Johnny Bench misses his Hall of Fame Friends.

Bench met, and played with or against all ten Hall of Fame tenants who passed away last year. “You sit and you are puzzled, and you remember, and you remember, and you remember,” he said.

Kurt Streeter. The New York Times. May 3, 2021.

Johnny Bench remembers them well.

It was his colleagues, his idols, his friends.

And now they’re gone, 10 Hall of Fame greats, lost in a terrible span of just over a year, more hall-play deaths than in any similar span in its 85-year history.

Ten greats that now only exist in memories; at bat, on the field and in the dugout.

During a year of widespread misery, in a world still struggling against a virus that has killed millions, how do we make sure those players are not forgotten? There is no one better than Johnny Bench to help us commemorate their lives.

The longtime catcher of the Cincinnati Reds, named one of the four greatest living players in the 2015 All-Star Game, Bench is not just a pivotal Hall of Fame member. It is an oracle of baseball, a conduit between today’s game and the major leagues of the 1960s and 1970s. He also met, was a teammate, or rivaled the ten Hall of Fame tenants who passed away in the recent past.

“I understand that the uptime guarantee expires for all of us, and we have to face that,” said 73-year-old Bench from his home in Florida last week. “But losing so many great players, so many close friends in such a short period …”.

He paused.

“It all started with Al,” he said, his voice doubling in sadness.

It was in the spring of 2020 that Bench discovered that the great Al Kaline of the Detroit Tigers was struggling.

Kaline came to the major leagues at the age of 18, in 1953. At age 20, he was an American League batting champion. In 1968 he led the Tigers to a World Series title. Bench, like many of his generation, grew up marveling at Kaline’s accomplishments at the plate and his prowess on the field.

At the beginning of last year, “I called him and I called him, and he wouldn’t answer me,” Bench said. I called him again, with no answer. So he called me because we always talked a lot, and he said, ‘John, I was in the hospital for ten days. I just wanted you to know, I love you so much, man. ‘

Kaline passed away shortly after, on April 6, 2020.

The months passed and the coronavirus pandemic intensified. Then, on August 31, Tom Seaver passed away from complications of Lewy dementia and Covid.19

“He was probably the best man you would want to hang out with,” said Bench, who was a catcher on Seaver’s powerful shipments from 1977 to 1982. “He played on several teams, and on each one he had everyone’s respect, admiration and affection. the players. After all, it was Tom Seaver. “

Of course, Bench talked about Seaver’s cutting fastball and precision. And how a pitcher like that, intelligent, powerful, iron, made life easy for a catcher.

But it wasn’t Seaver’s mastery on the mound that Bench wanted to discuss. It was about the bond they shared. Their long discussions. His ironic jokes. After his baseball career ended in 1986, Seaver retired to California and became a wine producer. Bench remembers trying to get a discount on a box from Seaver’s Winery. But Seaver at first said no.

“I said, ‘Tom, I’m your catcher! How about I buy you two boxes? He said, ‘No, no, no.’ So I said, ‘Tom, if I hadn’t signed the right way, you wouldn’t have made the Hall of Fame!’ We had a great time with that. We laughed a lot. We share a lot of fun ”.

What about Joe? Asked.

We’re talking about Joe Morgan, the do-it-all second baseman who also played with Bench in Cincinnati and was a fundamental part of the so-called Great Red Machine that won World Series titles in 1975 and 1976.

“Oh Joe,” he said, repeating the name, chewing on my question. “I could talk about him for a week.”

He mentioned Morgan’s last difficult days.

“I get a call from Joe’s attorney, and he says, ‘Johnny I don’t think Joe will make it through tonight.’ I mean you hear that and you shudder. You sit and you abstract, and you remember, and you remember, and you remember.

He followed.

Of all the players who left, Morgan was the closest to him. “We understood each other,” he said. “Like the catcher, he had control of the game. If someone came to talk to the pitcher, I would go there, but so did Joe. And if I got there, and they were already talking, well, I knew Joe was telling the pitcher exactly what needed to be said. We had that, that little telepathy. We understood each other on the ground and in life ”.

By the time Morgan passed away, October 11, losses among the baseball greats had been mounting relentlessly. Three other Hall of Fame tenants had disappeared in the preceding weeks: stolen bases king Lou Brock, pitching ace Bob Gibson, winners of the 1964 and 1967 World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals; and Whitey Ford, the left-handed pitcher who helped the Yankees win six of their eight World Series from 1950 to 1962, even missing the 1951 and 1952 seasons to military service.

How could that get worse?

Then came December and the death of nudillo pitcher Phil Niekro, whose best years were with the Atlanta Braves. Heading into 2021, it was Tommy Lasorda, the charismatic manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers for three decades and two World Series titles. And later, one of his dominant pitchers, Don Sutton.

Then, on January 22, the beating heart of baseball: Henry Aaron.

“He was just an above-average man,” Bench said. “I called him Henry, and I always respected him.”

It was more than Aaron’s 755 home runs, a mark that remained for 33 years. Either his 3,771 lifetime hits, or his MLB mark of 2,997 RBIs. It was his way of being.

Bench admired Aaron’s combination of smart starts, resilient ethics, talent, and the inner strength to resist death threats as he approached and then surpassed Babe Ruth’s home run mark.

“All he did was put in numbers,” Bench recalled. It wasn’t dramatic. He didn’t hit the ground floor, but he hit home runs. He was hitting the extra-bases. He was hitting twice as much. Out to the runners. He caught all the highs. He made all the routine plays like nothing. “

What was it like to be the catcher and see Aaron in his prime, enter the batter’s box?

Here Bench recalled how Aaron was getting ready to hit, the batting case embedded in his outfielder cap. The big catcher said he could still hear the whistle of Aaron’s bat as if it were whipping over the strike zone.

Bench remembered, most of all, his first Atlanta game against Aaron in 1967. He was nervous. The broad-shouldered number 44 calmly advanced to the plate. When he got there, he smiled at Bench and spoke five calm words; “Hi John, how are you doing?”

Bench laughed for a moment and repeated that line. “Hi John…”

“For him to tell me that, when I was just a dumb rookie, I said to myself Wow! That will be with me forever.

Kurt Streeter writes the Sports of The Times column. He has been a sports writer at The Times since 2017 and previously worked at ESPN and The Los Angeles Times.

Translation: Alfonso L. Tusa C. May 7, 2021.

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