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World Series Bluff Sends Johnny to the Bench

Fans of baseball, more than any other sport, seem to treat the game like family. No matter how many times it embarrasses or disappoints us, we’re still willing to welcome it back into our living rooms.

Why is that? My theory is that our unconditional love of the game stems from the memories we’ve stashed inside the neural closets of our minds from when we were kids. It’s that nostalgic sense that something’s been with us our entire lives. Like Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) said to Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) in Field of Dreams, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.”

A classic gem from my streaming collection of favorite baseball memories happened during the 1972 World Series. It featured a unique slight of hand that was pulled off under the game’s brightest lights.

In that ’72 series, the Oakland A’s were up two games to none against the Cincinnati Reds. The future Big Red machine held a 1-0 lead in Game 3 going into the top of the eighth. Oakland pitcher Vida Blue, a disappointing 6-10 that season after sweeping the AL Cy Young and MVP awards the year before, was in relief of starter John “Blue Moon” Odom. After Pete Rose led off with a lineout, Joe Morgan worked a walk, one of his many specialties. Bobby Tolan followed with a single to centerfield, with Morgan taking third on the hit. That was all for Blue, with Oakland manager Dick Williams waving Rollie Fingers into the game to face one of the biggest slugging stars of the day, Johnny Bench.

johnnybench

Later that fall, young Bench would collect his second NL MVP award and fifth Gold Glove, all before turning 25. In the meantime, here he was digging into the batter’s box smack in the middle of a key World Series moment against a future Hall of Famer, with his team down in the series but holding the slimmest of margins in the game.

Tolan, who stole 42 bases that season, immediately swiped second, an event which opened up some options for the A’s. First base was now open with one out and Tony Perez on deck. Bench had already been caught looking at a third strike twice in the game.

The A’s elected to go after Bench. But strangely, when the count reached 3-2, Dick Williams sprung from the dugout to hold a conference on the mound. What could he have possibly been talking about with a 3-2 count? Apparently, Williams had second thoughts. He held up four fingers then walked back to the dugout. They apparently decided to walk Bench after all. Behind the plate, catcher Gene Tenace repeated the four-finger sign as he held his arm wide for the 3-2 pitch from Fingers.

Suddenly, Tenace ducked behind the plate just as Fingers was delivering. Despite Morgan’s desperate yell from third to “be alive,” Bench froze—dumbstruck with confusion—as the ball found the outside part of the plate for strike three. Bench went down looking a third straight time. Fingers called the pitch “the best slider I’ve ever thrown.”

After the Bench strikeout, the A’s got out of the jam by intentionally walking Perez, then getting Denis Menke to popup. Although the Reds held on to win the game 1-0, the A’s eventually won the series four games to three.

As a baseball maneuver, you have to believe Oakland’s bluff could never happen again. And it took a prestigious cast to pull it off. Manager Dick Williams was the brainchild behind the scheme, with Rollie Fingers his executor. Johnny Bench, ironically one of the most intelligent catchers ever, played the victim while Joe Morgan stood 90 feet away as the helpless bystander. Tony Perez, on deck while Bench was at the plate, was hot enough during the series—five hits in 10 at bats—to influence the decisions that were made. All five are now Hall of Famers.

As a young boy watching the drama unfold on TV, I remember it being the coolest thing I ever saw in baseball. Might still be.

- John Cappello

>>> Recollection assisted by John B. Holway’s article in the October 1992 issue of Baseball Digest, as well as the play-by-play logs at BaseballReference.com.

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