Link to Part 1
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 firs 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?
"John, sit down."
Johnny had sat across from this man, Dick Wagner, many times before, and he knew it couldn't be good. What's more, manager John McNamara wasn't present, which was also a bad sign. Mac was a baseball lifer, a guy that players liked and respected. If he wasn't there, this couldn't be about finding a new position for Johnny, so what was this meeting all about?
"John, we respect you not wanting to catch anymore," Wagner started.
"It's not that I don't want to, I don't know that I can," Bench quickly said. "I've got to think about my health ..."
"We get all that," Wagner cut through his star player's interruption. No matter how big Johnny Bench thought he was, no mere player was bigger than the ballclub in Wagner's mind. "And like I said, we respect it."
"But we don't have anywhere else to play you."
Wagner went silent after that. He was putting the ball back in Bench's court. If he could saddle up one more time, like the cowboys the slugger so admired, if he could reach deep into himself and strap on the catcher's gear for one more year, this team had a legitimate shot at a pennant. But Johnny had to see that for himself. Like the Reds' other megastar from the big Red Machine, Pete Rose, you couldn't simply tell Johnny Bench something.
He had to think it was his idea, or he would get stubborn about it.
Bench, for his part, was stunned. After all he'd given the Reds, all the awards, sure, but all the aches and pains, playing when others wouldn't, sacrificing his body for this team, this organization, he was being told he couldn't settle in at a new position?
Why couldn't he play first? Sure, Danny Driessen was a decent guy, a good teammate, and at times he was a productive hitter, but he wasn't Johnny Bench. Or what about Ray Knight, at third? Ray's power numbers went up a little last year, but he wasn't putting up Johnny Bench numbers. Johnny knew he could outhit Ray still, and if he didn't get to as many balls down the line as Ray did, so what? He'd make up for it when it mattered at the plate.
So he stewed, and then he said the words he thought he never would.
"Then trade me."
That was it, the out Wagner had wanted. This wasn't on him. Sure, he told the press he wanted Bench to retire as a Red, but now he had his out. It wasn't Wagner being the bad guy, it was Bench being demanding, being unreasonable to the club, being a bad teammate, wanting to take another guy's job. It was like Ray or Ken Griffey or Danny were insisting on catching, and taking John's job, wasn't it?
And George Foster was hitting more home runs lately, anyway.
Nope. This was how it had to be now, but Wagner knew the Reds owed Johnny Bench more than shipping him to San Diego or Seattle or some other baseball Siberia. He knew the club still had to maintain an image, and they had to get back something special for Johnny Bench.
"Okay, John, if that's what you want," Wagner said. "But I promise you this - you'll go to a contender, if I can help it. You won't be put out to pasture like some old nag. You'll go where you can contribute, and maybe win - maybe an AL pennant?"
That stung. Bench, like most National Leaguers, considered the American League an inferior form of baseball, where pitchers didn't bat and threw more off-speed stuff. No way was he going to accept a trade to an American League team. He wanted to play baseball still, not go be a DH like his old teammates, Hal McRae or Lee May. He could play first - he could play first for anybody, even the World Champs!
"You know what, Dick?" Bench said, as he stood. "I want to go to Philly. I want to play for a winner, right now. I'll take first over from Rose - he's 40, for God's sake! I'm younger and still in my hitting prime."
"Send me to Philadelphia, Dick. That's all I ask," Bench finished.
After he left, Wagner grinned. He'd gotten what he wanted - that was going to count as verbal permission for the trade.
All he had to do know was decide which prospects he wanted, and he'd be on his way to rebuilding the Big Red Machine - his Big Red Machine, not Sparky Anderson's or Bob Howsam's, the former manager and general manager of the Reds.
Wagner allowed himself a smile, because he had a pretty good idea of how he was going to do it, too.
Read Part 3 Here