Johnny Bench

Johnny Bench, Hall of Fame catcher. 

Most of us over—let’s use 50 as a benchmark—are well aware that it is easy to feel our age. I recently squatted for a few minutes to drive in a tent stake, and my meniscus popped like an over-cranked guitar string, and I felt every one of my years. 

While it’s not as easy to make it feel as though the clock has been turned back, we all, hopefully, have ways to do just that. 

For me, baseball is the Fountain of Youth. Not playing it, mind you. That could go bad in a number of ways. Watching it, talking about it, the smell of fresh cut grass, packing up to go to a softball tournament… 

Usually, this time of year is great. By now I would have watched a couple dozen high school games, perhaps spent some time in the first base coach’s box for my daughter’s high school games and likely watched a few games at Cornell University, Ithaca College and Ithaca High School. I’d be gearing up for the travel team season, getting ready to spend time with other softball parents I have known for years and gleefully anticipating how much the new parents would enjoy my stories and jokes. My daughter would tell me I was delusional in that regard. 

I would also be looking forward to getting on my motorcycle, meeting up with Bill White (my Best Baseball Pal and everyone’s favorite advertising guy and school bus driver), and riding our Hondas over to Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame events. We saw a great induction ceremony a few years back, when thousands upon thousands of Dominicans showed in raucous and colorful fashion to watch Pedro Martinez’s induction, and on another trip we took in a great Legends Game, in which we saw some retired players hit 450-foot home runs and pull hamstrings like an Atlantic City vendor pulls taffy. We met the daughter of the longtime owners of the San Francisco Giants, and she let us try on World Series rings from 1954 and 2004. I wanted to marry her. 

This year feels a lot different. One of my buddies told me he was watching broadcasts of pro ball from Korea in the wee hours of the morning, and with all due respect to those players, coaches and fans, no thanks. Other friends are watching reruns of classic games. That sounds a little better... 

Knowing I was feeling out of sorts, my friend Bill told me he had a gift for me. He reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a vintage baseball card featuring a young Cincinnati Reds player named Johnny Bench. 

That gift means a lot. Bill knows that I had an experience as a 36 year-old man that made me feel like a wide-eyed 12 year-old, and Bench was at the center of that story. My apologies to those who have heard that story (a dozen times), but in a time when so many pro athletes act in such self-absorbed ways, it is (I hope) worth sharing again. (The following is excerpted from my book, “Damn Good Stories, Told Reasonably Well, With Questionable Motives”): 

***

I was at Toronto’s Sky Dome, covering the 1992 World Series featuring the Blue Jays and the Braves, and I approached Hall of Famer Johnny Bench, who was also on the field covering the game, and I asked him if he had a moment to talk. He said he did, and I said, “Johnny, given that this is the first World Series game played outside the U.S., it is a historic night for baseball. What other historic moments have you been a part of?” 

Bench said he liked the question, and started to tell me about being behind the plate for another Hall of Famers’ 300th win, about a no-hitter he had caught, when an Armani-clad, Rolex-wearing, guy with $500 shoes, too much hair spray and a fake tan walked between us, extended his hand and said, “Hello, Johnny, I haven’t seen you since…” Bench held up his hand, cut the guy off and said, “Excuse me, but I’m talking to someone. I‘ll be with you when we‘re finished.” Bench graciously answered my questions, thanked me for my interest, then engaged Mr. Rich and Rude, who stood sheepishly waiting.

I gained a lot of respect for Johnny Bench that night. A lot of big-timers would have blown off a small town reporter to talk to a big wig, but not Bench. I always liked him from a distance, but I liked him even more up close. 

***

That was the kind of experience—and memory—that can breathe some life into a baseball fan’s season of discontent. Bill knew that something as simple as a baseball card could mean so much on so many levels. 

That’s a friend.

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