WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- In a turn of events befitting his status as arguably the greatest catcher of all time, Johnny Bench -- who was scheduled to throw out the first pitch at the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Little League World Series -- instead returned to his rightful place behind home plate to catch the offering from a member of the Latin America Region Champions.
The 1989 Hall of Fame inductee and integral member of the Big Red Machine may have brought a stroke of luck to that Panama team, which opened the 70th LLWS with a dominant 10-2 victory over Mexico on Thursday afternoon at Volunteer Stadium.
The night before, Bench arrived in the home of Little League International to serve as the Grand Marshal of the tournament's Grand Slam Parade, which showcases all 16 participating teams.
"It was amazing to see a Hall of Famer in person," said Jayden Fanara of the Mid-Atlantic team from Maine-Endwell Little League in New York. "He told us to play positive and have a good mentality."
For Bench, this wasn't his first foray into youth baseball. In the early 1980s, he hosted "The Baseball Bunch," a 30-minute baseball-themed educational TV show for kids produced by MLB Productions.
The 68-year-old Bench, who spent his entire 17-year career with the Reds, also knows what its like to be a young ballplayer in the spotlight. Drafted out of high school when he was just 17, the Oklahoma native debuted in August 1967 at age 19. He hit the first of his 389 career home runs that year before going on to earn 13 straight All-Star Game selections and a pair of NL MVP Awards. After his playing career, he returned to the organization to share his experience with the next generation.
"I can't tell you how good it feels to put on a uniform again," Bench said at Spring Training in 1997. "It's very exciting to do some work with the Cincinnati Reds -- it's the only organization I've ever been associated with. Hopefully I can help some players and give something back."
Which is exactly what he did for this year's LLWS stars.
Allison Duffy-Davis is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.