CINCINNATI — Johnny Bench was watching a Cincinnati Reds game on television recently, a game during which catcher Devin Mesoraco hit home runs and Bench tweeted: “Devin will bat clean-up before his career is over.”
Coming from the Vincent Van Gogh of catchers, the Ludwig Beethoven of catchers, the Albert Einstein of catchers, that was quite the compliment.
And Mesoraco saw it.
“I did see that on Twitter,” he said. “That was cool. I’ve spoken to him a couple times. He’s always been very complimentary. If you get that kind of word from him, it’s pretty special.”
Bench, arguably the best catcher ever to strap on the shin guards, chest protector and helmet (he was the first catcher to wear a batting helmet when he caught), retired after the 1983 season, five years before Mesoraco was born in Punxsutawney, Pa., but that doesn’t mean he isn’t familiar with the legacy of Johnny Bench.
So while Mesoraco saw Punxsutaney Phil once, “Just to see it,” he never got to see Bench work in person.
“I was born in 1988,” he said. “I was never able to appreciate his career, but I always check his stats on Baseball Reference. He had some outstanding seasons.”
Outstanding is a bit subdued to describe the Hall of Fame catcher, the cement block of The Big Red Machine.
“For him to do offensively what he did at the catcher’s position, the seasons he had where he hit 45 home runs and drove in 150-some runs, I’m not sure we’ll see that ever again. He came up when he was 19. He had the longevity, but he wasn’t able to play past 35.”
Mesoraco smiled when he said he heard what manager Dusty Baker said about catchers: “They don’t have longevity, so you get out of them what you can and move on.”
Mesoraco, the team’s No. 1 draft pick, is in his third season with the Reds and he is only 24. His playing time recently has increased dramatically because of an injury to regular catcher Ryan Hanigan.
And he put his time to positive production. In his last 17 games he is hitting .316 with five multi-hit games, four home runs, four doubles and 12 RBI. For most of his time he batted in the traditional spot in the order, eighth.
But manager Dusty Baker has moved him up. Not yet to fourth, the spot occupied by Bench, but to sixth on Tuesday for the start of a two-game series against the Oakland Athletics.
“No matter what spot in the order I’m hitting, I’m going to go out there and try to get a good pitch to hit and put a good swing on it. That’s about it,” Mesoraco said with a shrug. “It’s one spot. I’ve been hitting seventh, eighth sometimes. I think you earn your way up with how you perform. It’s definitely a good feeling that I’m hitting the ball a little bit better and swinging the bat well enough that they think I’ll be a little better off higher up in the lineup.”
Baker, of course, is appreciative of Mesoraco’s recent offensive contributions, particularly with the team unable to find home plate with GPS, Tibetan sherpas or miner’s helmets.
“We’ve brought him along slowly,” said Baker. “Catching is the most difficult position there is. There is so much to do and there is so much responsibility.
“I like the way he has playing and it certainly has been necessary with Hanigan out,” he added. “He still has some things to learn. It isn’t all about hitting — and I emphasize that to him. It is about game-calling. It is about throwing. It is about blocking pitches. All people do is stress hitting. That isn’t the whole game, especially in the catching position. There is a lot to learn, a lot to do and he has a lot to improve on.”