A HOMER HERE, WIN A FREE SUIT sign -- and he showed off his gun of an arm, and he told people, "Forget Babe Ruth. Remember Johnny Bench." At the end of the year, in one of the quirkier moments in minor league history, Peninsula retired Johnny Bench's uniform number. Johnny took it all in stride. Retire his jersey? Why not? He smiled and waved to the crowd and then took his 10 free suits and went up to Triple A Buffalo. He played less than a year there and hit 23 more home runs. Then the Reds called him up to the big leagues. On Johnny's first day, he announced to the catchers on the team that he had not come to be anyone's backup; he had come to be baseball's biggest star, and they might as well know that up front. They hated him immediately.
Hated him... but what could they say? Johnny may have been an arrogant jerk off the field, but on it he was Mozart. He didn't just play baseball better than any of them; he revolutionized baseball. Catchers through the years had caught pitches with both hands, using the right hand to secure the baseball in the glove. The Chicago Cubs' Randy Hundley, who'd made it to the big leagues a few years before Johnny, was the first major league catcher to catch one-handed. But Johnny Bench made one-handed catching an art form. He had huge hands -- he could hold seven baseballs in one of them -- and he would scoop pitches out of the dirt like a shortstop picking up a ground ball. He could get the ball from his glove to his throwing hand so fast, it seemed like a card trick. And when he had a bat in his hand, he hit long home runs to leftfield.
Baseball stardom, however, was not enough. As his fame and numbers grew, Johnny sang in nightclubs. He went to Vietnam with Bob Hope. He hosted his own television show. He became friends with stars, like the singer Bobby Goldsboro, who hit it big in 1968, during Bench's rookie year, with a song called Honey. He dated models and a Playboy centerfold. He was 27 years old, and he had everything. And then, on this April afternoon in Cincinnati, everything changed. Fifth inning, scoreless game, San Francisco's Chris Speier singled to leftfield with runner Gary Matthews on second base. Johnny stood at home plate and waited for Rose, who was playing left, to get the ball and throw it home. Pete did not have a strong arm. The ball slowly made its way to the plate, and so did Matthews, who was 6' 3", weighed about 190 pounds and was called Sarge. Johnny could see that the baseball and Sarge were going to get to the plate at almost the same time. He wanted to catch the ball, get out of the way and tag Matthews as he rushed by -- nobody pulled that bullfighter maneuver better than Bench. But he did not have time. Instead, he stood in front of the plate, and he leaned forward to catch the ball, and he tried to protect himself. Sarge crashed into Johnny and sent him flying backward.
That's when Johnny Bench felt a sharp and biting pain deep inside his left shoulder. He groaned. Then he got up -- nobody, not even the people who hated Johnny Bench, ever questioned his toughness. He stayed in the game. He waited for the pain to go away. Only it did not go away. And what Johnny Bench did not know that day in Cincinnati is that the pain would subside a little, but it would not go away. He would play the rest of the 1975 season in agony.
CINCINNATI, May 3, 1975
You were born at the wrong time, Pete," Tom Callahan told Pete Rose. Callahan understood that feeling of being from a generation not quite your own. Callahan wrote a sports column for The Cincinnati Enquirer, and he was still young, just 27. He felt older. He felt as though he should have written columns long before, when sports titans walked the Earth, when Babe Ruth hit colossal home runs for sick children, when Luis Firpo knocked Jack Dempsey through the ropes of the boxing ring, when Red Grange scored five touchdowns and passed for a sixth against Michigan. Maybe that's why Callahan felt drawn to Pete. Rose played as though he belonged to another time -- he ran to first base on walks; he brazenly slid into second base to break up double plays; he showed up every day with this feverish enthusiasm that came right out of the 1920s.
"You know who loves you, Pete?" Joe Morgan would say all the time. "Women who are in their 80s. Those are your fans. Because you play like the ballplayers they used to watch when they were young."
Of course, lots of guys played baseball like the old-time players. But Pete, he lived like an old-time player. He seemed to come from that simpler time when ballplayers ate steaks every night (Rose had his medium rare with a baked potato and iced tea) and signed autographs for kids (Bench would grow tired of signing autographs; Rose never did) and sneaked girls up into their rooms (Pete was never especially coy about it) and loved the game unconditionally. Whenever Callahan wanted to find Rose after a game, he would go to Pete's house and Pete would be sitting in his car listening to a West Coast game on the radio. Whenever Callahan wanted to find Pete on an off day, he would just go to the track: Pete always loved going to bet on the horses and the dogs. Pete loved the action, sure, but beyond that he seemed to revel in the smoke and haze and whiskey and shady characters and old gamblers. Pete didn't smoke or drink -- fast cars, fast women and fast horses were enough vice for him -- but he still liked being around the smoke and gin.
He ate up old stories. Waite Hoyt was a hard-drinking former Yankees pitcher who'd known the Babe and Ty Cobb and all the rest of those old baseball greats. He had also been a radio announcer for the Reds in the 1960s, and Pete would talk to him for hours. Pete would ask him to repeat the same stories again and again. Later, Callahan would hear Pete tell those stories, word for word, facial expression for facial expression. It was eerie. Several years later, when Rose was chasing Cobb's record for most hits, New York Times sportswriter Dave Anderson asked Rose how much he really knew about Cobb. Rose, being Rose, indelicately answered, "I know everything about Ty Cobb except the size of his c---."
Of course, The New York Times -- the Gray Lady -- could not report it quite that way. So the quote was delicately repackaged like so: "I know everything about Ty Cobb except the size of his hat." Rose was furious. He knew damn well that Cobb's hat size was 7 5/8.
On this third day of May in 1975, before the Reds' game against the Atlanta Braves, Sparky considered calling general manager Bob Howsam to tell him that he would play Rose at third base, taking him out of leftfield, where he had played for the previous three years. He decided against the call. For one thing, he was the manager of the team. He had to be allowed to run the team the way he knew how. As the old line goes, it's always easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
Second, he was desperate. Sparky tried to hide this from everyone, but his close friend Jeff Ruby could see it in Anderson's face. Sparky had convinced himself that if he did not do something, something drastic, this team would keep losing, and he would get canned. "They'll fire me in a heartbeat, bubeleh," Sparky said over breakfast. Ruby thought Sparky (who'd managed Cincinnati to three division titles and two pennants in the previous five years) was being melodramatic. "They'd never fire you, Sparky," he said. But worry creased Sparky's face. The Reds had lost as many as they had won; they trailed the Dodgers by four games. Sparky knew he had the best team going. But he also knew that the best teams sometimes faltered, and then managers got thrown out on the street.
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