- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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Bench's mostly one-hand reach-and-grab style of catching is much in vogue now. Some coaches, Pittsburgh's Don Leppert among them, feel it is a more effective way of handling bad pitchers than the old shift-the-feet-toward-the-ball style. Fosse and Hundley even hide their throwing hands behind their backs for protection, catching one-handed almost exclusively. Freehan, however, is a two-hand traditionalist.
Outsiders have speculated for years what it is a catcher says to a pitcher in those periodic conferences on the mound. When the Reds' Jack Billingham faltered slightly in his march through the Philadelphia batting order in a 2-1 win last week, Bench sauntered out for a summit meeting. Afterward Billingham was asked what Bench said.
"He told me," said Jack, "to bust my butt."
For all his size—he tops 200 pounds—and authority, there is a gentle aspect to Bench. In Billingham's victory Bench accounted for both runs with a sacrifice fly and his 17th home run. The homer, he said later, was for his grandmother, Pearl, who was seeing him play for the first time that week. Above his locker is a collection of kewpie dolls inscribed with such reassuring messages as "Cross my heart, I love you" and "I'll drink to that." These say something of the softer side of the first catcher ever to lead either major league in home runs. Bench hit 45 homers in 1970, and his current pace seems to be carrying him into that range again. He got No. 18 Saturday.
Catchers don't often lead leagues in any batting category. Only two in this century—Ernie Lombardi in 1938 and 1942 and Bubbles Hargrave in 1926—have ever won a batting championship. No American League catcher has ever won either the home run or batting title. But this year Bench and Sanguillen, who has been leading the National League in hitting, could combine for an unprecedented catchers' triple crown.
Bench, like most catchers, feels he could hit for a much higher average if he were not required to catch. The Cardinals' Joe Torre is an obvious case in point. As a catcher he was a .300 hitter; as a third baseman last year he led the league (.363). "I know I could concentrate more on my hitting if I was playing in the outfield," Bench says. "A catcher is always in the game. He has to worry about the next hitter coming up and what to pitch to him. And there is always the question of the wear and tear physically."
Yes, infielders and outfielders have so much more leisure. In a recent game he played at first base while his thumb was healing, Freehan was able to beat out an infield roller and stretch a single into a double. His legs were looser, he explained, thus he could run faster. Squatting is not a natural position; it tends to tighten the leg muscles.
Many catchers are routinely given brief respites from their labors behind the plate, although Fosse, for one, complains of boredom when he is obliged to play elsewhere. Roger Bresnahan, Christy Mathewson's receiver on the old, old New York Giants and first of the super catchers, played every position on the field at one time or another, even pitching in nine games. Bench has played first base, third base and the outfield, but he would rather catch, sharing Mickey Cochrane's view that "the greatest thrills in baseball are behind the plate." Then, too, Anderson is loath to move "the best catcher in baseball" to a less responsible position.
As convinced as the Reds are of Bench's superiority, they are no more positive about it than the Pirates are of Sanguillen's status. In Pittsburgh they speak of their Panamanian catcher's "intangibles," one of which is his unabashed enthusiasm for the game.