Williams signed it: "To a Hall of Famer, for sure."
A dread of failure had pushed Bench early in his pro career, and what he called an "inner conceit" had sustained him. "So many people from my hometown, Binger, Oklahoma, were following me when I left," he says. "People lived through you, everybody adopted you. That was their way out of Binger. It was a heck of a weight on me. That's the trouble with being 17 one day and 22 the next. I didn't want to let them down. I wasn't going to let myself down. I had enormous confidence that I would succeed."
He exuded it. "I can throw out any runner alive," he said when he was 22. At times he was downright arrogant behind the plate. There was the day in 1969 when he was catching Jerry Arrigo against the Dodgers. "He thought he had a fastball," Bench recalls. "He was pitching against a hitter I knew he couldn't possibly throw it by. I called for a curve and he shook it off, a curve again and he shook it off, a curve one more time and he shook it off. He finally threw a fastball outside." Bench reached up and caught it bare-handed. He heard the Dodgers howling. "They were rollin' on the floor of the dugout," Bench says. On the mound, poor Arrigo squeezed his hands together over his heart. "Like it was a big grape, and I'd dried it into a raisin. I didn't want to show him up, but...."
As Yastrzemski had 1967, his MVP year, so Bench had 1970, when he hit .293 and led the league in home runs, with 45, and in RBIs, with 148. "I think that was the best team I ever played on," he says, even though it didn't win a World Championship. "The best pitcher I ever caught was Tom Seaver—smarter than all of them—but the best stuff I ever saw was Wayne Simpson's in '70. He'd lost one game before the All-Star break, and I don't know how he lost that one. The most moving fastball I've ever seen. And he had an off-speed curve that just stopped dead. Just stopped—dead! Then he got hurt and never was the same."
The Reds picked up Joe Morgan after the 1971 season, and in 1972 the Big Red Machine really got rolling. Bench was MVP again—he led the league with 40 dingers and 125 ribbies—and got them into the World Series, against Oakland, with the most timely home run of his career: fifth game of the playoffs. Reds at bat in the bottom of the ninth inning, facing Pittsburgh's Dave Giusti and trailing by a run. "As I went to the plate," recalls Bench, "I heard my mom hollering my name: 'Hit me a home run.' I thought: 'I wish it were that easy.' "
But it was. Going with the pitch, Bench hit a home run to right centerfield to tie the score and keep the Reds alive. They won the pennant, but then lost the Series to Oakland in seven. They came back to win it all in '75 and again, against the Yankees, in '76. They swept New York that year, and Bench hit .533.
There has been a certain orderliness about Bench's life, as if he had a list of things he wanted to accomplish in baseball and ticked off each goal as it was fulfilled. When he got to the end of the list, when he had become all he'd wanted to be, he began to sense it was all over. By the time he had turned from catching in 1981—he felt arthritic changes in all his major joints and feared becoming a cripple—he had hit more home runs (313, since increased to 325) than any catcher in history. "I lived for home runs," he says. "I wanted the record. Hitting them was my job."
Increasingly, he felt the job was over. "I've looked forward to retirement a long time," he says. "When I first came up here, I thought I'd play until I was 35, and I did. I wanted to be a millionaire when I was 30; I was. I knew those things were possible if I lived up to how good I felt I could be. I played as well as I thought I could. I was lucky to be able to sign with the Reds and to be able to play with Hall of Fame players. When I was a young player I couldn't afford to think about condos in Vail, a place in Fort Myers, a big house. But if you plan your life and get yourself on the right track and save your money, if you work hard in the off-season, you prepare yourself for this day, knowing it has to come.
"Now, I want to travel, maybe go fishing in Alaska or Canada, and I'd like to fish the streams in Montana, all over America. I want to catch the world's record largemouth bass. Maybe go to Africa and see the animals. I want to play a lot of golf and participate in the U.S. Amateur. I don't have to work. So if I want to see the Masters, I can; if I want to go to the Kentucky Derby, I can. I don't want any restrictions. I don't want to get back in a grind. I want to enjoy my life after baseball. I worked hard, but I got an awful lot out of it."
Compared with Bench, baseball success came much harder to Yaz. He was the grinder who took today's pitchers home with him last night. He and Walt Hriniak, Boston's batting coach, worked hours in the cage the last seven years. "I've changed stances, made adjustments," says Yaz. "How many hours Walt and I spent working on mechanics, mechanics, mechanics, mechanics. It's been worth it, oh yeah. I haven't embarrassed myself the last few years. I've helped the team. I guess that's the reward."