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What's a manager to do? McNamara, himself a former minor league catcher ("I was lucky with injuries—all I had was a sick bat"), says, "The agreement was made, and we'll have to live with it. We'll just have to use common sense and play it by ear. It's a delicate situation, but I think it's a solvable one."
Bench has expressed a desire to get 400 at bats this year. After all, he doesn't want to become Johnny bench, small b. But catching twice a week would only give him 54 games behind the plate, about 200 at bats. Unless an injury occurs—and the Reds could be forgiven for wanting one, to solve the problem—Bench could be worked into maybe another 27 games without ruffling anybody's feathers. That would still leave him far short of 400 ABs. Wagner says, "We agreed to honor his request to catch twice a week. We didn't guarantee him a job anywhere else."
Obviously, the Reds are hoping he'll capitulate. Although his throwing skills have diminished, the Reds are a better team with Bench behind the plate. He can still control a game better than any catcher; he knows the hitters and calls pitches astutely. Equally important, if less apparent, is that Bench has a great talent for handling young pitchers. It won't do the Reds' relatively young staff much good to have to work with a different catcher every time out. But Bench is a prideful man. Too prideful, says his friend, the former Tiger catcher, Bill Freehan (16 stiches in left hand, 12 in right hand, 12 on top of head, dislocated thumb, spinal fusion, 30 cortisone shots). "Pride has a lot to do with his desire to get out," Freehan says. "Look, there's always some beered-up guy in the stands who's yelling that you can't throw anymore. There comes a point when you realize he may be right. But even after I couldn't throw, I knew I could run a game better than any other catcher. I still felt I could sit behind the plate. Johnny should forget about the bum in the stands. He's still a great catcher."
Indeed, last Saturday, in Bench's first game this spring as a catcher, a ball sailed away from him, and he had to chase it to the screen. According to Bench, "Some guy yelled, 'You can't even catch once a week, much less twice.' "
There is always the possibility of a drastic solution—trading Bench—and though Wagner denies any thought of that, he has let Tony Perez, Pete Rose and Joe Morgan slip away. Rose says, "If Johnny wants to come to the Phillies, I'll be happy to find another position." Bench conducted a small survey of American League designated hitters in the off-season to find out how they like their jobs. His findings were not of the nature to send him knocking on doors around the AL. Ironically, the National League came within only three votes of approving the DH last year. The staunchest opponent of the DH in the NL is Dick Wagner.
During his career Bench has been an immovable object for at least a dozen aspiring Cincinnati catchers: Bob Barton, Dan Breeden, Jim Coker, Pat Corrales, Vic Correll, Johnny Edwards, Hal King, Don Pavletich, Bill Plummer, Sonny Ruberto, Jimmie Schaffer and Don Werner. And the catching corps behind Bench is as strong now as it's ever been. The nominal starter this year is the bookish-looking Joe Nolan (two knee injuries), a good journeyman catcher and left-handed hitter who had the highest batting average (.312) on the club last season, in only 154 at bats. By his own admission, though, Nolan has no power and only an average arm. Last week in an exhibition game against Kansas City, the Royals stole five bases on him in the first inning.
Behind Nolan is O'Berry (injury-free—he's only 26), a major league receiver with a minor league batting average of .206. However, O'Berry worked during the winter with hitting master Harry (The Hat) Walker. The Hat, who was wearing a straw number while watching O'Berry play the other day, says, "If I had him with the '66 Pirates, we would have won the pennant that year. If he played regularly, he could hit .270." Already this spring, O'Berry has thrown out the Pirates' swift Moreno.
The Reds also have two promising catchers in the farm system, Dave Van Gorder and Steve Christmas, whose honest-to-goodness nickname is "Tree." Van Gorder was being groomed as Bench's eventual successor, but he tore up his left knee in a home-plate collision last June and had to have surgery, thus setting back the timetable.
Unfortunately for the Reds, the combined skills of these catchers-in-waiting couldn't equal Bench's in his prime. "He elevated the whole profession," says the Reds' non-roster catcher, Greg Mahlberg (broken forearm, broken fingers, left-knee problem). "He was the guy who made it known that catchers just don't strap on the gear." Says Rose, "He was the greatest I ever saw, the greatest there ever will be." Bench knows it, too. "Some guy once came up to me with his alltime all-star team," he says. "He told me I was third on the list of catchers. Third? I almost lost my dinner right there.
"I know that I'm Johnny Bench because of catching, and because of the Reds, and I'm grateful for all of that. But I want to be able to help this club three or four years down the line, and I can't do that if I'm catching every day, and I can't do it if I'm sitting on the bench. I've been in four World Series, and I've played with the greatest—Morgan, Perez, Rose, Foster. I've taken great satisfaction in bringing along young pitchers like Tommy Hume.