Link to Part 1
Link to Part 2
Link to Part 3
Johnny Bench arrived in Clearwater, FL at Jack Russell Stadium early in the morning. His plan was to unload his bags, get dressed, and hole up in the trainers’ room before any of the media showed up for the morning. The Phillies were just across Tampa Bay from where the Reds held spring training, so Bench didn’t have a terrible commute.
His hopes at going unnoticed were dashed as soon as he got in the clubhouse, though.
“John, thanks for coming in early,” he was greeted by his new manager, Dallas Green. Green, hair jutting out from under his maroon Phillies cap, was a bit squint-eyed, and looked just a tad like a cowboy from the movies, weathered and clean-shaven, serious and tough. “Let the clubbies take your bag, I want to talk to you, get to know you a bit.”
This was not quite how Johnny wanted to start. He felt like a naughty schoolboy caught sneaking around, and now getting called into the principal’s office. How he missed the days of Sparky Anderson, who understood how to treat star players. Anderson, who led the Reds through most of the 1970’s, was famous for telling his team in spring training there were four stars, while the rest were turds.
Johnny, for the first time in his life, felt like one of the turds.
They settled into the cramped manager’s office, and Green smiled.
“John, I want you to know two things right off: I’m not a bullshitter, and I don’t have time for bullshitters,” he said. “I feel like you’re the same way.”
“Well, I try to be honest,” Bench replied.
“Good,” said Green, leaning forward on his desk. “So, what exactly are you bringing to my team?”
This was the most important thing to Green. He knew the group he had could have repeated. He also knew with Greg “The Bull” Luzinski moving on in the offseason that there was a bit of a gap. The Bull had a down year leading up to the postseason, with only 19 home runs, but he was clutch in the playoffs and World Series. He was also a popular player in Philadelphia, who related to his everyman image.
With Bench, there was nothing everyman about him. He was a star, and brashly portrayed himself that way since first arriving in the big leagues in 1967.
“Dallas, this is what I’m bringing – a bunch of broken bones, aches and pains, and a body that needs to be shot up and rubbed down to be productive,” Bench said. “But I’m also bringing you Johnny Bench, and no matter how much my knees or shoulder or back hurt, my bat feels as good as it ever did. I’m here because I want to win, and win now.”
Green sat back with a smile. That was what he wanted to hear – honesty, and a desire to win.
“Alright, John, this is what we’re gonna do,” Green started, and laid out a plan to keep Bench in the lineup enough to be productive, yet rest enough not to break down. He’d spell Boone behind the plate when ace pitcher Steve Carlton was on the mound, and maybe another day here and there. He’d play first base the rest of the time he was in the lineup, and he’d get day games after night games off, with another day each week.
This plan would allow Pete Rose to stay in the lineup, whether at first base or his old position in right field, and get Bake McBride in two or three games a week, so he wasn’t totally out of the picture. It wasn’t perfect, but it was as good a way to play his hand as Green knew.
Bench, for his part, readily agreed. It was pretty well what he’d asked from the Reds, a plan they had apparently not been willing to offer him. His resentment for his former team settled into his gut, where it burned. He suddenly had an overwhelming desire to face them in the NLCS, and eliminate them en route to his third World Series victory. It would be poetic justice.
He walked back out into the clubhouse, where a familiar voice greeted him.
“Hey John!” called Pete Rose, his voice ringing with enthusiasm and mischief. The boyish Rose was 40, but he would never grow up while he played baseball – it was just too much fun. He loved the dirt, the cheers, the jeers, the way the ball felt when it impacted the bat, the way the sun beat down on him while he stood in the infield dirt, but nearly as much, he loved this: the clubhouse, with it’s nothing-off-limits, no holds barred banter. It was the last place in the world men could just be men, at least the way Rose saw it.
“Hey John!” he called again, grinning that cocky grin teammates and opponents alike had gotten to know over his nearly two decades in baseball. “You know what they call a catcher that can’t catch?”
Bench hesitated, waiting for the inevitable Rose punchline.
“Johnny Bench!” Rose crowed.
There were some chuckles from other Phillies gathered in the clubhouse. But Bench, who had been part of such back and forth with Rose while they were both Reds, rose to the occasion.
“Well, Pete, what do you call a big league hitter who can’t hit home runs?”
Rose grinned. He knew the answer. But since arriving in Philadelphia in 1979 as, at the time, the highest paid free agent in baseball, he’d become a leader. He knew that by allowing Bench to get the better of him right off, it would go a long way toward getting the new guy accepted into the clubhouse, into the team. The sooner Johnny Bench felt accepted, the sooner he'd start hitting home runs, Rose figured.
“Pete Rose!” Bench exclaimed. There were more chuckles at that. Rose, a well-known line-drive hitter, had hit one lone home run during the 1980 season, and despite playing for 18 years, had only 155 career home runs – or roughly five years’ worth of work for Johnny Bench.
But he had a comeback at the ready, as he usually did.
“You hear that, Larry?” he said, turning on the Phillies shortstop, Larry Bowa, who was known much more for his glove than his bat. “Johnny doesn’t think you’re a big league hitter!”
Even Bowa laughed at that. In 11 season, he had only 13 home runs, making even Rose look like a slugger by comparison. But he’d been around, and while he displayed a toughness on and off the field that belied his slight build, he also understood what was going on, and accepted it.
“Remember that when I save your ass in the field, old man,” he called back to Pete.
Bench sat at the folding chair in front of his new locker. The ripping continued, with other veteran Phillies joining in, nobody giving – or getting – as good as Rose.
Bench smiled slightly to himself.
It was good to be home.
Link to Part 5