Growing up in small-town Oklahoma and idolizing Mickey Mantle, Johnny Bench had an idea at a young age that baseball would take him places. When he was nine, he played Little League with 12- and 13-year-olds. He was the state's player of the year as a senior in high school and a second-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds in 1965. That's probably the last time anyone underrated the Hall of Famer. A 14-time All-Star, 10-time Gold Glove winner and owner of 389 home runs, Bench became the greatest catcher in major league history.
At age 66, Bench still follows the game closely, rooting for the Reds and keeping watch on what's happening with new sliding/tagging rules, along with other progressive changes MLB is making. He's also involved with one of his favorite boyhood activities — opening packs of baseball cards — and doing publicity for Topps and its 2014 Series I cards. He talks about all of that and more in the latest Answer Man session. As a bonus, we've included 10 minutes of audio from Thursday, when Bench talked to Yahoo Sports Radio's Travis Rodgers about Mike Trout and how he compares to The Mick.
Johnny Bench: So what’s the word, David? What’s the biggest story in the baseball blog world right this second? Tell me what you know.
David Brown: I just saw Yasiel Puig drop an easy fly ball trying a one-handed catch. And then a few minutes later, he made an impossible-looking catch with his back to the infield. It was so Puig.
Bench: Isn’t it the truth? He makes you hate him, then he makes you love him. That’s the remarkable thing about about baseball. The game has a way of having you scratch your head one minute and drive you crazy, and then the next, you’re entertained beyond your wildest hopes. That’s why it’s the best game.
DB: I like that you’re obviously still watching the game and enjoying it and aren’t too curmudgeonly about it. Some players when they get older, or anybody who might get older, might not even like talking about the game today because it’s "not as good" as it was when he played.
Bench: Ha, well, it’s probably because that player got released at some point and is still holding on to a bitter memory of how it ended. I was lucky enough never to have that happen. When you make the decision that you’re done, then you can live with it. I’ve seen guys that were downgraded or released, and they kept wanting to prove to the rest of the world, all of their lives, that somebody had made a mistake. And they have a lot of real problems dealing with it. And some people say, "You know, they’re making too much money!’ And it is reality, it’s fact. There’s times when I say, "Man, what I could do with $250 million." That’s something I don’t think about very long — because it’s not going to happen — but I do buy lottery tickets.
DB: Speaking of the end of your career, I was 11 years old when you were at your last All-Star game in 1983. Our family had season tickets to White Sox games, so we got to go to the game. There were a lot of themes at that All-Star game about it being the 50th anniversary, and they had players from 1933 out there, but it really kind of turned into a Johnny Bench-Carl Yastrzemski celebration.
Bench: Absolutely. I remember my at-bat; I missed a fastball on the first pitch. I still kick myself. I mean, that would have been such a way of going out, to have that first ball fly out of the stadium. It would have been a great thing for people to remember. But it was still special that I got included in that whole thing, and I’m always grateful for that.
DB: You have been a proponent of changing the rules and procedures about collisions at home plate. Are they doing it right so far? How should they be doing it?
Bench: They seem to be doing it right. I saw a play yesterday that included the Reds and the Pirates, where Roger Bernadina was thrown out. And my son, who is in Cincinnati — he’s 24 — says, "He was safe!" I said, "No, he was out." The catcher was in position, the ball beat the runner… I remember thinking the play before, "What if something happens at the plate? How would I handle it with the new rules?" Because, in my day, I probably would have had a lot of problems, because I really did block the plate. In a lot of instances, maybe without the ball, or the ball got there with exact timing.
We’ve also had guys like Mike Scioscia, who was just a tree trunk. The player would run into him and Scioscia would stop him and then, 10 seconds later, the ball would come and he’d tag him out. That’s not really the way we should do it; that’s illegal, or is supposed to be. But at the same time, I really don’t want to see any more catchers getting hurt. It’s such a difficult thing to watch a catcher being carried off the field.
You can’t run over a shortstop, you can’t run over a second baseman. Just because you’re wearing a chest protector, that shouldn’t mean you’re fair game. I’m all for what’s happening and I think they’re getting it right so far.
DB: Did you suffer any undiagnosed concussions, or because of how you played the game and the kind of equipment you used, heavy equipment, you were spared?
Bench: I got beaned three times. I saw stars, but I never came out of the game. They just sent me down to first base. I got ran over at home plate, I saw stars. But I was the one that started wearing the helmet. The mask kept sliding off and I was cutting my nose. Foul balls were hitting me and banging me in the head. I was, like, "Gosh."
And I had a temper. I always threw my helmet. When I made an out, I was mad, and I’d throw my helmet. Sometimes, I’d throw my helmet and break the helmet and I had to buy a new one — it was $35. Heck, I was only making $550 a month, so it didn’t make any sense for me to break any more helmets. So I was, like, "Let’s turn this around (on my head)." The mask fit really snug. And so I didn’t throw my helmet anymore, avoided paying $35 every time I’d break one, and I avoided — when those foul balls would hit the mask or my head — and I didn’t get the jarring. And when I threw to second base, the mask wouldn’t slide across my face anymore. It all worked out in my favor.
I’ve never gone out and put one of these hockey mask-type helmets and tried to see what kind of pounding I could take, if it would feel any better, or whatever. I still have some brain cells left and I want to keep them. They pad these things, they make the equipment lighter and stronger but you’re never going to make enough protection to stand there and get run over. So, between that and the new instant replay rules, they’re finally getting the calls right. And that’s for the betterment of the game. I’m happy to see baseball taking a stand.
DB: Do you think baseball would be better if computers called balls and strikes?
Bench: No. I don’t think you can set up a computer to do a strike zone on a guy who’s 6-foot-5 and then a guy who’s 5-8. Where does it draw the line? One guy stands tall and another squats down and it changes the lines. Nah. I still love the umpires; they do a great job. I don’t have a problem with any of that.
DB: When you were a kid, do you remember opening packs of cards and getting a Mickey Mantle?
Bench: I spent every bit of my money to try and get a Mickey Mantle card and I don’t have one. Growing up in Oklahoma, Mickey Mantle was my idol. And here I am, and I’d go pick cotton to have enough money, and I’d buy all of these packs, and I’d chew all of the gum and I’d never find a Mickey Mantle card. The most validating thing was when my picture was on my first bubble gum card. That was in ’68 for me. I was finally on the Topps card. They’d come down, take your picture — and I saw it in ’66, I saw it in ’67 in spring training — and then when they came to me and said, ‘We’ve got to get your picture, I thought, ‘This is great!’ I was on a card with Ron Tompkins and, all of a sudden, I’m a major leaguer and I could call home to my parents and all my family and friends and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got my card.’ It was one of the really bright spots of my career.
— — — — — — Bench's interview wih Yahoo Sports Radio's Travis Rodgers — — — — — —
Bench: Now with the new Topps Series I from 2014, I just opened a pack. And I swear, Travis.
Rodgers: Did you get a Mike Trout?
Bench: Ohhhhh, I'd love to have a Mike Trout. He's a stud, man. He's a stud! I got a Bryce Harper. I will trade you a Bryce Harper for a Mike Trout. But wow, what a kid. He's kind of a Mickey Mantle-type deal but he's happy, he plays hard, he doesn't show anybody up and he's just there every day. It's just so much fun to watch him. He got a couple of big hits last night and went from first to third — ha! — he sort of stutter-stepped and the outfielder looked and said, "He's not going." But [Trout] did a little stutter — I don't know if it was picked up by anybody else, but I saw it— and then he just hit another gear.
DB: Will the Reds make the playoffs this year?
Bench: They’re going to have to get healthy. You just can’t have guys like [Mat] Latos out. You can’t have [Aroldis] Chapman out, you can’t have [Sean] Marshall out. And the lineup has to be a little more consistency. They’ve already played a tough schedule and it’s not going to get any easier. They’re going to have to get through April around .500, I think, to really have a good shot at it.
DB: Can you imagine a scenario where Pete Rose gets into the Hall of Fame? Will he still be living when it happens?
Bench: Not a valid question, sorry.
DB: OK, no problem.
[Editor's note: Whoops!]
DB: Who was the most under-appreciated member of the Big Red Machine?
Bench: Probably Cesar Geronimo. He batted eighth. Hit .300. Was a Gold Glover. You could say Ken Griffey, getting base hits, stealing bases and playing great in right field. Davey Concepcion, the Gold Glover and hitting 20 home runs. That’s what made us so great: Everybody being able to play their positions at the very top of their game. That’s why we were considered one of the great teams in history.
DB: What do we have to do to get the old “Baseball Bunch” on DVD or Blu-ray or streaming video?
Bench: Well, we’ve talked about it. The fact is, you’ve got so many of these stars to pay, can it be affordable? I’m thinking there could be a six-pack or a four-pack they could put together and put it into that form, and really get the kids to enjoy and see what a fun game baseball is. I like your thoughts and I like your idea.
DB: Did you enjoy doing that show?
Bench: I loved it. The Dugout Wizard was Tommy Lasorda. We had Ted Williams on, we had Dan Quisenberry, we had Mike Schmidt, we had Tug McGraw. We had so many great players coming on. We had Davey Lopes on showing everyone how to play second base and steal second base. It was just a lineup that was second to none. It was a lot of fun and the kids were learning valuable lessons.
DB: Who was the bigger prima donna — the Chicken or Lasorda?
Bench: Umm… Teddy Giannoulas was the Chicken, and I don’t know anybody else who could have made it work the way he did. And when he got down there, Tommy Lasorda absolutely ate up being the Dugout Wizard. He thought it was the greatest thing on Earth. I can’t even tell you how that show worked, only because of the Chicken being my foil. He was just priceless. And Tommy, it was fun. Some guys would say, ‘I’m not wearing this turban,’ or ‘I’m not doing this.’ But he was the guru. He was the all-seeing Wizard.
DB: Thanks a lot, Johnny. My wife just bought some Krylon paint the other day and it reminded me of your commercials for them — “No runs, no drips, no errors.”
Bench: Haha. Well, the next time she goes to the hardware store, or Walmart or Target, tell her to buy a pack of the Topps’ Series I cards for 2014 and make sure they go to www.Topps.com. T-O-P-P-S? Yes, Topps. Appreciate it!
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