Major league baseball and Cincinnati Reds legendary catcher Johnny Bench knows a good receiver when he sees one. He should. Bench is still considered the best catcher ever in baseball, even though his career ended in 1983.
Bench is hitting the field once again Saturday, May 18th at Frontier Field in Rochester, NY for the Pepsi Max Field of Dreams game. Bench will play with other Hall of Famers like Dayton’s own Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson, Wade Boggs and Ozzie Smith.
Thanks to a vote, Johnny Perotti of New York edged out Washington, D.C. resident Stephen Katchmark to bring the game to Rochester. As the home team, Perotti and five of his friends will join the AL MLB legends to take on Katchmark, his five friends and the NL MLB legends. Check out “http://mlb.com/PepsiMAX” to find out more about the game and where to get tickets.
Bench revolutionized the catching position. Not only how he played it, but also becoming a threat with the bat, which at the time was unheard of.
Bench was the first of the one handed catchers which are normal today. Bench would use a “single hinge” glove and dangle his throwing hand behind him. His arm was that of a rocket, more of a laser beam heading to second to catch an attempting base stealer. More time than not he was successful.
Bench won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 1968, batting .275 with 15 home runs and 82 RBIs, marking the first time the award had been won by a catcher. Yet he didn’t stop there. Bench also took home the 1968 National League Gold Glove Award for catchers, which was also the first time it had been won by a rookie.
Far more outstanding were his 102 assists that season. To put that number into perspective, the two catchers that took home a Gold Glove Award at catcher in 2012 were Matt Weiters of Baltimore and Jadier Molina of St. Louis. Weiters has never had more than 70, while Molina’s best was 88.
Bench is one of 13 catchers in the Hall of Fame. As Bench said in an interview with “ultimatesportstalk.com” that’s only one catcher per decade. Taking himself out of the equation, who is the best catcher in baseball? The answer will surprise many.
“People always ask where have all the catchers gone, where are all the great catchers. We still have great catching! I loved watching Jerry Grote and Randy Hundley. These guys were fabulous catchers. These guys could really catch.”
Grote and Hundley were outstanding receivers, but never matched the hitting totals that a Bench or even a Ted Simmons at St. Louis did at the time. But as Bench went on to explain to be noticed as a catcher, specific numbers have to be put up.
“Unless you have credentials of leading in Home Runs or RBI’s, or be like Joe Mauer and lead the league in hitting sometimes you get overlooked.”
One catcher today not being overlooked is San Francisco’s Buster Posey. Posey, like Bench, has won an MVP and the Rookie of the Year award. Bench is in constant contact with Posey. “He’s such a great kid”, Bench states.
Posey is even in Bench’s contact list. After signing a new extension for $168 million, Bench texted Posey saying “You’ve now made $166 million more than I made in my entire career.”
Another catcher Bench holds out hope for is the Reds Devin Mesoraco. The catching position in Cincinnati hasn’t been the same after Bench’s retirement. Of course Bench leaves a long shadow and replacing a legend isn’t easy. Yet Mesoraco is the “catcher in waiting”. Since starting backstop Ryan Hannigan has been on the disabled list, Mesoraco has gotten his chance. In last night’s win over Atlanta, Mesoraco brought back memories of Bench by hitting a two out, game tying home run in the bottom of the ninth against the Atlanta Braves. The game ultimately won just one batter later on a walk off homer by Shin Soo Choo.
Mesoraco came to the Reds with high hopes and expectations, something Bench understands.
“The comparisons are inevitable, “ Bench says. “He has had some undo pressure and is just now getting the chance to catch on a regular basis.” Probably what Mesoraco needs is consecutive at-bats and not a constant battle for playing time. But with the Reds in the middle of a pennant race, can they afford that kind of commitment? In Bench’s eyes, yes.
“I can see Devin being a middle of the lineup hitter. I believe he has that potential.” However Bench went on to explain Mesoraco is growing frustrated in the lack of pitches he sees when batting eighth. Bench has told the 24 year old to be patient. “Batting eighth is hard. I tried to explain to him he has to wait but he wants to do well so quick.”
Bench was in the same torment as Mesoraco when he first came up in 1967.
Bench was called up in September of ’67 and started off slow, batting only .163. The following year, being given the catching position because of his catching prowess, Bench started to get his feet under him in 1968 and the game started slowing down.
Being part of two World Championship teams and two other National League Pennant winners, Bench knows what a winning team looks like. So how does he feel about the 2013 Cincinnati Reds? Well they have some troubles.
“(Ryan) Ludwick goes down and (Johnny) Cuerto has arm problems again. It seems like every game is a nail biter.”
Take last night’s game for example. Entering the ninth inning down 4-3 to the Braves, the Reds were down to their last strike. The lightning struck with Mesoraco and Choo. Bench knows all about exciting come from behind wins.
“Last night’s game can make a season,” Bench says. The after effects have to continue for the win to mean anything.
“The Reds are still trying to decide who the fourth place hitter is. Phillips is outstanding, but Bruce’s swing still has holes and he hasn’t swung the bat like he’s capable of.” Therein lies the problem with the Cincinnati.
Outside of the hitting, Bench is impressed with the pitching. “The bullpen has proved it is really solid.”
But that’s not all Bench has seen. Just look at the lead off man. “Choo has just been an absolute, marvelous, marvelous trade. I’m not sure we would be .500 had Choo not been there”
So what does Bench see for the team throughout the rest of the season? He’s on the fence.
“Hitting wise they need to hang on until Ludwick comes back. I think they will bounce around and then come July, August if Ludwick comes back healthy this is a team that can still win the division.”
Like all Reds fans, Bench wants to believe. “I am excited and cautious at the same time.”
Tomorrow we will continue with our Johnny Bench interview and talk about his memories of Sparky Anderson, Pete Rose and his retirement. We will replay the entire interview with Bench on Monday’s night’s “Ohio Baseball Weekly” show here on “ultimatesportstalk.com” at 9pm EDT.
Dave Mitchell and Mark Donahue co-host the “Ohio Baseball Weekly” show every Monday night at 9pm on “www.ultimatesportstalk.com.”