Q&A with Reds HOF catcher Johnny Bench

Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench was the special guest speaker for the Hickory Sportsman’s Club bi-annual meeting on Tuesday at Rock Barn Golf and Spa.

Bench was a member of the “Big Red Machine” clubs that played in Cincinnati from 1970-1976. Those teams, which included Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Ken Griffey Sr., Dave Concepcion and manager George “Sparky” Anderson, won two World Series championships and 683 games during the six-year period.

Bench, a 14-time National League All-Star and two-time NL MVP, is just one of 16 catchers all-time to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

During his time in the Conover area, Bench gave an exclusive interview with O-N-E Sports Editor Cody Dalton.

Q: Who do you consider to be the best player in baseball today?

A: You have the kid up in Toronto, Jose Bautista, who is putting up fantastic numbers. You’ve got Joey Votto. Everyone knows about Albert Pujols. He’s going to put up numbers and is so deadly. He’s phenomenal. You have to put those three guys at the top of the list because they put up good offensive numbers and they are good defensively. Can they do it offensively and defensively? That’s kind of how I judge them.

Q: Do you believe your former teammate, Pete Rose, deserves to be in the Hall of Fame?

A: This is what I usually answer. If you have kids, go home and tell them there aren’t any rules. Everyone knows the rules. We have a judge sitting in here that knows the law and says you have to abide by the law, whatever it is. Having said that, I have worked several times with the commissioner to get Pete back in baseball and it hasn’t worked out. We have a nice relationship. It’s not so bad, but I’ve had people asking me the same question for 22 years. There is more to my life than that question.

Q: What do you think of the catchers that play in the major leagues today?

A:We look at kids and don’t think they can catch, but they are fabulous catchers. They don’t put up the numbers necessarily. That’s how people judge you. If you are good defensively, are you good offensively? (Joe) Mauer puts up the average. He’s been hurt against and so has Buster Posey. You only have one catcher that comes around every 10 years that goes in the hall of fame. We may need to wait another 5-10 years to make that decision.

Q: Sparky Anderson passed away at this time last year. What is your favorite memory of your former manager?

A:It was more of the fact of what he meant to me and my first day that he came to be my manager. I actually had met him in instructional league when I was 18. I was catching instructional league down in Florida. We were playing, at that time, the Cardinals organization. I had caught the game against the Cardinals. We were going over to the bus and he stopped me. He asked me to see his glove. Like he’d never seen a catcher’s glove before. He said ‘I like the way you throw and everything.’ In 1970, he comes over to the Reds. I walked out of spring training on the first day, he stops me and said ‘Let me ask you a question.We took infield on that field. We took pitching on that time. We took hitting on the field.’ I was 22 years old. For the first time in my life, I felt like a professional because you have managers and general management that don’t give you credit for knowing anything. It’s like being a broadcaster with the producer and director talking in your ear. The guy who lands the longest is the guy who repeats what the producer is saying ... For the first time ever, I felt like a professional because he thought I had a brain. I felt like I was the scarecrow that had suddenly founds its brain. He treated me that way throughout my career. We’d talk in his office in private. He valued ideas and valued what you thought. He wouldn’t always use it, but he did like to know what we were thinking. It really made you feel like a professional.”

Q: Who is someone you always played against that you wished you had as a teammate?

A: When you have guys like (Willie) Mays, (Willie) McCovey and (Hank) Aaron. You have people like that. I played with (Roberto) Clemente in winter ball. That was fun to be a part of that. I think I would have liked to have played with Ted Williams more than anybody. Unfortunately, he was a good generation before me. Ted Williams would have been one of those guys that you valued every at-bat that he ever had. Willie Mays was one of the most daring of all. He had such a flair and such drama. He was really a great guy. Plus, you knew how great he was on the field.”

Q: Did you have any contact with Ted Williams?

A: One of my great feelings and happenings in my life happened in 1969. It was my second year in baseball. We had a coach by the name of Roy Seavers that had worked with Ted and been a teammate. We went to play the Senators in a Spring Training game and I asked Roy if he would take me over, introduce me and get a ball signed. I went over to him, he looked at me and said ‘yea, sure’. He wrote on the ball and I walked out. I stopped after we get out of the door and are walking across the field back to our dugout. I stopped and looked it. The ball said ‘To Johnny Bench, a sure Hall of Famer. Ted Williams.’ This was 1969. I had only played a year and he already knows who I am? Now I have to live up to this. We have the Hall of Fame Reds Museum in Cincinnati. It’s actually on display now.”

Q: How do you feel about your fans?

“It’s always nice to know there is that cult group out there that follow sports. You have to have someone with a passion to make someone else feel that way.”

Q: What charitable work do you participate in?

“I’m going to Cincinnati this weekend. I’ve got a charity I’m helping with called ‘Character With Courage’. We’re going to raise money for underprivileged kids. This year, I’ve already helped raise about $2 million for charity and children. We had a tournament down in Fort Myers (Florida) that will helped raise about $700,000 for. One in Lexington, Kentucky, we raised about $800,000 for. We’ve got TAPS, which helps widows of our soldiers. I went to camp in June and been a part of that. The Wounded Warriors has a big spot in my life.”