Link to Part 1
Link to Part 2
Link to Part 3
Link to Part 4
There is nothing in the world quite like Opening Day in Cincinnati.
It’s a holiday, albeit unofficially so. There’s a parade prior to the game, which tens of thousands of people attend, more than will cram into the ballpark later that afternoon. It doesn’t matter what the weather is, people will line up and cheer on the boys of summer, maybe hoping to speed along summer weather.
It is a spectacle, and it is a moment of civic pride.
Johnny Bench knew all of that, he’d been part of it for the past 13 years.
This year was different. He was still part of Opening Day in the city of baseball’s first professional franchise, but he wasn’t in the parade. He wasn’t even in the home whites.
He was in town with his new team, the defending champion Philadelphia Phillies, and it felt, well, wrong.
He would’ve discussed this with his teammate Pete Rose, who was in his third year with the Phillies, and had to have undergone this same thing when he first came back to town in June of 1979 wearing the wrong uniform.
But even though they’d been teammates, and business partners, and stars together, Pete and Johnny had a complicated relationship. They were both aggressive, dominant personalities in a sport and time that attracted the most aggressive and dominant personalities. They were on the same team and rivals, all at once. It had been that way a long time, and would remain that way well into the future.
There was the normal excitement around the start of the season. The clubhouse was especially frenetic, guys laughing a little too loud, a nervous energy acting like a contagion, going from player to player.
Bench would be starting at first base today, despite Phillies ace Steve Carlton being on the mound. Bench hadn’t caught much of Carlton – they both started the 1969 All-Star game – so Green went with veteran Bob Boone behind the plate to start the season. Bench would be batting third, in front of slugger Mike Schmidt.
Carlton, for his part, was thrilled to have Bench as a teammate. Since a three-homer day against the then-Cardinal lefty in 1970, Bench had racked up 12 round trippers against Carlton.
“John, we’re gonna win today,” Carlton told Bench before taking the field. “I don’t have to worry about you beating me for a damn change.”
Bench just smiled slightly.
To lead off the game, Pete rapped what would be the first of three hits. Despite his age, he easily stole second base off the Reds’ battery of Tom Seaver and Joe Nolan. Seaver, who along with Carlton had dominated the National League throughout the late 60’s and 70’s, was slightly rattled to have his first batter in scoring position within a handful of pitches, but buckled down and got Manny Trillo to fly to right.
Rose took advantage of the fly to move up to third, giving his second signature headfirst slide of the inning. The home crowd, many of whom would remain loyal to Rose throughout all his ups and downs, cheered.
The cheers immediately turned to boos when Bench stepped up to the plate.
Bench tugged at his light blue, button down jersey. He fiddled with his maroon batting helmet, which he wore with no ear flaps. He dug in, deep in the box, wanting all the time he could get to see Seaver’s fastball.
He saw it go right by for strike one.
Seaver worked quickly against his friend. He delivered again, a fast ball down and away. He didn’t want to give Bench anything he could pull. He’d seen what happened to those pitches too many times as the beneficiary.
Bench stepped out. Two straight fastballs, and that meant Seaver was going to mix it up on him. Change up or curve ball? Bench went with change, and settled back into the batter’s box, looking to simply put the bat on the ball, maybe foul it off and get another fastball he could drive.
Instead, he put the bat on the change up, but was a little in front of it. The ball bounced toward Reds first baseman Danny Driessen, who fielded it to his right, or glove hand. Rose, being Rose, had broken toward home plate on the contact. Driessen had to turn his entire body to make the throw to the plate, and Rose made his third head first dive of the inning, under Nolan’s tag.
Bench, in the meantime, made it to first, safe on a fielder’s choice.
Cleanup hitter Mike Schmidt grounded to third for an easy double play, but the World Champs were up 1-0, thanks to the former Reds.
Carlton gave the run back in the fourth inning, on a double to Dave Concepcion, but Rose put the Phillies in position to score again in the eighth, on his third hit of the day. Seaver, still in the game, had kept the Phils off the board after the first inning, but gave up a one-out hit to Del Unser, pinch hitting for Carlton.
Lonnie Smith came in to run for Unser, and Rose singled him to third. Trillo singled, scoring Smith and moving Rose to second.
Then came Bench. He knew how Seaver thought. He’d caught him often enough the past four years. He knew he’d be wearing down, and want to put Bench away fast.
So Johnny swung at a first pitch fastball, and as he’d done so many times in Riverfront Stadium, he pulled it down the line, and over the wall. The Phillies were up 5-1, and Bench smiled as he crossed home plate.
Though reliever Sparky Lyle would let the Reds get a run back, Ron Reed followed, and got out of a bases loaded jam by getting Driessen to bounce into a bases-loaded double play.
No one was more excited than Pete Rose after the game.
“What did I tell you?” he shouted, to everyone and no one all at once. “We’re World’s Champs, and we’re not giving it up!”
Bench, when asked by reporters if knowing Seaver as well as did gave him an advantage, shook his head.
“Nah, we were both competing, both going with our strengths. I just got lucky,” he said. This new, humble Johnny Bench was unfamiliar to the Cincinnati sportswriters who’d covered him his whole career. “I’m just glad to get today over with, so we can concentrate on bringing another pennant back to Philadelphia.”
In his office, Dallas Green sat with a quiet smile. It’s rare to catch lightning in a bottle, but he felt like he’d done it twice, first with Rose and now with Bench.
It was going to be a hell of a season.
Part 6 coming.