CINCINNATI -- Seeing a documentary about his life last week during a special screening at Great American Ball Park, Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench couldn't help having the cliche cinema experience. Bench literally laughed and cried throughout as his years both in and out of baseball came to life
CINCINNATI -- Seeing a documentary about his life last week during a special screening at Great American Ball Park, Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench couldn't help having the cliche cinema experience. Bench literally laughed and cried throughout as his years both in and out of baseball came to life on screen.
Fans who followed the Reds catching great's legendary 17-year career in the Major Leagues might not know as much about the life he led before baseball and the one he leads now. It was all captured in the latest installment of the MLB Network Presents documentary series, simply titled, "Bench," which debuted Wednesday night.
"Sometimes you see yourself on film and I couldn't have dreamed it would have come out this good," Bench said after getting his first glimpse of the documentary. "To have so many friends and people, people you respect, talk about you, it was just great. It was fabulous! It was tearful, it really was."
Narrated by actor and Dayton, Ohio, native Martin Sheen, "Bench" features interviews with many friends and contemporaries such as fellow great players like Pete Rose, Tony Perez and Reggie Jackson, broadcasters Al Michaels and Brent Musburger, college basketball coaching legend Bob Knight and country music superstar Toby Keith.
Much of the focus on the early and final portions of the show featured Bench living life in retirement at his Florida home. Divorced for the fourth time, he is now a 71-year-old single father living with his two young sons, 12-year-old Justin and 9-year-old Josh, and his 29-year-old adult son, Bobby.
"It gives you the human element and the sports element," Bench said. "What do you do? Do you just go away? You walk away from the game, and what do you become and what do you do? I'm unique. I really am, because I'm a father of two young boys at my age. I don't think anything special of it. I think it's what I'm supposed to do on a day-to-day basis. I'm supposed to be a father. I don't want any other job. This is the greatest job on Earth."
MLB Network first learned about this side of Bench when he and his boys were featured in a Sports Illustrated article.
"We saw that, and we thought that would really come alive on TV," documentary producer Tony Ferraiolo said. "It's also the 30-year anniversary of Johnny getting into the Hall of Fame [in 1989]. We at MLB love anniversaries."
Ferraiolo had to pitch the idea to Bench, who warmed to it after learning the documentary would feature his family and personal life as much as his playing career.
"The first time we walked in the door to meet with him, he was so welcoming," Ferraiolo said. "You're always intimidated, and you don't know how these guys are going to handle it. You know the myth, but you don't know how great of a guy he is."
The program showed where life started for Bench in tiny Binger, Okla. -- population 700 -- and caught up with old friends and classmates of the town's favorite son. His town was so small that when it threw Bench a parade to honor him, no one was lined up along the route because everyone was already in the parade.
There were many lighthearted moments that drew laughs from the audience, including moments of Justin and Josh teasing their father. It also showed Bench's tastes for clothing in the 1970s and his comic timing.
Also shown was Bench's panache as an entertainer who hosted his own talk show with Michaels and often appeared as a guest on television shows like "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, "Hee Haw" and USO tours around the world with Bob Hope. One spoiler alert -- there was no mention of one of Bench's signature television show he hosted, "The Baseball Bunch." It wound up on the cutting-room floor because of time and pacing concerns, Ferraiolo said.
Bench's playing career is by no means shortchanged.
From his Major League debut as a 19-year-old in 1967, to his National League Rookie of the Year season in '68, NL MVP Awards in '70 and '72 and his many moments on the field in the postseason -- including four World Series appearances in 1970, '72 and the championships of 1975-76 -- fans got to see footage of arguably the game's greatest catcher in action.
There are dramatic moments, like Bench hitting the game-tying homer in the ninth inning of the 1972 NL Championship Series vs. the Pirates and hitting a home run on Johnny Bench Night in '83 (his final season).
Those who were with Bench on his life's journey showed their appreciation, and it left him moved.
"For people to really feel that way about me, dang, man. I'm proud, I really am," he said. "This old 71-year-old broken-down catcher is really proud of that."
Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook and listen to his podcast.