Bill Plummer of the Cincinnati Reds is diligent and conscientious about his work. He gets to the park early, takes batting and infield practice, runs in the outfield, sings The Star-Spangled Banner, then sits down and spends the rest of the game trying to steal signs. Bill Plummer is the replacement for Johnny Bench, on the bench.
Of course, Plummer has the satisfaction of being in the major leagues, but only as the equivalent of the piano tuner at Carnegie Hall. He can count on the fingers of one hand the games he has started when Bench was not hurt or not being rested. All told, Pete Rose had 695 at bats last year. Plummer has batted only 682 times in seven major league seasons. The pattern was set from the start. In 1968, when he broke in with the Cubs, he went to the plate twice, once in April and once in May. He was playing in the minors in 1969.
No records are kept for games not started, career, but surely Plummer would be among the leaders. The problem is that unlike many utility players, he is bound to only one position—he is too ungainly for the outfield and almost as uncomfortable at the snug harbor of first base. So Bill Plummer sits and waits, resigned to his role. He knows this is all there is. "I'm almost a player without a function," he sighs.
His highlights are few. He batted .248, .260 and .266 during three seasons at Indianapolis to earn his way back to the majors, and in 1974 he slammed two home runs in one game off Steve Carlton, Philadelphia's Cy Young winner. Last year, in a memorable game against St. Louis, Plummer drove in seven runs and would have had another except that George Foster was picked off base shortly before Plummer socked a three-run homer off the late Danny Frisella. The next day, Plummer notes wryly, Frisella was traded out of the league.
But it is a tribute to Plummer that his teammates don't consider him merely an asterisk. They realize that talent is perishable; sitting on the shelf too long, it gets stale. "I've always wondered how Bill would do if he played two months straight," says Rose. "He's a physical fitness nut, and if hard work means anything, he would do all right." Plummer is a lifetime .194 hitter, but in 1972 Bench broke the little finger on his left hand and Plummer stepped in and hit .233 during the three weeks Bench did not catch.
A caste system of sorts exists in baseball: utility players do not consort with the exalted ones. Once a scrub from another club went up to Mickey Mantle and introduced himself. Mantle rudely sneered, "So what?" and turned away. But around the National League Plummer is regarded with an unusual degree of respect. "I'd punch a guy's lights out if he did that to me," he says. And Plummer could do the job. He is 6'1" and weighs 210 pounds, most of it sculpted from rock. When former teammate Clay Carroll got into a little disagreement in a San Diego bar, Plummer rescued him with a right cross that floored one rambunctious soul as well as two or three others packed tight behind him. "He likes to put knots on your head," says Reds' Manager Sparky Anderson, who also was one of Plummer's managers in the minors. "He's a man. He doesn't like what he does. Nobody would like being a caddie. But he handles it."
Charlie Silvera and Ralph Houk made a good living out of not catching behind Yogi Berra on the great Yankee teams, collecting 13 World Series shares between them. Plummer figures that he has received almost $70,000 in championship series money since joining the Reds in 1971, although he has never appeared in a playoff or a World Series game. Last year he picked up $26,500, which exceeded his modest salary by $500 and encouraged him to trade in a 1971 station wagon that had more than 100,000 miles on it.
Circumstances can alter perceptions. At 29 Bench is regarded by the public as young, while at only 30 Plummer seems much older. He is a private person. He hoards his time and spends it with his wife Robin and two daughters, Gina and Tricia. He doesn't drink, works out, jogs and plays tennis, and during the winter he labors on his father-in-law's northern California cattle ranch.
While he feels he is in better shape than he was five years ago, the years are running out on Plummer and he may never know how good he might have been. Last year he hit .248, his best mark in the majors, but this season he is struggling along at .153, his reflexes mushy from inactivity. "You're almost embarrassed when you go out there because you feel like your talent has rotted," he says. "It's like you haven't played tennis for two months and you try to play and stumble all around. This game's the same way, except you've got 50,000 people watching you and a guy gets you out although you feel like you're better than he is."
In 1968, when Plummer was with the Cubs, he thought to himself that he would like to be traded anyplace but Cincinnati. He had seen Johnny Bench for the first time and recognized his imminent greatness. Now he gets to regard his greatness every day.