Bench calls statue his 'greatest moment'

Bench calls statue his 'greatest moment'

Bench calls statue his 'greatest moment'
CINCINNATI -- Near the entrance of the Reds Hall of Fame at Great American Ball Park, a large bronze likeness of Johnny Bench now stands -- decked out in full catcher's gear in the pose of throwing out a runner.

There could not have been a more fitting way to immortalize the greatest catcher in baseball history during Johnny Bench Night.

Who might have the giant doppelganger of Bench been throwing out?

"When I was that age and had those sideburns, it didn't matter, I threw them out," Bench replied. "Just give me a chance. That's all I wanted was a chance. That's what catching was. That's what I was known for."

This Johnny Bench Night on Saturday was held exactly 28 years to the day of a previous Johnny Bench Night in 1983 -- the final season of his Hall of Fame career. On that night, Bench fittingly hit his 389th and last homer.

Bench, who played 17 seasons from 1967-83 -- all with the Reds -- was a key part of the "Great Eight" in the Big Red Machine of the 1970s that won back-to-back World Series in 1975-76. A 14-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove Award winner, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989.

"I've seen him do unbelievable things," said former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Joe Morgan. "That's why that statue is there. That's why he is considered baseball's greatest catcher, because of all the things that he could do -- not just hit. There are guys that will have better hitting statistics, like Mike Piazza. But he's not Johnny Bench."

Bench's is the fifth larger-than-life sculpture to be placed outside of Great American Ball Park. The other four -- Joe Nuxhall, Frank Robinson, Ted Kluszewski and Ernie Lombardi -- stand on Crosley Terrace, which is the plaza area outside of the main gate. All were designed and made by local sculptor Tom Tsuchiya, who spent over eight months working on the Bench statue.

"It turned out better than I could have ever imagined. It's perfect," Tsuchiya said. "The bronze just looks beautiful. First of all, I had the greatest subject to start out with. He is one of the great legends of all time. It was something so inspirational and fun to work on."

Tsuchiya spent hours with Bench to get the sculpture's essence correct and also consulted with Bench's former teammate, outfielder George Foster, and watched lots of video from Bench's playing days.

Charged with capturing one of the greatest Reds to wear a wishbone "C" perfectly, Tsuchiya knew he had to get it right.

"He has so many fans and so many people that love him," he said. "To create a sculpture, there's definitely a weight. You have this big weight on your shoulders. Luckily I had a lot of help from Johnny himself. He helped me with the pose. He answered a lot of questions. He really took time out and helped, which was very valuable."

There is the possibility that three more of Bench's teammates -- Pete Rose, Tony Perez and Morgan -- will join him in sculpture form. They comprised the greatest four among the "Great Eight."

"It would be really fulfilling to have that," said Bench, who wore his red sport coat as a member of the Reds Hall of Fame.

Several of Bench's teammates and Reds greats were there to take in the unveiling, including Morgan, Dave Concepcion, Cesar Geronimo, Foster and Doug Flynn. Reds CEO Bob Castellini introduced Bench to the crowd before he took to the podium.

Later inside the ballpark before the Reds played the Brewers, Bench entered on a red carpet to take part in another ceremony for the nearly sold-out crowd. He was given the surprise of a second honor -- a portion of Second Street adjacent to the stadium was renamed Johnny Bench Way.

The 63-year-old Bench, whose No. 5 was retired in 1984, also threw a ceremonial first pitch to Morgan.

Besides being the 1968 National League Rookie of the Year, Bench was also the NL Most Valuable Player in 1970 and 1972. During his career, he batted .267 with 1,376 RBIs. Defensively, he caught 471 (44 percent) runners trying to steal.

And it was that arm that was legendary and resonated around the league.

"One of the two times I was picked off by a catcher on base was by him and [Dan] Driessen that put [the tag] on here at first base," said Reds manager Dusty Baker, who played against Bench with the Braves and Dodgers.

A player that wowed a generation of Reds fans will now stand for future generations as a symbol of the team's greatest era. As far as Bench was concerned, that was as good as it gets.

"My plaque is hanging in Cooperstown. It's a small plaque. But for me, this is probably my greatest moment, honestly," Bench told a crowd of around 2,000 fans moments before unveiling his statue.

Later to a small group of reporters by his statue, Bench elaborated and explained why this honor carried more meaning.

"I'll never take the ring off and it means everything. But how many hundreds of thousands of people will walk by here?" he said. "First of all, they're in Reds territory. In Cooperstown, you're around the Mets, Yankees, Red Sox or whatever. And you're among so many, every one of them was a Hall of Famer. Here, it stands alone by itself as a symbol for what I stood for.

"Words are written and history is made, but they put this up and everybody walks by and says, 'Oh man, could he throw.' That's the ultimate. It's everything. It really is special."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.