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Yaz wanted nothing. He would accept no gifts, make no speeches. "They've thanked me enough over 23 years." he said. "The clubs always gave me the field on afternoons when I needed to hit. They didn't have to do anything else. It's just not me, as far as gifts are concerned. And I didn't want to disrupt the club in any way. I didn't want a Day in each town. They always have those things half an hour before game time, and that's when I start loosening up, doing my exercises, getting mentally involved in the game. At five o'clock. I start psyching myself up. My time's very important to me."
As Yaz withdrew, Bench went on a kind of national tour, doffing his helmet and waving, bowing and blowing kisses and saying thank you while the crowds stood in salute and the gifts descended on him—cowboy boots, a golf cart, a Ford Bronco, a gold-plated putter, a shotgun, a bronze statue of a horse and cowboy, a clock, plaques, a ruby-encrusted silver plate, a rocking chair and what all. There have been Johnny Bench Days and Nights in eight cities.
"The people have been so fantastic," he says. "In my career I played every game with my head on the field, not in the stands. I played hard. You didn't really have a lot of fun. Catching, I was so mentally involved in the game, I closed everything out, but I never took it home; I knew how to turn it on and off. Now it's nice to have the freedom of being able to look around and smell the flowers. The fans recognize all the work I've put in. It makes it all worthwhile."
Yastrzemski does not know exactly when he decided finally to retire—in fact, there were occasional reports that he was reconsidering the decision, though he scotched them. Bench, however, not only recalls the day of his decision precisely, but since then he has also been like a prisoner counting the days until parole. He made up his mind to quit late on Tuesday morning, May 17. The Reds were in Pittsburgh. Bench was lying on his bed in his Hilton Hotel room, wailing to go to the Fulton Theatre with Pitcher Tom Hume to see Blue Thunder.
The Reds had just dropped four straight to San Francisco, and Bench felt frustrated and drained. "The enthusiasm just wasn't there," he says. "I wasn't enjoying the prospect of going to the ball park. I was hitting .320 or something and playing third base, but I wasn't doing things the way I wanted. This club is still a couple of years away from being a contender, and I couldn't see two more years. I guess I was spoiled by the winning in the '70s. You've got to be a realist. You've got to know there will be a time when you can't do it. We had the draft coming up, the trading deadline was coming up, and I wanted the club to know what I was going to do so the guys in the front office could make decisions on young people."
Hume was the first to know. Bench told him after the movie, as they walked to Three Rivers Stadium for that night's game. "I've decided this is my last year," Bench told him. Hume did not believe it. "You're kidding," he said.
No, he wasn't. So Bench quit, turning his back on the final two years of a three-year contract worth $3 million. "I could push it and take the money," he said at the time, "but I wouldn't feel right about it." So, for him at least, the fun began, with Bench sitting there on the wood, watching and even playing now and then, as a first baseman, third baseman, pinch hitter and, one more time, as a catcher. On Sept. 17, Johnny Bench Night at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, he strapped on the gear for the last time. If his fire had died, his gift for the dramatic had not.
The Astros were in town. Signs hung everywhere: CATCH YOU IN COOPERSTOWN, J.B. read one of them. A stand was rigged up behind second base. There were speeches, songs, a parade of guests and more standing Os. Bench loved it.
The party lasted so long that he never had a chance to warm up. He looked nervous and unsteady, especially in the second inning, after Houston's Jose Cruz singled and then stole second. Bench didn't even make a throw on Cruz. He'd been unable to get the ball out of his glove. The silence was awkward—which made his appearance at the plate in the third inning all the more electric.
The Reds were down 2-0 with Paul Householder on first. Bench was the tying run. Pitcher Mike Madden, ahead 1 and 0 in the count, offered a fastball down the pipe. Bench ripped it, sending it on a low line over the fence in left for a home run. The ball just missed hitting a sign that said GOD LOVE HIM. Bench raised his right hand in the air as he circled the bases. Coming home, he leaped in the air to give Householder a high-five. The whole house rocked. "The greatest night in my life," Bench said.