Drives The "big Red Machine"
During the 1970s the Cincinnati Reds were one of the dominant teams in baseball, reaching the postseason six times and ending their seasons in second place three other years. Bench was an important gear in that machine. Behind the plate, he took charge of the game. Bench made it a point to know well the ability of his pitchers and the favored pitches of the opposing batters. As Bench noted in his autobiography, "A catcher has to learn how to get the best out of a pitcher, to let him be himself, go to his strengths, and yet still be effective." He continued, "I try to get along personally with pitchers, but the most important thing is to somehow get them to have faith in you in not only receiving but calling the pitches."
According to Bench, part of a catcher's role is to "negotiate umpires," that is, tell them when they could do better, but in a respectful way so as not to get thrown out of the game. "I have a guarded respect for them. I live with them every day and we get along," he once said. "I'll argue because it is essential to beef about bad calls. You cannot feel intimidated or threatened by an umpire. He's human and will use his leverage against you. Getting your say, and keeping an umpire thinking is important for the pitcher and everybody else." Because Bench was so effective in calling the pitches, signaling defensive positions to fielders, and dealing with umpires, he earned the moniker "Little General." Even so, when new manager Sparky Anderson came on board in 1970, he made Pete Rose the team captain, which at first irked the cocky Bench.
Bench's defensive skills awed fans. Photographers snapped pictures of him holding seven baseballs in one hand. Bench made the oversized glove and backwards batting helmet regular parts of catcher apparel. His posture insured that he could quickly adjust to block an otherwise wild pitch and also minimized the motion needed before he could release a throw. Bench was fond of telling how his father had made him practice throwing twice the distance that a catcher would have to throw from home plate to any base. With his powerful arm, he could and often did throw out runners trying to steal. "Everyone marveled at his arm," Anderson recalled in Sparky. "It was a cannon but others threw harder. What made him so deadly were his quick feet. He got into position to throw faster than a dancer. If he was in a throwing contest, Bench would have the ball on its way to second while the other guys were just cocking their arms." An indicator of his phenomenal defensive skills is this statistic: Bench put out 9,260 runners out of 10,110 chances. For ten years running, Bench won the National League's Gold Glove award. "When we got into a tight game, we never worried about the other team running on us," Anderson revealed. "They had to hit the ball to beat us. Do you realize the edge that gave us over a 162-game season?"
In the lineup Bench rose to the cleanup position, batting fourth or fifth, along with other productive hitters Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, George Foster, and Dave Conception. During the regular season, he was often a slow starter and streaky batter—either he had it or he didn't—but in post-season games his batting average jumped. According to Anderson, "Bench was a catcher with the batting stats of an outfielder. … He had so much power he looked like a man playing against little boys." Even in their new, more spacious ballpark, Riverfront Stadium, in 1970, Bench hit forty-five home runs and batted in 148 runs, leading the Reds to 102 wins for the season and victory in the National League West by fourteen and a half games—and earning a league Most Valuable Player award. "I had a season I previously only dreamed about," Bench recalled, adding, "It was the kind of year where everything fell in place. I was strong, injury-free, and helping the team in almost every way." Although the Reds swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League playoffs, they lost the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles.