CINCINNATI — Johnny Bench sat in the front row and watched as his life story passed before his eyes on the large screen Wednesday evening in the Handlebar Club at Great American Ball Park. A couple hundred friends and fans were also in attendance, but the memories belonged to him.
The MLB Network documentary “Bench,” which premieres Jan. 30 at 8 p.m., was shown for the first time in an exclusive screening on Wednesday. It was the first time Bench had seen the film, and throughout its 71-minute duration his emotions ran the gamut from laughter to tears and back.
“It was emotional, just seeing the kind words so many people had to say about me,” Bench said, his eyes still red and watery. “I am honored.”
And what a story it is.
Bench, a kid from Binger, Oklahoma – population around 600 – made good on his promise to play in the major leagues and did so with the Reds at the age of 19. Now, 36 years after his illustrious baseball career ended, life has a new and unique set of challenges for the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame catcher.
Rather than trying to handle a Gary Nolan fastball with his signature one-handed style, or being among the formidable bats in the “Great Eight” lineup for the Big Red Machine in the 1970s, Bench’s most important role now is as a single father to two sons.
Bench led the Reds to back-to-back World Series titles in 1975 and ‘76, belted 389 career homers, won two Most Valuable Player Awards and is regarded by many to be the greatest catcher of all time. But to sons Josh, 9, and Justin, 12, he is “Dad,” the man they depend on each day to get them out of bed, fed, and off to school. The man they depend on to get the laundry and grocery shopping done and dinner cooked.
Bench, 71, says he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“There’s nothing that fulfills my life like these boys,” he said. “I don’t go around saying, ‘Do you know who I am?’ But, yeah, I’m Dad. That’s the greatest answer in the world.”
The documentary doesn’t spend a lot of time on how Bench’s life ended up on this path, but it was after he and his fourth wife, Lauren Baiocchi, divorced that Bench ended up with primary custody of his two boys at their home in Florida. Bench has an older son, Bobby, from his second marriage, who lives in Cincinnati.
The man who graced the covers of Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated, traveled the world with Bob Hope and regularly had Christmas Eve dinner with Frank Sinatra now makes sure his kids are up by 6:25 a.m. on school days, then fills the cereal bowls and whips up some eggs before driving them 20 minutes to school. It’s the time spent on that drive that he cherishes most, the laughter, the stories, few of which pertain to baseball. Bench has the boys 38 weeks out of the year. The other 14 weeks, he misses them.
“It keeps me young,” Bench says. “I can’t imagine being without those boys. Even in the periods where they are with their mom, I wonder what they’re doing, where they are. I joke around with those kids. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much.”
The documentary begins with Bench scouring through scrapbooks of his career, in a room he rarely visits that is packed with memorabilia. His sons are fully aware of their dad’s accomplishments: winning his first MVP in 1970 at age 22, the youngest ever to do so, his dramatic game-tying home run at Riverfront Stadium to help the Reds win the 1972 National League pennant, hitting .533 with two home runs in the 1975 World Series, and his final homer -- on “Johnny Bench Night” in 1983.
It’s not something they dwell on as a family, but there are other proud moments, like when Josh had an essay to write for school about a famous person, and he chose his dad. For the presentation, Josh was in full Cincinnati Reds uniform, “Bench” No. 5 on his back.
“He chose me,” Bench said, smiling. “It’s pretty cool.”
Bench will always be just a boy from Binger, a town so small that when they had a parade for him after winning the MVP, everyone in the town was in the parade.
“We waved at each other,” Bench recalled.
Yet, throughout the documentary, narrated by actor and Reds fan Martin Sheen, some of the most revered figures in baseball, sports and show business heaped praise on him -- New York Yankees great Reggie Jackson, Big Red Machine teammates Tony Perez and Pete Rose, Hall of Fame basketball coach Bobby Knight, country music star Toby Keith, and broadcasting legends Al Michaels and Brent Musburger.
Said Knight: “A lot of guys want to play, whatever the sport is. Bench didn’t want to play, he wanted to win. There’s a difference.”
Former Big Red Machine teammate George Foster remembers Bench as a mentor, clubhouse leader, and a player who showed up every day expecting to be in the lineup regardless of how he was feeling. The documentary delves into Bench’s numerous physical ailments including major lung surgery following the 1972 season. Bench played through it all.
“He never complained,” said Foster, following Wednesday’s screening. “He was a great guy to watch play. He was in control of the pitchers, he was in control of opposing baserunners. It’s a lot of work back there catching and there was a lot of pain. He went out there every day and performed and put up the numbers. He was a leader by example, but all he had to say is, ‘You’ve got to do better’ and you listened. He’s the greatest catcher of all time, no comparison.”
The timing of the Bench documentary coincides with the Reds’ preparations to celebrate the 150th anniversary of being baseball’s first entirely professional club. Festivities are planned throughout the 2019 season, and Bench and the Big Red Machine are certain to play a large role.
“When Johnny Bench played here, everyone in baseball was envious of what we had going on here,” Reds COO Phil Castellini said Wednesday.
The documentary does touch on the strained relationship between Bench and Rose, especially during the summer of 1989 when the investigation into Rose’s gambling took some of the attention away from Bench’s induction into the Hall of Fame. It also shows how Bench was a larger-than-life persona in pop culture in the 1970s with numerous TV commercials and talk-show appearances, including his own show, "The Baseball Bunch," from 1982 to 1985.
Following Wednesday’s screening, Bench headed back to Florida, where he’ll go back to being Dad, doing laundry, cooking dinner, driving his kids to school.
When asked if he looked forward to watching the “Bench” premiere with his sons next week, the greatest catcher on the planet said, “I don’t think I can get them to last an hour.”