A Story So Dark, This Is The First Time I’m Telling It In Nearly 35 Years

johnny-bench-hof-1When I was growing up my mother’s folks lived across the street from us, and they were everything a kid could hope for in grandparents. Both were loving and kind, and two of the finest people I’ve ever known.

Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away in 1975, when I was 12. He fit into the category of “gruff but lovable.” I think a lot of men from that generation did. He smoked like a steam engine, had a semi-foul mouth (my grandmother would only put up with so much), loved beer, and seemed to be in a perpetual state of irritation. But it wasn’t a menacing kind of irritation, he was a nice man. It’s not an easy thing to explain.

I remember him obsessively watching the Watergate hearings on TV. And after my Cub Scout troupe went to the state capitol in Charleston, he made me wash-up with soap — because I’d shaken hands with the Republican governor.

And he loved baseball.

If there was a game on, and Nixon wasn’t getting his chestnuts roasted, my grandfather was watching it. Especially if the Cincinnati Reds were playing. That was his team. In fact, it was everybody’s team — at least in our little world. Every game was broadcast on local radio, and everybody loved the Reds.

I remember not understanding the game at all, and then suddenly… being a fan myself. It clicked for me one day, almost like magic. I give my grandfather the credit.

When I was 9 years old the Reds were in the playoffs against the Pirates, on the verge of elimination. And this happened:

Johnny Bench hit a clutch 9th inning homer to the opposite field, and tied the game. And the Reds came back to win it on a wild pitch, taking the National League pennant and moving on to the World Series. It was one of the most exciting moments of my young life. In fact, every time I watch that video — even today — I get goosebumps.

It locked in at that moment, and I became a huge Johnny Bench fan. I loved that man, I’m not kidding. He was everything a baseball great should be. The Reds teams of the 1970s were stacked with great players, but none were better than #5. In my opinion, anyway.

Fast forward to 1983. Bench said he was retiring at the end of the season, and had spent most of the year playing first base, instead of catcher. His knees were shot, and he was unable to stoop behind the plate for extended periods. It broke my heart a little, watching his decline. But it was inevitable, I knew.

Near the end of the year the team announced they would be holding Johnny Bench Night at Riverfront Stadium, to say goodbye to the future Hall of Famer. All the tickets sold in short order, but not before I managed to snag a few. I went to the game with my girlfriend, Kelly, and my brother. I HAD to be there. This was as close to religion as I’ve ever gotten.

I remember the vendors were all wearing white buttons with ‘I (HEART) JB’ on them. They were not for sale, only the staff had them. I offered a beer salesman five bucks for his, and he happily accepted the offer. I still have that button.

And here’s where things took a dark turn… What followed is so horrifying, I’ve never even told my closest friends about it. When I think about it today, my stomach still churns and I grimace like Gilbert Gottfried.

I don’t blame her, not really; I’m only wired to blame myself. But Kelly wanted something from the concession stand at some point. It made me nervous, but Bench had just batted, so I thought we were safe… He’d started as catcher for the final time of his career, and I didn’t like the idea of missing one minute of it. But — for whatever reason — I agreed to briefly leave our seats.

Do I even need to go on? Below is a short video that contains Johnny speaking before the game, and then… what happened while I was in line to buy a goddamn hot dog or whatever.

When I heard the stadium explode, my bowels nearly released into my whities. I instinctively knew. And I could envision my grandfather watching it all transpire in heaven, shaking his head in disappointment and possibly making the whip-cracking sound effect from beyond. It was horrible.

I’d like to think that I turned to Kelly, a few minutes later, and said, “Enjoying the nachos? I really hope you’re enjoying the nachos.” But I don’t know. I don’t remember much after enduring the emotional and psychological trauma of that day. It’s all a big blank after that.

Yeah, I know. It doesn’t rank up there with death and dismemberment, or things like that. But it was a blow, I’m telling you. I was there for an historical event — Johnny Bench’s last home run, on Johnny Bench night. And I was buying a fucking Sprite. Do you know how deep that cuts? Deep!

I’m off to Yurt Village, my friends. Have yourselves a great week.

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Comments

  1. damn!!!!

  2. Lee Harvey Ramone says:

    Frigging Sprite bitch goddammit. Where are my damn pills? I need my pills….

  3. Skippy in WV says:

    That sucks.

  4. t-storm says:

    I was at one of those last games!!

  5. eeyoresmama says:

    That hurts sooo bad!

  6. sunshine_in_va says:

    Hey Jeff – it builds character. And gives you more shit to write about.

    I too am a big Johnny Bench fan. Until the internets came along, the only way I could hear the call for Bench’s homer in that ’72 playoff was from the record album commemorating the season. What makes it more memorable? Al Michaels was doing radio for the Reds then and he’s even more over-the-top than when he called the 1980 hockey game against the Russians. (By the way, of all the post-season baseball games EVER played, only once has someone hit a home run in the 9th inning to tie it up. Yes – THIS was the home run.)

    I got to caddy for Bench in 1976 when I was in my 3rd year as a golf caddy (but first year at Kenwood Country Club). Can you believe I didn’t ask for his autograph at the end of the round? I still have some golf tees somewhere inscribed with his name though What a putz I am (at times).

  7. revashane says:

    Well girls, we are the bad guys in this one. Personally I love baseball live. Spent my first years on the radio running the Nashville Sounds games, inserting commercials and making sure the network was running. Did the MRN too. Nothing beats going to a game, major or minor league doesn’t matter to me. I wonder why Jeff left for the hot dog? The dog man has been at all the parks I’ve been to, never ate one but he’s there. Sweaty guy with one gloved hand, coughing and making change with that gloved hand. Uggh that big assed steam box around his neck,,,,gotta stop there or I’ll have nightmares..

    • johnthebasket says:

      revashane,

      I respectfully disagree about one thing, and my experience is different regarding another.

      Jeff’s enamorado is guiltless in this story. It’s hardly a mortal or venial sin to want a hot dog at a baseball game. Jeff grew up with the sport, and understood the timing and flow of the game. It was his responsibility to know when Mr. Bench was due to enter the batter’s box. He was, of course, not the first man to let a woman and a wiener steer him into a historical blunder, nor, as it turns out, the last. One of them was even named Weiner. For want of a Kelly in the sack, Jeff missed number 389. As the Greek playwrights well knew, when the hero is the author of his own calamity, the story moves from sadness to tragedy.

      Comment #2 to follow. . .

      jtb

    • johnthebasket says:

      revashane. . .

      Comment #2 . . .
      I’ve had hot dogs (and/or local sausages on a roll) in cities from New York to Philly and Baltimore to Phoenix and Dallas, LA, Denver, and many others, including all around the Great Pacific Northwest. Some of these have been expensive, deluxe hot dogs (locally made hot, sweet sausage in New Orleans, a chef-prepared lightly-grilled sausage while seated at a small table in the kitchen of a five star restaurant outside of Boulder Colorado). But the tastiest hot dogs I ever consumed were from the steam box of a vendor in Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, WA during Tacoma Giants AAA games. You could have them plain or with a slather of mustard dipped with a wooden tongue depressor from a wide-mouth mustard bottle attached to the outside of the box. No plastic gloves in 1960. But the hot dog was just terrific. Last week, I bought a package of five Kobe Beef Dogs for a lot of money, and heated them carefully and placed each on a well-garnished roll before consuming them (nope, I didn’t eat them all the same day). They were great, but not as wonderful as the dogs I ate from 1960 to 1965 from the vendor with the hotbox of greasy water in Cheney Stadium. It cost 50 cents for grandstand admission, a quarter for the dog, and a quarter for a coke, and on the field Juan Marichal, Matty and Jesus Alou, Dusty Rhodes, Bob and Gaylord Perry, Jose Pagan, and, from time to time, Willie McCovey on extended rehab assignments, Willie Mays on shorter visits, and Satchel Paige when the Portland Beavers were visiting, played beautiful ball in a beautiful stadium.

      Cosmic dining experiences can be found in unexpected places — including a portable dirty water metal box.

      jtb

      • t-storm says:

        Dirty Water Metal Box was Tori Amos’ first album.

      • revashane says:

        The dirtiest look I have ever gotten, and remembered, was from the dog man at Memorial in Baltimore. The dog man was wheezing like train and I made some smart assed remark to the husband how emphysemeacks (sp) shouldn’t tote dogs. Damn those stairs were steep and went on forever. Best memories of dogs are the street cart dogs of DC. Holy Momma they were good and free entertainment watching folks whack their heads on the overhang sign.

  8. Let’s Go Bucs!

  9. Phil Jett says:

    I’d would have held on to that story to my grave. I have one story…would probably be a great story with a ton of laughs over some beers with my best friends, but will never be told.

  10. madz1962 says:

    I feel your pain, Jeff. This isn’t exactly similar, but it still makes me clench my jaw.

    Years ago, my cousin, her husband and I went to see Chuck Berry in Atlantic City. Small venue. Towards the end of the concert, Chuck yells out for anyone in the audience who wanted to come on up ON STAGE AND DANCE WITH HIM – we were all welcome. I sprang up and look back and my cousin is firmly planted in her seat. She was “too embarrassed to dance in public” so we never did go on stage with Mr. Berry.

    To this day I still get chest pains remembering that story.

    Good luck in Yurt Village. Get inspired!!!

  11. Several times when I was a kid, we would be driving through a certain area of Brooklyn, east of Prospect Park. My dad would always point out a nondescript apartment building to us, and tell us that this is where Ebbets Field used to be. He was a Dodgers fan (duh).
    .

  12. I’m so upset that I can’t breathe.

  13. You’ll feel a lot better about the whole thing when Johnny Bench becomes Joanna Bench.

    • The Qweezy Mark says:

      It would just be because he’s jealous of Pete Rose’s hotter wife.

      • That makes no sense to me but thank you for explaining my attempt at humor. Your comment was a lot funnier than mine. I am confused a bit tho so please help me. So…Johnny Bench becomes Joanna Bench to have a shot at Pete Rose’s wife who must be a switch hitter? I’m here to learn. I thought my comment was a stand alone one liner without needing your help. But thank you for the attention. Glad I could be a catalyst to inspire comment.

        • The Qweezy Mark says:

          See now, I didn’t put that much thought into the genesis of the emotion required for the stars to line up and have Johnny move to Joanna to get a shot at Kiana. You are a better man than I, but, that’s not sayin’ much!

          • “You are a better man than I, but, that’s not sayin’ much!.”

            Thank you for you evaluation. I will cherish your opinion of yourself.

  14. Speaking of sports heroes. my daughter was looking through some boxes in the basement last week and found a Bruce Jenner action figure, Yes I grew up in the 70’s,
    Anyway, I’m putting that fucker on Ebay with a set of Barbie clothes she put together, She is adding a”Disco Travolta” Ken doll for shits and giggles,

    Jay in ATL