Los angeles — Going into the 1981 National League season with the Cincinnati Reds, Johnny Bench had caught 1,731 major league games, only 187 short of Al Lopez's all-time record.
No other major league catcher has ever hit as many home runs as Bench, who has clouted 323 in games in which he was behind the plate and 358 overall. As for his endurance, he shares with Hall of Farmer Bill Dickey the major league record of catching 100 or more consecutive games for 13 seasons.
During the past two seasons, however, Bench has said frequently that he doesn't want to catch any more -- that 13 years of crouching behind home plate like an animal is no longer fun. If John had his way he'd be playing first base or the outfield.
Bench, because of a broken ankle he incurred sliding, has not played since before the June 12 baseball players' strike.He still isn't quite ready to return , although he thinks he probably will get back into the lineup by Aug. 24, perhaps sooner.
At the time he went on the disabled list, he was hitting .343 with 10 RBIs in 28 games.
What are Bench's feelings about catching again, now that he is so close to resuming his career, and just how well does he think he will hit after such a long layoff?
"I don't think anyone knows me better than I know myself, and it's simply time for me to stop catching and start playing another position," John explained to me over supper. "I'm not saying I'm not going to catch for the Reds, only that I think I can be of far more value to the ball club playing somewhere else.
"As far as hitting goes, I'm sure I can come back and take up right where I left off because I've done this before after being injured.I've never needed a long time to get my rhythm back. Just a normal amount of practice swings in the batting cage and I'll be ready."
Bench says that while the position he's most comfortable with is first base, which amounts to a vacation for his legs, he can also play a big league outfield.
Any time Manager John MacNamara uses Bench in the outfield, however, he sacrifices some speed, while putting him at first base means Cincinnati has no place for Dan Driessen. Though Driessen lacks Bench's power at the plate, he has driven in more than 300 runs for Cincinnati during the last four years and made vast improvement as a fielder.
But Bench contends that using him as a catcher also takes something away from the club by diminishing his own offensive capabilities.
"The last few years when I've had to punish myself physically to catch more than 100 games, I know this has cost me some home runs and lowered my batting average," John said. "I would prefer not to do that again."
"But whenever I play first base or the outfield, I never get tired," he continued."I'm not claiming I could go to the outfield and be another Roberto Clemente. But my anticipation would make me as good out there as most guys; my knowledge of opposing hitters would also help me; and from left field I could throw well enough so that nobody would take any liberties with my arm.
"the big thing, though, is how much more I could do for the Reds with my bat. I wouldn't get tired; I could play in a lot more games; and I wouldn't have all the extra responsibility that comes with catching."
With only next year remaining on his current contract, the 33-year old Bench was asked if the American League, with its designated hitter rule, wouldn't have a lot of appeal for him, especially if the money were the same or more?
"To me that's still a long time away, and nothing I really want to talk about ," John replied. "A lot of it would depend on where the Reds wanted to continue to play me, how often, and how I felt physically at the time.
"Right now, I think I could play first base or the outfield indefinitely," he continued. "And in the American League, if I needed some extra rest, I could skip the field for a couple of days and still keep my bat in the lineup as the designated hitter."
Asked how often the Reds will catch Bench in what remains of the season, or just how they plan to use him, an obviously upset MacNamara replied:
"Don't ask me questions about Johnny Bench. Maybe in 10 days, if Bench is ready, I can tell you then. But right now I've got a ball club to run that doesn't include Johnny Bench. I can't answer your question."
Whether MacNamara wants to admit it or not, he's going to have to find a regular place in his lineup for the man who was the National League's Rookie of the Year in 1968, its Most Valuable Player in 1970, and its premier power hitter of the decade of the '70s, piling up 1,013 runs batted in and 290 homers in that period.
In fact no player in either league had more RBIs during those 10 years, and only Pittsburgh's Willie Stargell (with 296) and New York's Reggie Jackson (292) hit more home runs in the same span.