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May 8, 2013 at 6:40 pm ET
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Benchmark: A B&C Interview with Hall of Famer Johnny Bench

Sparky Anderson once said that he would “never embarrass another catcher by comparing him to Johnny Bench,” and truer words have never been spoken.

Bench was a 14-time All-Star, 10-time Gold Glove winner, won a pair of MVP awards and was perhaps the cog in the Big Red Machine that made six postseason appearances and claimed two World Series championships from 1970-79.

This morning, Bench shared a few moments of his time to discuss rivalries, whether Yadier Molina is a Hall of Famer, why he hates pitch counts, why Shin-Soo Choo’s early season performance had Bench uttering “MVP” and why there will never again be another collection of players the likes of the Big Red Machine.

To you, the loyal and learned B&C reader, we proudly present Johnny Lee Bench:

When we spoke with Carlton Fisk in the past, he indicated that he felt rivalries had died away in baseball, but the one between Cincinnati and St. Louis seems to be alive and well.

The Cardinals are just the team to beat, they’ve proven it year in and year out. They lose (Albert) Pujols and everytime you look up they’ve got some other young kid coming out of the organization who is filling in the gaps. Some say, “We should have paid Pujols more money,” but with their pitching staff and the fact that they’re at the top of the division again, is pretty impressive for an organization, and they’re to be commended. I think what happened a couple of years ago when they had the problems and the confrontation (between Brandon Phillips and Yadier Molina), that’s what happens when you believe that there’s one team that is your impediment in getting to your division title there’s always going to be a little bit more drama, so it’s not unusual.

The Reds, right now, have struggled with injuries to a certain extent. I think it could be very easy for them to be a .500 team, but they keep coming back in late innings like they did last night, even though your catcher has gone down, your fourth-place hitter has gone down and you wind up with so many guys that try to overachieve. You get to a situation where, okay, you don’t have a fourth-place hitter, so now Brandon has to go into that position, then you hear how many times about how they’re not driving in runs with men in scoring position, so you wind up maybe trying a little bit too hard. It’s frustrating for the ball club, it’s frustrating for the fans in a lot of ways, this was a team that was picked to win the division, last year they were up on the Giants and they lose in the playoffs, I mean, it’s just kind of bizarre the way it’s all happened, so you’ve got a lot of drama going on. When you wind up going against your division leader, you’re going to have to play hard, but the Reds started off with the Angels, then they played the Nationals, so the schedule pretty much for them, they’ve been thrown into it, they’ve got to play baseball. They’ve settled down a little bit, there’s still a lot to be done, but it’s kind of amazing, I think, it’s great, really, to have a race that’s going on.

And that’s what’s going to happen, we’re going to continue to talk your division leader, who’s the contender, who’s going to be the one to beat them, so I love it, myself. I think Carlton’s right, there’s not a lot of rivalries right now, but this is one you might be able to look forward to like Boston and New York and teams like that.

You are widely considered the greatest catcher in major league history, which makes you more qualified than to weigh in on the subject: With his steady improvement at the plate, combined with his prowess behind it and the championships he’s helped the Cardinals win, do you feel that Yadier Molina is worthy of having a plaque next to you and Fisk and Yogi Berra¬†at Cooperstown?

(Molina) is really one of the best defensive catchers that you’ll see, and he’s swung the bat, he’s raised his average but the way to get to that level is you’re going to have to either lead the league in home runs, drive in 100 runs, you’re going to have to put offensive numbers up that will give even more credence to what people are saying. It’s just hard, it’s really hard to combine the two things together, the offense and defense. You know, there’s only, like, 13 catchers in the Hall of Fame (13 major leaguers, 3 Negro Leaguers), so you really you’re only getting one every decade, so it’s not like it’s something that is going to happen and we don’t have any good catchers, we have a lot of great catchers. You’ve got guys who put up offensive numbers like (Buster) Posey and (Joe) Mauer, which give them even more focus, but Yadier is just a tremendous catcher and when he starts putting up numbers, and he’s steady all the way around, but in order to get that glitz and glamor and solidify that even more, it’s going to be looked at as great, Gold Glove and offensively he produced. He’ll produce in that line-up, he’ll do a great job for them the rest of the season, he’s such a good, clutch hitter.

What’s your take on pitch counts? The Nationals have been very careful with Stephen Strasburg, but already this year, he’s had some arm issues…

For some, I think it’s great, but I think that¬†it’s been a number that’s been way overused. For me, my pitch count meant that when I went out there and he didn’t have his good stuff and I didn’t feel that he was going to match-up with that line-up’s next three or four hitters, I’d walk into the dugout and say “Hey, you’ve got to get somebody up,” and Sparky would start warming up somebody. The barometer is who are they going to face that next inning, have they got the stuff to get through them again, and we’ve developed pitching staffs that are specialists that they throw 94, 95, so a manager’s not afraid, he wants to use those guys, they’re one-inning specialists, he wants to use them and he feels that’s the best way he can win a ball game. Pitch counts are one thing, guys are taking more, being a little more picky about counts, they get to 3-0, 3-1, 3-2, we go through this whole bit, so a lot of guys are afraid to throw the ball over the plate, so their pitch count jumps up. It’s what it is because we try to be too fine, and one¬†reason is because the hitting is great, the offenses are great, so I just feel like pitch counts are something that we’ve looked at too much. I hate it when I see it up on the board, he’s thrown 73 pitches or he’s at 58 pitches in the first five innings or he’s got 70 pitches in the first five innings, so they say “Oh no, we’ve got to get him out of here,” in two more innings. Heck, he may come back and throw eight pitches the next inning and then 10 pitches the next inning with the stuff he has, and that’s what you’re looking for.

How much has Shin-Soo Choo meant to the Reds out of the lead-off spot?

MVP. MVP. This team would not be .500 without him. He’s been such a wonderful surprise to so many people. That walk-off home run last night, but lead-off home run and he plays good defensively. He has filled in so admirably and given this ball club an opportunity with his on-base percentages and everything else to win ball games and keep them in ball games. It would be very difficult, otherwise, for this club to be over .500 the way they are without him.

Since you hung up your spikes, have you, either through performance or potential, ever seen a line-up that reminded you of those Big Red Machine teams of the ’70s?

I’m a little biased on that (laughs), when I think about Pete (Rose), Joe (Morgan), Tony (Perez) and George (Foster) with the home runs and then you’ve got Davey (Concepcion) and Cesar hit .300 and you’ve got (Ken) Griffey (Sr.), it’s just hard for me to believe that we will see that. You can pay money and get a lot of talent, like the Angels with (Mike) Trout and (Mark) Trumbo and Pujols and (Josh) Hamilton and (Howie) Kendrick, you see a line-up that really has some potential to make it happen, but I just don’t see that happening again. In my mind, I’d rather keep it that way and as a result I’m not sure that we can compare them, and that’s just the way that it is and I’m biased, obviously, you can tell that, but you can buy a lot of teams but to be able to assemble the team the way we did, I don’t think so.

Talk about your involvement with Pepsi Max and the Field of Dreams promotion.

We had it last year in Columbus (Ohio) and Pepsi Max came up with the idea to put all the greatest players out on the field together and we had a great time. We’re going to be in Rochester (New York) this year at Frontier Field, and it’s a great opportunity for some of us old guys, though I don’t know if it’s a great opportunity to go out and embarrass ourselves, but we’re giving these guys the opportunity of a lifetime. If you could think that one time you could step on the field, I’m sure you’d have an idea of who you’d like to play with, but it’s that dream opportunity and Pepsi Max has given them that and I think that it’s really an opportunity for all of us, again, to be recognized and have our names out there as still part of this great game of baseball, so it really is a fun time. Some of these guys can still hit, some of these guys can do a lot of things, but we are what we are, and it’s the one time you’re going to be able to step back in time and be a part of a real Field of Dreams. It’s my favorite baseball movie because we have corn fields in the backyard where I grew up and my dad would hit the ball out into the field and we wouldn’t find it, so I still lean back and look at that and think, this is an opportunity maybe we could all experience one more time.

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