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A Catcher's Hit That Wasn't Caught: JOHNNY BENCH


    It was a grey, dreary October afternoon in 1972 at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. The situation for the Cincinnati Reds looked even gloomier than the weather. The team was just about out of time in its quest for the National League pennant.


The fifth game of the National League's Championship Series saw Pittsburgh leading, 3-2, in the ninth inning. All the Pirates had to do was retire the Reds without a score and the pennant would fly in the Steel City instead of in Cincinnati. What transpired, however, turned out to be one of the most disastrous innings in the history of the Pittsburgh franchise.


Dave Giusti, a veteran relief pitcher who specialized in an off-speed pitch called a palm ball, had come on for the Pirates to protect their slim lead. The first batter he faced in the ninth was Johnny Bench.


The two had faced each other many times. Bench knew Giusti would try to get him with a palm ball, a pitch that comes to the plate looking like a fastball, but much slower. And Giusti knew he had to keep his pitch away from Bench's power area.


Bench quickly got in the hole with two strikes, but not before bringing the crowd of 41,887 to its feet with a 400-foot shot to left field that was foul by about 20 feet. The ball's path looked like a game-tying home run, but then it hooked considerably foul.

The crowd realized that when a batter comes that close to a home run, that's usually it and he's finished. And Giusti knew he had Bench where he wanted him, one ball and two strikes.


Pittsburgh's pitcher delivered a palm ball away from Bench and out of his power zone, a bit high and outside. Bench measured the speed correctly and didn't try to pull the pitch to left field. Uncharacteristically, Bench went with the pitch, met it squarely and hit a long fly to right field. Pittsburgh right-fielder Roberto Clemente went back to the right center-field fence. He would have needed to have been 12 feet tall to catch the ball.


The ball rocketed over the fence at about the 375-foot marker. It

was a game-tying home run. The crowd went wild, the Reds dugout erupted and suddenly the game was tied and Pittsburgh didn't have a lock on the pennant.


It was a big ninth inning. Tony Perez and Denis Menke singled. George Foster ran for Perez and went to third base when Cesar Geronimo hit a long fly ball to right.


Bob Moose now was on to pitch for the Pirates and Hal McRae was at the plate as a pinch hitter. Moose fired his second pitch to McRae in the dirt. It eluded catcher Manny Sanguillen, went to the backstop and Foster scampered home with the pennant-winning run.


   That home run by Bench was the only home run that he hit in the 1972 Championship Series, but he connected with considerable frequency throughout that regular season and for his entire career. In 1972, as he was in 1970, Bench was the major league home-run king, hitting 40 in 1972 and 45 in 1970.


In his career Bench has hit 356 homers, 30th on the all-time baseball list when the 1981 season opened. More impressively, Bench has hit more home runs than any catcher in the long history of the game, 356.


Bench passed Yogi Berra in 1980 when he ran his total as a catcher to 323, 10 more than the mark Berra established. The remainder of Bench's total came when he played first base, third base, the outfield or was sent to the plate as a pinch hitter.


When Bench decides to retire, he should have to wait only the mandatory five years before he is inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame. He should be a certain first-ballot pick.


Few would disagree that Johnny Bench is the best catcher ever to put on the equipment.




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