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Bench never saw All-Star moonshot
The last time baseball’s All-Star Game came to Kansas City, the year was 1973, and the most memorable hit of the evening belonged to the reigning National League MVP, future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench of the Cincinnati Reds.
It was the top of the fourth inning, and Bench led off against Bill Singer of the California Angels. All Bench wanted to do was guess the right pitch. He guessed fastball. All-Star Games always filled Bench with adrenaline, and every last ounce of adrenaline went into that swing. The ball sailed high and straight down the left-field line.
This was before hitters paused to admire their home runs, so Bench did what a ballplayer was supposed to do: He put his head down and sprinted to first.
“I was just flying around bases. That was my modus operandi, and when they told me where it supposedly landed, it was like, wow,” Bench told FOXSports.com.
“The legend has grown over years. But I’ve been told it became one of the longest home runs in Kansas City history.”
Five hundred-plus feet. Or so the legend says.
There are so many ways to judge a ballplayer’s career. The cumulative numbers, the MVP awards or the Cy Youngs, the playoff appearances, the World Series wins. But perhaps the top reason Bench is judged as the best catcher of all time? The All-Star Games: 14 of them in his 16-year career, including three home runs, none farther than the one in Kansas City.
All-Star Games, you must remember, matter no more to a player’s statistics than an intrasquad game in March. It’s an exhibition, a celebrity-fest, a pause in the middle of the baseball season when fans can see the greatest players come together on the same field in a game that’s virtually meaningless yet often incredibly captivating.
The point of the NFL’s Pro Bowl seems to be to avoid getting hurt. Ditto for the NHL’s All-Star Game. The point of the NBA’s All-Star Game? To avoid playing defense and dazzle the crowd.
But the baseball All-Star Game, the Midsummer Classic, has more of a mystique and a history than any other sport.
It’s a place where legends are formed:
Bo Jackson, leading off with a monster home run in 1989 at Anaheim Stadium, his only All-Star Game. Fred Lynn, hitting the only grand slam in All-Star history, at Comiskey Park in 1983. Babe Ruth, slugging a home run in the first All-Star Game in 1933 at Comiskey. Pete Rose, running over catcher Ray Fosse in the 12th inning of the 1970 All-Star Game at Riverfront Stadium and dislocating Fosse’s shoulder. Carl Hubbell striking out five future Hall of Famers in a row in 1934 at the Polo Grounds. Reggie Jackson in 1971, rocking a Dock Ellis fastball some 520 feet off the roof of Tiger Stadium. And the walk-off home runs: Ted Williams in 1941 at Briggs Stadium in Detroit, Stan Musial in 1955 at Milwaukee County Stadium.
“You’re playing with guys you followed and idolized,” Bench said of his first All-Star Game, at the Astrodome in 1968, when he was named as an alternate his rookie year.
“I’m a kid out of Oklahoma, a town of 660 people. All of it was kind of somebody leading me around, telling me what to do. You know – don’t spike anybody and just blend in as well as possibly can. I was afraid to move, didn’t want to trip over anyone.”
He didn’t trip. Instead, in the locker room, as heroes such as Hank Aaron and Willie McCovey and Ron Santo strolled around, Willie Mays came up to Bench. The Say Hey Kid told him he should’ve been the starting catcher.
“And my life was complete,” Bench said with a laugh.
But as a man who loves the craft of being a catcher, the All-Star Games meant something different to Bench. Sure, he got a chance to catch some great pitchers in his time with the Reds: Jim Maloney and Don Gullett, Tom Seaver and Mario Soto.
But All-Star Games? He got to catch all the legends. Bench got to catch Bob Gibson. He got to catch Steve Carlton. His favorite was Juan Marichal, which Bench called the single most enjoyable inning he’s ever caught. Describing it all, he sounded like a kid at Christmas.
“Being the starting catcher was always so much fun, because you get to catch all these All-Star pitchers and you get to work the game,” Bench said. “You can locate, you can change speeds. I just felt like an artist back there, painting with those guys and their stuff. These were guys, the ball seemed to float and accelerate through the hitting area. I just thought, ‘Man this is so cool.’
“It’s about the players, about being in the same locker room,” Bench said. “How many people get to say they’ve been in the same locker room as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson? My goodness. It’s the greats of the greats. To be on the same team as them, is there anything better?”
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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