In the 1970s, out of many catchers who were stars at the time, one man rose above as, arguably, the best man to suit up and squat behind the plate: Johnny Bench, of the Cincinnati Reds.
My dad was a teenager at the height of the Reds' streak of domination throughout the 1970s. His story of how he began to like Bench and the Reds? Humble and naive, as most of us were when we began our fanhood. Not many of us had rational reasons for liking the team(s) we did, and my father is no different: He became a Reds fan because Johnny Bench was on a Slurpee cup he got at 7-11.
But he was no bandwagoner, nor was he a naive fan as time progressed. His love for and knowledge of baseball began to grow exponentially throughout the early to mid-1970s. As he grew up in Southern California, he would often attend Dodger games when the Reds were in town; he would root for CIncinnati tirelessly--especially for Johnny Bench, although he never shied away from cheering on the entire Big Red Machine: Morgan, Rose, Geronimo, Concepcion, Griffey, the whole gang.
Johnny Bench was a fantastic ballplayer, to say the least. He spent 17 fantastic seasons in the bigs, all with the Reds. I can see a lot of Johnny through my father--both through the stories he told me of his childhood playing baseball, and through the man he is today.
The first example--through my dad's stories of being a Little Leaguer--relate best to Bench's humble baseball beginnings. My dad often attested that he was...well, definitely not the best player. And in the minors, neither was Bench.
In Little League, there's always the one kid on the team who can't play worth beans, and gets stuck in right field because every kid has to play. According to my dad, that...was not him. But he wasn't much better than that. His coaches saw potential in him--among them, his eighth grade history teacher, who doubled as a scout for the Expos at the time. So, when he was 14 he moved up to Pony League play--where he started to shine. Offensively he wasn't fantastic, but defensively, he made Torii Hunter in his prime look like Torii Hunter now.
Likewise, Bench wasn't fantastic in the minors, but many people saw potential--including baseball legend Ted Williams. Bench was batting .163 in AAA, but he made it to the majors...and he just TOOK OFF.
Bench, in his later career, became known for his consistent drive and work ethic, and was unforgettable to those around him--and the same goes to my dad. He currently serves as a fire captain for San Bernardino County, and puts in an amazing effort to do what he does. In addition, he voluntarily serves as the county's only chaplain, without pay. He travels distances of up to 360 miles round-trip for chaplain calls, without pay or complaint. He does his job with a smile and with a big heart for what he does--as Johnny did until the day he retired.