I was lucky enough to see two of the greatest catchers of all time play in their primes. Pudge Rodriguez for the Texas Rangers and Johnny Bench for the Cincinnati Reds.
There was really nothing either of these catchers couldn’t do behind the plate.
Both came up as nineteen year olds and made immediate impacts on the game. Their career accolades, in fact, were very similar in so many ways.
Bench: 17 seasons, 14 All-Star games, 2 MVPs, 10 Gold Gloves, Rookie of the Year, 389 HRs, 1376 RBIs, .267 AVG, .342 OBP, .817 OPS.
Rodriguez: 21 seasons, 14 All Star games, 1 MVP, 13 Gold Gloves, 311 HRs, 1332 RBIs, .324 OBP, .789 OPS.
Bench played his entire seventeen-year career with the Cincinnati Reds. Rodriguez played with six teams: Texas, Florida, Detroit, New York Yankees, Houston, and Washington.
It’s worth noting that Rodriguez played pretty much his entire career as a catcher. Being in the American League for as long as he was, while he did have the benefit of DH-ing, he played a handful of games at first and even a game at second when he was in Detroit. But for the most part, his career was forged behind the plate, the most brutally demanding position in baseball, both physically and mentally. Bench ended up almost exclusively as a third baseman his last two seasons, the demands of catching having caught up to him.
But I was lucky enough to see them both play. Imagine how incredible it must have been to grow up in New York in the 50s, being able to see Mickey Mantle with the Yankees, Willie Mays with the Giants, and Duke Snyder with the Dodgers.
It was something like that.
The most amazing day I have ever experienced at a ballpark came in Cincinnati in September of 1983. It was Johnny Bench night. Riverfront Stadium. 54,000 Bench-loving fans were there to say farewell to their hero. As a tribute to the fans, Bench played catcher for the first time all season that night.
Bench didn’t disappoint. In fact, he did just the opposite. With the Reds trailing 2-0 against the Astros, Bench belted a home run off a sign in left field that read, “HIT US ONE MORE, JOHNNY,” to tie game and send the crowd into a five-minute frenzy I had never witnessed before. The game was unable to go on. Grown men were crying. I was crying.
With all due respect to John Updike in his historic article about Ted Williams’s farewell, gods do, in fact, answer letters. Bench answered one that night. I will never forget it.
Now that the names have been announced for this year’s Hall of Fame, and Ken Griffey Jr and Mike Piazza have been elected, it’s worth noting that next year Pudge Rodriguez will be on the Hall of Fame ballot.
His career accomplishment certainly make him worthy of being elected in his first year and earn him the right to sit alongside Johnny Bench in Cooperstown.
ESPN.com’s Tim Kurkjian, one of my favorite baseball writers, had a column yesterday about the upcoming Hall of Fame class, with a lot to say about Pudge.
You can read it here.
If I were in the business of making predictions, I would say that this time next year we are going to be welcoming Pudge Rodriguez into the Hall of Fame.
I sure hope he goes as a Ranger.