Los Angeles — Catching is probably the most demanding of all big-league positions, physically and mentally. So if a player has the skills to perform well elsewhere , you're rarely going to see him squat behind the plate. The exception among modern-day players has always been Johnny Bench, who is retiring at the end of this season after 16 years with the Cincinnati Reds. Actually, Bench stopped catching last season to become an infielder (mostly third base, sometimes first) because he no longer felt he could put his body through all that aggravation.
''But if I were starting all over again, I'd still be a catcher,'' Bench told me in the visitors' dugout the last time the Reds were at Dodger Stadium. ''You know, there isn't another position in baseball that provides a player with so many ways to have a good day. For example, you can call a great game, steady your pitcher, throw out a man trying to steal, block the plate on a close play at home, dig a ball out of the dirt, reposition an outfielder with a wave of your hand, or drive in a runner with a base hit.''
What was Bench's most difficult assignment as a rookie? ''If you're a catcher, the toughest thing is learning the strengths and weaknesses of every pitcher on your staff, plus the strengths and weaknesses of every opposing hitter in the National League, because that takes time,'' said the league's 1970 and '72 MVP. ''I won't say that hitting was ever easy, but it was never a problem in the early days, either.'' Bench, of course, holds the all-time major league record for home runs by a catcher (324), although he probably will finish his career with close to 400 overall.
Questioned as to what makes a great catcher, John replied: ''I put physical strength at the top of the list, because the ability to catch every day is what it's all about. But intelligence, good hands, a great throwing arm, and the willingness to play with injuries deserve almost as much consideration.''
Once Bench quits, nobody will have to run any benefits for him. He says he is the major stockholder of two banks in Oklahoma, owns real estate in Texas and Ohio, and has also invested in cattle-feeding equipment. But if the Reds would like him to broadcast some of their games next year on a limited basis, he wouldn't say no. Once the mandatory five-year waiting period has elapsed, his election to the Hall of Fame should be automatic. Look for Bench to catch the Reds' final game this season. Motivation behind Hernandez trade
Players get traded for all kinds of reasons and years ago the owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern Association dealt away a particularly inept fielder for a live turkey! So maybe it wasn't all that surprising when St. Louis general manager Whitey Herzog, who's also manager of the defending champion Cardinals, traded former National League MVP Keith Hernandez to the New York Mets.
Herzog, who has the same respect for good relief pitchers that King Midas had for gold, thinks he got an excellent bullpen technician in return for Hernandez in Neil Allen, although Allen hasn't been impressive lately. Nevertheless, in the last three years, Neil has saved a total of 59 games for New York, while also maintaining a low earned-run average.
''Listen, if Allen had been pitching the way I know he can, the Cardinals would never have gotten a shot at him,'' explained Herzog, who often complained about Hernandez's lack of aggressiveness. In defense of Hernandez, he is currently working on his fifth consecutive Gold Glove at first base and is a fine RBI man. Tidbits from around the majors
* Those who keep waiting for the Texas Rangers to self-destruct had better take another look at the club's pitching staff, which currently has the lowest earned-run average in the American League. Those who thought rookie manager Doug Rader was a clown may soon be spelling that ''ringmaster''! On paper, the 1983 Rangers never figured to be this good.
* Rusty Staub of the New York Mets now has seven consecutive pinch hits, only one off Dave Philley's major league mark, set in 1958. Staub, a 22-year veteran and a lifetime .279 batter, has 12 pinch hits this season.
* Despite all the reports about Billy Martin's subpar conduct on and off the playing field, the thing that may yet get him fired as manager of the New York Yankees is his habit of not arriving at the ballpark until only minutes before game time. That situation contributed heavily to Martin's split near the end of last year with the Oakland A's, whose front office simply refused to tolerate his tardiness any longer.