Just in deep knee bends alone, the position is hell. You try catching 200 pitches a game from a frog's squat for 1,776 games. That comes to 355,200 pitches, not counting exhibition games or practice. Try 13 years of equipment changes, foul tips, bunts, dribblers, wild pitches, crossed signals, rookie pitchers, fallible umpires, Lou Brock, Omar Moreno, home-plate collisions, trips to the mound, trips to the screen, trips down the first-base line, ethyl chloride, Butazolidin, cortisone. And yet some people, including a number of teammates, still don't understand Why Johnny Can't Catch—at least not as often or as well as he once did.
Johnny Bench has hit more home runs (323) than any catcher in history. Only he and Bill Dickey have been able to catch 100 games or more for 13 consecutive seasons, and Bench is just 187 regular-season games shy of the alltime record held by Al Lopez, who needed 19 years to catch 1,918 games. With Bench behind the plate the Cincinnati Reds won six division titles and played in four World Series. He has won two MVP awards and been named to 12 All-Star teams. Surely a plaque awaits him in the Hall of Fame.
The price he has paid includes six broken bones in one foot, four in the other, a network of scars on his left shoulder from surgery on the acromioclavicular joint, a broken right thumb, a fractured left pinkie, lower-back spasms, circulation problems in his hands and grotesque toenails from balancing on his haunches for 2,000 hours. "I'd have been scratched if I was a racehorse, with all the Bute I've taken," says Bench.
The curse of this man in the iron mask is that he made catching look so easy for so many years that folks just assumed he could go on indefinitely. Even Al Lopez (six broken fingers on his right hand), after whom the Reds' spring stadium in Tampa is named, says, "Johnny had such great rhythm as a catcher that I thought he'd last longer than this." So last August, when Bench told the Reds and the press that he wanted to catch only two days a week in 1981, people facetiously asked if Tuesdays and Saturdays would be all right.
Bench wasn't joking. In September he met with Reds President Dick Wagner, who said the club would honor his request. In October Cincinnati picked up another catcher, great-glove, no-bat Mike O'Berry from the Cubs, as more a backup type than a regular. In January Bench said he was going to bring four different gloves to camp and try to win a job. In February Wagner was quoted—out of context, he says—in a speech to the Dayton Agonis Club, an organization of ex-jocks, as saying that Bench's request was a contract ploy (his paycheck, reportedly, is $450,000 a year, while George Foster and Ken Griffey earn nearly double that figure). Bench got angry. Which matched the mood of his teammates, who were saying things like catching certainly hadn't hurt Johnny's golf game. Manager John McNamara was baffled. The only positions Bench could shoot for besides catcher were first base, third base and righfield, but at each the Reds already had capable players.
"I quit catching day games after night games last year," says Bench. "I did it one time in August and felt it for four or five days. Sometimes I just wanted to stay in bed all day. Catching is mentally and physically exhausting. One day of catching is like five days at third base."
This is no crybaby. Trainer Larry Starr, who has been with the Reds for 10 years, says Bench has a very high pain threshold. "He hurts more than he ever lets on," says Starr. In 1972 Bench waited until the season ended to determine whether a lesion discovered on his right lung was cancerous. It wasn't, and it was removed surgically. He is very serious about cutting back on his catching and just as serious about playing every day. "They tell me I've put them on a spot," he says. "Sure I have. But I kept them off the spot for 13 years."
Needless to say, Bench's desire to have a crack at their positions hasn't sat well with First Baseman Dan Driessen, Third Baseman Ray Knight and Rightfielder Dave Collins. "The only way he can put himself at first base is if he's the manager," says Driessen, "and he ain't the manager yet. Suppose George Foster suddenly told the team he wanted to pitch or play shortstop."
"One hundred thousand guys want my position, and Johnny's one of them," says Knight, an All-Star. "If he's better than me, he can play third base. But nobody gave me this job. I won it. He's going to have to win it from me."
"I sat on the bench three years ago, somebody got hurt, and I've hit .300 the last two years," says Collins, who also stole 79 bases last year. "I don't plan on giving my job to anyone." Griffey, who moves from right to center this year, has expressed his reluctance to play between Foster and Bench, neither of whom is Edd Roush. "I don't blame them," says Bench. "That's what I'd say if some catcher came in and told me he was going to play my position."