In the winter between the 1980 and 1981 baseball seasons, arguably the best catcher of all time informed his club, the Cincinnati Reds, that he would no longer catch more than two days each week.
What follows is a speculative rewrite of history. What did happen, the 1981 Reds played Bench at first base 38 times, where his fielding percentage was .983 - not bad, but not quite the .995 clip of regular first baseman Danny Driessen. Bench contributed 8 home runs, one more than Driessen, and batted over .300, the only time in his career he achieved that mark.
But what if Reds GM Dick Wagner, the man who dismantled the Big Red Machine, took exception to the demand, and dealt with Bench like he did Tony Perez, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Sparky Anderson?
"If Johnny wants to come to the Phillies, I'll be happy to find another position."
The words could be considered tampering. The speaker could not have cared less.
It was Pete Rose, doing what Pete always did, having fun with the sportswriters. Why not? His team were world champs, and there was no reason to think they couldn't repeat, just like his Reds teams did in the mid-70's. Back then, he had one of the greatest players at his position along side him, the aforementioned Johnny, Johnny Bench, like he did now, in third baseman Mike Schmidt.
The Phillies didn't really have room for Bench, what with solid Bob Boone behind the plate, Schmidt at third, Bake McBride in left (with young Lonnie Smith ready to take over) and the newly arrived Gary "Sarge" Matthews in right field. Sarge had averaged over 20 home runs and 75 RBIs a year for the dreadful Atlanta Braves, one of the few bright spots for that woeful franchise.
Pete was about to turn 40, but he felt good. His knees were still good, and as long as he had those, he felt like he could not only play, but play at the level to which he'd grown accustomed.
He didn't really think much of his comment - but when it made it to the papers in Tampa, Reds GM Dick Wagner thought about it. A lot.
He had taken a lot of flak in Cincinnati for trading Tony Perez, even though former GM Bob Howsam engineered that deal, and for letting Joe Morgan and Pete Rose leave via free agency. Wagner had become the villain who destroyed the Big Red Machine, in the minds of the fans. The fans didn't understand how baseball economics were changing, and how the players were ruining the sport with this free agency nonsense. If they kept this up, no one would be able to afford to buy or run a ballclub, and then where would they all be?
Wagner was used to being unpopular. Before he became the GM, he was the contract negotiator for Howsam, and he wasn't very popular with the players. He didn't care, he had a responsibility to the club.
So what was his responsibility now, in the spring of 1981, with a productive hitter who could no longer catch, and didn't have another position on the field?
He had established Danny Driessen at first base, which would be the most logical position for an ex-catcher. Driessen was the reason Perez was traded - after a disastrous attempt to make Danny a third baseman in 1974. He was a solid hitter and evolved into a major league first baseman, so he wasn't moving. Ray Knight at third base was coming off his best year yet, and the outfield corners were manned by two of the remaining Big Red Machine members, the powerful George Foster and the sweet swinging Ken Griffey.
So what should he do?
He pondered that question over breakfast, then went out onto his hotel room balcony with a cigar, and turned that thought over again and again.
And he knew what he had to do before he went down to Al Lopez Field that morning. They wouldn't thank him for it - hell, they might fire him for it before his plans paid off. But that didn't mean he was wrong, and to hell with anyone who couldn't look at the big picture.
Because the big picture was that Wagner had to trade the greatest catcher he'd ever seen - and he was going to lay the blueprints for the return of a Big Red Machine in the 1980's when he did it.
Read Part 2 Here