Thursday, May 22, 2008

Catchers- Exemplary and Worthy of Mention #1

Johnny Lee Bench. (Born on 12/7/1947 ) Played for the Cincinnati Redlegs from 1967-1983.

A standout player for Binger High, in the small Western Oklahoma town of Binger (formerly known as Hoss Spit Flats), his father advised him that the fastest route to the majors was being a catcher.

Called up in August 1967, he batted under .200 but impressed many with his defensive prowess and strong throwing arm. Among those who were impressed was the Splendid Splinter himself, Ted Williams. Williams signed a ball for the young catcher that read: "A Hall of Famer for sure!"

Johnny Bench was credited with revolutionizing the position of catcher. The catcher's equipment was traditionally referred to as the "tools of ignorance" as many catchers lacked the fielding skills to play elsewhere. But Bench inspired many young ballplayers to become catchers.

His use of the hinged catcher's mitt was thought to be a gimmick, when he first used it after an injury to the thumb on his throwing hand, but it became standard issue soon afterward. The new mitt replaced the traditional rigid trapper-style mitt and allowed Bench to tuck his throwing arm safely to the side.

One day when a pitcher insisted on throwing fastballs even though he didn't have much velocity, Bench caught one of the pitches with his bare hand, just to make a point. (A folklorish tale that doesn't include dates and times or the names of the people involved except the hallowed one whose story is being told.)

Johnny Bench had a tendency to block breaking balls in the dirt by scooping them with one hand instead of the more common and fundamentally proper way: dropping to both knees and blocking the ball using the chest protector.

When referring to Johnny Bench's style of playing catcher you wouldn't say 'that's not the way to do it' because #5 could do it that way. It may not have been the traditional method of stopping a wild pitch but Johnny Bench was an athlete with tremendous ability. He had the agility to position himself so that if the ball did skip under his glove his body was still there to keep the ball from advancing any further.

His lifetime achievements were plentiful.
G-2158 AB-7658 R-1091 H-2048 HR-389 RBI-1376 BA-.267
He won Rookie of the Year in 1968.
Most Valuable Player in 1970, 1972
Ten Golden Gloves
Two World Series Championships (1975, 1976* *World Series MVP)
His number 5 was retired by the Cincinnati Redlegs
Elected to Baseball's Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, NY, ...1989.

His statistical numbers do not show the attempted number of steals versus the number of times the runner was thrown out. But it does show that he often threw out more runners than the number of bases stolen when he was catching. 610 runners got credit for a stolen base when he was catching. 469 runners got caught.

In his career he had 94 passed balls charged to his account.
446 wild pitches charged to the person delivering the pitch.

Statistics don't really tell the tale of Johnny Bench's defensive game. We'll have to leave those memories to people who played with and against him, announcers and or fans, just like with all the other greats who graced the field between the lines of fair/foul play. Such is baseball, when all the accounts of said game, many moons later, is left to folkloristics.

(thanks to Baseball Reference, Wikipedia)

Kevin Marquez