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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?
Who would he be if he didn’t catch?
That thought didn’t really surface for Johnny Bench when he told the Reds he wanted to limit his time behind the plate. But once he demanded a trade – to the World Champion Philadelphia Phillies, no less – it started to swirl to the surface.
Fortunately, Reds’ GM Dick Wagner had kept quiet about the discussion the two had about Bench’s future. Bench himself stayed mum, so much so that the media who covered the Reds began to notice. While he could be moody, especially as nagging injuries continued to wear down his body prematurely, Bench was no shrinking violet.
But in the spring of 1981, he was becoming one.
In the meantime, Wagner had longtime Reds’ farm director Sheldon “Chief” Bender start quietly looking at Philadelphia’s younger talent. Bender, who had spent decades managing in the minor leagues before overseeing them for both the St. Louis Cardinals and Reds, had a way of spotting talent, as well as finding scouts who could do the same. Bender had as much to do with the Reds’ success on the field in the 70’s as anyone.
Bender got his scouts out, but not en masse. He wasn’t clued in to what was going on, but being a baseball lifer, he knew when and how to trust his instincts. Right now, his instincts told him the club had an aging star in need of a new position without a position to give him, and that meant a trade. He was determined to find a player worthy of Bench as a return.
In the meantime, Grapefruit League games were played, and a players’ strike loomed over the game. In a way, it wouldn’t matter who played where, since it didn’t look like the 1981 season would be completed anyway.
Wagner decided a week after his conversation with Bench, just prior to breaking camp to go North and start the season, that if a move was going to be made, it needed to be before Opening Day. He wanted a complete team from the start, since no one was sure how long the season would go on.
In that, his logic was sound, as it would turn out the 1981 season would be interrupted by the strike starting on June 12.
With the pressure on him, Bender came back with three possibilities for Bench: starting second baseman Manny Trillo, as it stood to reason a still productive Pete Rose would move over to accommodate Bench; a catching prospect named Ozzie Virgil, and a solid middle infield prospect named Ryne Sandberg.
Sandberg was playing shortstop in the Phillies system, but wasn’t dazzling anyone in the field. Much as the Phils had a former Gold Glover at shortstop in Larry Bowa, the Reds did, too, in Dave Concepcion. But to Bender, that didn’t matter. As much as he liked Ronnie Oester at second base, or Ray Knight at third, he was certain that Sandberg had a better bat than either one, and would transition into an adequate fielder at either position.
As for Trillo, he had played sparingly for two World Series winners in Oakland before moving on and establishing himself as a Gold Glover and key contributor for the Phillies. That was the upside. The downside was, he was already 30, and for the Reds, taking on a veteran like that was a short term option. Wagner wanted to win now – and later.
After an 89-win season in 1980, one in which Joe Nolan had pretty well taken over the catching duties from Bench after coming over from Atlanta, Wagner felt good about his current core.
“Let’s do the prospects, two-for-one,” he told Bender. “And for both our sakes, one of these kids better turn out.”
Then he called Bench in again.
Johnny knew. He felt like hell about it, and he knew Wagner would make him the scapegoat in Cincinnati. He knew he would catch hell for this in Philadelphia – those fans were merciless. But he also knew he was right – he wanted to play, he wanted to win, and he wanted to be able to walk when he was 45. If he continued catching, he had serious doubts about his ability to do the latter.
So, he settled it in his mind: He was going to Philadelphia.
On the other side, Paul Owens couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He’d been aggressive in building the Phillies into a contender during the 1970’s, and the fruits of his labor were sitting in a trophy case down the hall. As a GM, he was just right for Philadelphia – he wanted to win and he was not afraid to do anything that it took to make that happen.
With Bench, he’d have one position player too many, really – Gary Matthews had just signed, he was going to play, and Trillo was a Gold Glover at second.
With Pete Rose being a vital part of the team, and a big reason the Phillies had won the World Series, that left the odd man out as right fielder Bake McBride. McBride was also an integral member of the World Champs, and a favorite of manager Dallas Green, who loved his consistency. But something had to give, and besides, McBride was playing with a bad knee. Moving him to a part-time role might keep him fresh.
“Done,” Owens told Wagner over the phone. He couldn’t believe his luck – he’d added another power bat to the defending champs – without having to give up any Major League talent.
“Dallas, they might as well send us the next trophy,” he told his manager.
Green, a straight shooter who knew baseball wasn't that easy, simply replied, “We’ll see.”
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