Monday, February 20, 2017

When Johnny Bench's Career Almost Ended at 25

The Cincinnati Reds were only three outs away from being eliminated in the 1972 Playoffs. Trailing the defending World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates, 3-2, in the fifth and final game, Johnny Bench led off the bottom of the ninth inning against the Pirates' ace reliever Dave Guisti.

As Bench prepared to leave the on-deck circle, his mother caught his eye. Katy Bench had left her seat and worked her way to the rail near the Reds dugout. Although Katy would later tell a reporter that she yelled, "This is it," in the version Johnny would tell for years he heard her say, “Hit a home run." The exact words are perhaps unimportant, (who can hear clearly when 50,000 fans are screaming?) but his account sounded much better for the myth-makers.

The dutiful son then walked to home plate, swung at an outside two-strike pitch and lined it over the right field wall. Riverfront Stadium exploded. In the broadcasting booth, the voice of 28-year-old Reds announcer Al Michaels reached an octave previously thought unattainable by primates. Although the Reds didn’t officially win the game until a few minutes later when George Foster scored on a wild pitch, there was no doubt that the game was over as soon as Bench’s drive cleared the wall.

It would be remembered as the most dramatic moment in Reds’ history. And the amazing thing about it was that as Bench walked to the plate for that at bat, he was burdened with a secret. None of the fans, no one in the press box, very few in the dugout knew that if he had made an out here, if the Reds failed to advance to the World Series, there was a plausible chance that this would be the last at bat of his major league career.

Johnny Bench had proven himself to be a once-in-a-generation transcendent talent. He hit 45 home runs and 148 RBIs in 1970 and followed that with 40 and 129 in 1972, leading the league in both categories both times. On defense, it was immediately apparent that Bench was special from the first day he laced up the shin guards in a late 1967 call-up. No one else would win a National League Gold Glove for catching for the next ten years.

By the end of the 1972 season, Bench had played in five All-Star games and had taken home five Gold Gloves and two MVP awards--and he hadn’t turned 25 yet.

In addition he had reached a level of pop-cultural appeal rarely seen among baseball players. He had toured with Bob Hope, appeared on the popular TV spy show Mission Impossible and belted out songs on Hee Haw. Few major league players would have even tried pulling off the act of snapping his fingers in front of Junior Samples and a hound dog, surrounded by hay bales and fake corn, wearing a pair of lime-green pants borrowed from Kermit the Frog. He was clearly a man of rare talents and accomplishments.

The trouble started when Reds players had their annual routine physical exams in early September. Traditionally this was a casual off-day away from the ballpark, a chance for Pete Rose and Joe Morgan to hold court trading endless put-downs and wise cracks, for Tony Perez to sneak among his teammates, pinching them on the butt and then scurrying away giggling. Few players took the tests seriously. The players, all marvelous athletic specimens in the prime of their lives, passed easily. All except one.

Johnny Bench got a call the next day from someone at the hospital who wanted him to return for another Chest X-Ray; the first one had been a bit blurry, he was told. So Bench went back the next day and the X-Ray was repeated. Before he could leave, they needed another one—just routine, he was told. Then they wanted to do some more tests. Finally he learned the problem: there was a spot on his right lung. A spot that hadn’t been there the previous year.

Doctors couldn’t tell exactly what the spot represented—it could be benign or it could be cancer; they needed more tests to be sure. Blood tests for the usual suspects, tuberculosis and histoplasmosis, were taken and came back negative. Attempts to reach the lesion with a bronchoscope were unsuccessful. Bench was informed that they would need a more invasive test to determine the diagnosis. The only other option was to just watch the lesion awhile and see if it changed. But if they waited and it turned out to be malignant, the waiting would throw away the only chance of cure.

In 1972 lung cancer was almost uniformly fatal. Immediately jumping to mind was the movie Brian’s Song which had debuted the previous year, making more tough he-men run for the kitchen to avoid public tears than anything since Old Yeller. Dying jocks were on the brain.

What Bench would need in order to diagnose the spot on his lung was a serious surgical procedure. The medical term thoracotomy was derived from old Greek which, loosely translated, means to have one’s chest filleted open like a mackerel. In 1972 technology the most-commonly used, traditional operation was a posterolateral thoracotomy in which the large muscles of the back, the latissimus dorsi, were completely cut through, often accompanied by the removal of a rib. It was, and remains, one of the most painful surgical incisions known, usually resulting in a slow agonizing recovery process. Cutting through and then sewing the muscles results in scar tissue which can restrict free arm movement. Playing baseball at a high level afterwards is an iffy prospect and could take as long as a year, or longer.

While digesting this information and what it might mean--for his career and his life--Bench silently bore the strain and went about his day job. He not only showed up for work, but performed brilliantly in the closing weeks of the season, hitting 11 home runs and 33 RBIs during the month of September as the Reds drove toward the pennant. Only closest family members and friends were told.

One of those let in on the secret, Bench's attorney and friend Reuven Katz, also happened to represent the surgical department of the University of Cincinnati Medical School. Katz made some discrete inquiries about thoracic surgery and came up with the name of Luis Gonzalez.

Luis Gonzalez, 45 years old in 1972, was a trim, dark-haired man with a warm smiling face and a good sense of humor. A war-time Marine before going to medical school, he had been on staff at the University of Cincinnati for a decade and was known not only as an excellent surgeon, but an innovator. Dr. Gonzalez had been an early proponent of a type of incision for these operations that avoided severing the latissimus dorsi and removing a rib.

Bench met with Dr. Gonzalez and a date was set for the surgery to take place in early December. A brief statement was released to the press informing them of the procedure before Bench entered the hospital, just days after his 25th birthday.

Suddenly Johnny Bench was the most famous hospital patient in the midwest. Cincinnati's two daily newspapers, along with those in nearby Dayton, would keep interested citizens informed of his progress with daily articles, in both the front page and sports page, for the next two weeks.

 Modern baseball fans, accustomed to players having a myriad of off-season surgical procedures and returning unscathed the next season, should realize that in 1972, the type of operation Bench underwent, although termed a muscle-sparing procedure, was still a harrowing experience.  The incision started just below his right nipple and arched under his armpit toward the back. A minor muscle, the serratus anterior, was severed to reach the chest wall.

Next, think of the meaty space between the ribs the last time you had a rack at your favorite barbecue joint. This muscle was cut through with a blade. The surgeon then reached for a sinister-looking torture device called a rib-spreader. The scariest aspect of the rib-spreader is that there is no attempt at deception--it does exactly what the name implies: it . . . spreads . . . ribs.

The metal ends are inserted between the ribs and the knob turned, gradually spreading, widening the ribs until adequate visualization of the contents of the chest is achieved. If done too forcefully, this could break ribs or dislocate them from their attachments. Also spreading the ribs stretches the nerve that runs just underneath, resulting in prolonged pain.

Once the biopsy was taken and bleeding controlled, the whole mess was closed with multiple layers of sutures, some in the muscles, some in the tissue beneath the skin and, last, the skin itself. Legend has it that the surgeon, a veteran of more than 15 years in the operating room, remarked that he had never seen a patient with such unusually developed musculature as Bench had in his back.

The operation took two hours and was a success. The lesion, which was slightly larger than a marble, was found in a fissure between the lower and upper lobes of the right lung and was completely removed along with a small amount of actual lung tissue. A frozen section pathology exam was done during the procedure and revealed no sign of cancer.

 The official diagnosis, confirmed with further tests in the lab, was coccidiodomycosis, a fungus which is ubiquitous in the southwest. Infection occurs by breathing in an airborne spore which then causes an inflammatory lesion in the lung. It was felt that Bench had probably contracted it in during a golf tournament in the southwest the preceding year.

The patient made a quick recovery. Two days after the operation, dressed in red pajamas and a pink robe, Johnny held a press conference in his hospital room. He proudly showed off the gnarly ten-inch scar and joked with reporters that he was taking interviews for pretty young nurses to look after him when he went home. He added that he hoped to be able to use the operation as an excuse in spring training. “If Sparky Anderson gets tough I can just say, ‘Hey, Sparky, I’ve got this lung, you know.’”

Bench spent a restless six weeks recovering. By early February, he was testing his baseball swing and playing golf. By spring training, he was ready. He would catch every game during the exhibition season, a marked increase to his normal spring work load.

Early, there were rumors that his famed right arm was not yet back to strength. In one of the first spring games, two successive Cardinal base runners tried him out and both would-be thieves were gunned down at second. By the time the season started, the rest of the league had regained their healthy respect for Bench's wing. While the 1973 Reds were stealing 148 bases, only 55 brave souls dared to attempt to take a base without permission against Bench. Half were thrown out.

Bench started slowly at the plate, but in early May he had put together a modest nine-game hitting streak when the Reds traveled to Philadelphia to face the Phillies and their ace Steve Carlton. Bench then treated the Hall of Fame-bound Carlton like a batting practice pitcher, slamming three home runs and seven RBIs in a 9-7 win—he was back. Oddly, it was the second time in three years Bench had victimized Lefty with a three-homer game.

To a casual observer, Bench seemed to bear little negative effect from the drama of the offseason. He would play in 152 games (134 as catcher) in 1973 and finish the season with 104 RBIs. He went on to play ten more years, retiring as the all-time leader in home runs and RBIs for a catcher and had more RBIs than any major league player for the decade of the 1970s.

But the operation did have a cost. While remaining a good RBI man, Bench was not the power-hitter he had been. In the three seasons before the operation, he had averaged 37 home runs a year. His best seasons afterwards were 33 home runs in 1974 and 31 in 1977. He later admitted that he was never quite the same player. “I never felt like I was Johnny Bench after that surgery.”

All things considered, it's remarkable he was able to perform as well as he did. And it's awe-inspiring to wonder what might have been, considering his first five seasons.

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