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Lessons from Baseball’s Bench

Hall of Famer Johnny Bench speaks at Barnes & Noble tonight

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Baseball Hall of Famer Johnny Bench may have played 15 seasons for the Cincinnati Reds, but he’s a major part of Boston sports history, too: he was behind the plate in game six of the 1975 World Series, when Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk hit a walkoff home run in the bottom of the 12th inning, sending the series to a seventh game (which was won by Bench and the Reds).

A 14-time All-Star, Bench won 10 Gold Gloves before his retirement in 1983. Since then, he’s become an author and motivational speaker. He’ll be at the Barnes & Noble at BU on Tuesday, September 23, to speak and sign copies of his new book, Catch Every Ball. He spoke with BU Today about today’s top players, his influences and mentors, and, of course, the ’75 World Series.

BU Today: In your new book, you say that one of the most important baseball lessons you’ve learned is “Go get a cheeseburger.” Can you explain?
Johnny Bench:
My dad’s greatest dream in life was to play in the majors, but he served two hitches in the wars and never had that opportunity. When I said I wanted to be a ballplayer, he said a catcher was what the teams needed, and he started a Little League team. And Dad understood a bunch of young kids who had never played baseball before, and he was very insistent about saying one of the most important things to understand is that you can’t win every game. So when we played and we lost, he didn’t want to see a lot of disappointment. He’d say, ‘That’s all right, we’ll get them tomorrow. Let’s go get a cheeseburger.”

When we finally did beat the team that was undefeated and they were over there crying, I asked him, “What’s wrong with them?” He said, “They haven’t learned to lose yet. Let’s go get a cheeseburger.”

The game is what you play. You treat it as a game and as something fun, and you work to try to get better than the other guys, and you develop it over a period of time. Then if you really want something, you’ll go out and make every effort to get it.

You’re now in the position of mentoring people. Who did you look to for advice during your life and career?
I developed my own group of mentors. I had a great attorney I found through Pete Rose, and I added a business manager, and it seemed like every time that I had a question they actually posed it back to me — I would have to figure out what would be best for me, in my life. There were also the guys around me, [Reds manager] Sparky Anderson and Tony Perez and Pete — there was a reason they were successful, and I wanted to know why. In 1970, I went around the world with Bob Hope, and I watched him. As they say, you have two ears and one mouth, so you should listen twice as much as you speak. I’m still working on that, but there’s a lot of truth to it.

Has the run-up in player salaries since you retired in the early 1980s changed the game in your eyes?
I think our perception of the game has changed a lot. We look at the players differently, and we think they should be doing more. People say, “Well, they just don’t make them like they used to.” I say it still really is a great game, and we just look at these guys differently because they’re making so much money. Deep down, when you go out there and see the way a lot of these guys play, they still love the game.

Would I like to be making $20 million a year? Absolutely. I have no qualms about that. But I did achieve all the things, and more, that I set out to do.

Who are your favorite current players?
I see Twins catcher Joe Mauer and the talent that he has. I love to watch guys like Dustin Pedroia of the Red Sox, and I love the way Big Papi plays the game. There’s so many good things. We’re still dominated by the East Coast in so many ways — there are other teams besides the Yankees and the Red Sox. There are so many great ballplayers that nobody gets to see. We’re talking about Tim Lincecum with the San Francisco Giants, who may be the Cy Young Award winner. We’re talking about guys who are having tremendous years. Look at pitcher Cliff Lee out in Cleveland, and the year that he’s put together.

There’s still a lot of fun and excitement out there. If you want to spend the time as a true baseball fan and not just people who need instant gratification, I say just go down and sit with your buddies and have a beer. There’s no rush to watch a ballgame. That’s the great thing about it. I still love the game, and I still watch it. And I still admire the skills. We’ve got some of the greatest athletes you’ll ever find playing the game of baseball.

What’s the solution to the struggles of small market teams, such as Cincinnati?
It’s a very, very tough road for small markets. Is there an answer? I mean, spend more. But then you’ve put yourself into the situation where you can no longer do business. There’s a lot to be said for people who have that ability of putting a team together, and it is possible — it is possible that people with the right knowledge can go down and put a team together and produce a winner. But then they can’t afford to keep them the next year, because the team behind them is going to come back, and somebody’s going to say, “Man, we’ve got to get this guy off this club.” People get very down quickly, because almost immediately it looks like their team is not going to be successful. And it’s very discouraging, because they want a winner so bad.

This being Boston, I have to ask you about your memories of the 1975 World Series against the Red Sox.
The top memory is walking into the clubhouse after game seven. I had previously won many individual awards, and it’s great to be an individual champion. But when I walked into that clubhouse and all 25 players were world champions, there wasn’t any question as to what was the real answer in life: being able to be part of a winning ball club. We always say there’s nothing like it, and it’s true. Everybody was a champion — the 25 players, the owners, the equipment managers. There couldn’t have been anything better in their lives than what they had just experienced. So individual honors are great, but when it comes down to the end of it, it’s the team that really matters.

Johnny Bench will be speaking and signing his book Catch Every Ball at the Barnes & Noble at Boston University, 660 Beacon St., on Tuesday, September 23, at 5 p.m. This event is free and open to the public.

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