When 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.