Matures As Player
Bench and the entire team suffered from a slump in 1971, dropping to fourth place in their only losing season of the 1970s. Like all professional athletes, baseball players have to deal with injuries, particularly muscle pulls, strains, and tears from quick sprints, awkward slides, collisions, and getting hit by the ball. Catchers get often get nicked by foul tips and block pitches and throws with their bodies. Bench spent most of the 1971 season playing injured. While his defense was sound, his offense was dismal. Frustrated, he analyzed his batting stance, tried new techniques, changed helmets, and changed grips. Nothing helped. The team heard jokes about the Big Red Machine turning into an Edsel, and the formerly confident Bench searched his soul. He remembered in Catch You Later, "Going from MVP to MDP [Most Disappointing Player] was a crucial period for me, the closest thing to anything like an identity crisis kids my age had in college or thereabouts." Yet he suffered through this drought and doubt period
The following year, Bench recovered his hitting power with a vengeance. He led the National League in home runs with forty and runs batted in with 125, earning another league Most Valuable Player award. Ironically, during the last months of the 1972 season, a routine physical turned up a spot on Bench's lung. He kept his condition a secret until the end of the season. He even hit a crucial home run to tie the pivotal game of the league championship series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, which was then won on a run scored from a wild pitch. After the Reds lost the World Series 4 to 3 to Oakland, Bench had what turned out to be a benign tumor removed from his lung. "I was a new man," Bench recalled in Catch You Later. "The weight of that September diagnosis had been removed. I had a lot of years left."