The pitcher, in baseball, is the young officer who pushes the buttons and gets the credit. But the catcher, not as noticeable behind the plate, is the top sergeant who puts everything together. He is the focus of what is happening—and he is particularly the focus if he is Johnny Bench. A catcher, for instance, has to chasten the base runners. Lou Brock of St. Louis, who led both leagues in stolen bases last year, says of Bench: "He keeps you alive out there." A catcher has to learn the hitters' weaknesses and exploit them by calling for the right combination of pitches. Reds Reliever Clay Carroll says, "Last year he knew all the hitters already. I tell him, 'Just give me the signs and I'll throw them,' because I know he'll mix them up real good." A catcher also must:
?Provide a good target. Culver: "He's wide. When a catcher's big like that he looks a lot closer."
?Be nimble. Carroll: "He moves around back there like a little rat."
?Divide his loyalties in the conflict that, by and large, polarizes pitchers and hitters. Reds Righthander Tony Cloninger: "He's a good hitter, but he doesn't talk about that all the time. In between innings he'll talk about your pitching."
?Read the pitcher's mind. The Reds' Jim Maloney: "Every time I'd think, 'Gee, I hope he'll call a curve,' boom, he'd drop down two fingers for the curve."
?Overrule the pitcher's mind. Reds Coach Hal Smith: "Arrigo has a good fastball but likes to throw his curve. You've got to make him throw the fastball. Johnny's good at that kind of thing."
?Take charge. Carroll: "He's out there hollering let's go, let's hustle, and he tells you where to throw to. He hollers out, too. He doesn't just say 'first.' "
?Last, but just as important, a catcher is the troll who guards the plate—if necessary, balletically. In a game against the Cubs last June, Bench took a high throw from the outfield and swept his glove across the sliding runner's spikes with the grace of a somewhat encumbered Nureyev. "I still don't believe it," says Leo Durocher. "I've never seen that play executed so precisely."
In Binger after last season 5,000 enthusiasts showed up for Johnny Bench Day. Bench, who had been valedictorian of his high school class three years before, rewarded them with more than the customary words of the modest hero returned. And he spent the rest of the off season making two or three appearances a week for the Reds' speaker's bureau. He told the civic clubs of the tri-state area ( Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana) that Binger was "two and a half miles beyond Resume Speed," and that the way to deal with Brock when he broke for second was to "throw to third and head him off."
"Johnny will come up to you for the first time and it's like you've known him forever," says Culver. The tri-state civic clubs could not get enough of him. "He'd be a real asset to any organization," says a Reds official.