New Albany High School

New Albany Sports Social scores a big hit with Bench appearance by Russ Brown

By BJ McAlister | Aug 30, 2023 10:50 AM

New Albany Sports Social scores a big hit with Bench appearance By RUSS BROWN The New Albany Sports Social hit another home run Friday night at The Grand, and now has a welcome problem: what to do for an encore. For the third year in a row, the fund-raising event for New Albany High School's Athletic Dept. featured a major league baseball Hall of Famer. This time it was Johnny Bench, who could be considered a local hero because there are so many Cincinnati Reds fans in the city and Floyd County. One of those is NA Mayor Jeff Gahan, who played a pivotal role in helping arrange Bench's appearance. Gahan said he got his admiration for Bench as a child from his father, William. "The Reds were always on radio in our house and dad was particularly attentive whenever Bench came to the plate," Gahan said in a phone conversation before Bench's talk. "We would have to quit talking and pay closer attention when Bench was batting. We're really lucky to have him come to New Albany. I'm so excited for the high school, the people here. I'm just happy this all worked out." He wasn't alone. Bench, 75, kept the sellout crowd of 300 entertained for an hour, incorporating humor and insight into tales from his days growing up in the small town of Binger, Okla. (population 661 at the time), an hour west of Oklahoma City, where he starred in both baseball and basketball and was valedictorian of his graduating class. About the Big Red Machine, who won the World Series in 1975 and '76, Bench said: "They were special people and great leaders. They were on time, they had determination and drive, respect for the game and they wanted to be the best." Ironically, one of the anecdotes that received the greatest reaction from the crowd didn't involve baseball, but basketball. Bench is a friend of former IU coach Bob Knight, and one day after practice Knight introduced him to his team. "He said, 'This is Johnny Bench, the greatest defensive catcher ever in baseball,'" Bench recalled. "'Johnny, would you please tell Steve a little bit about playing defense.' So I said, 'Steve, you score 35 points and your man scores 25, that's defense.' Knight went crazy. I said, "Bobby, if your five starters outscore their man by 10 points, you win by 50." Bench said he was sure he had been to New Albany once or twice years ago, but couldn't recall the reason. "I know this is part of a huge Reds fan base in Southern Indiana and it's always fun to go to places like this and meet some of you," he said. In an interview before the event, Bench said he doesn't agree to very many speaking engagements any longer -- "back in the day I was out every week" -- because he is raising two sons, ages 14 and 17, and has numerous business interests that require his attention. But he was attracted to the Social because it involves helping young student-athletes. "You will see people benefitting from this," he told the crowd. "This comes from the heart and you're making a life change because young people who see the respect and love in the community will return and give back." At the end of the evening, Bench donated $1,000 and auctioned off a Johnny Bench model bat he had used that brought another $1,050. He also bid on items in the silent auction. B.J. McAlister, who succeeded Don Unruh as NAHS athletic director in 2019, is the driving force behind the Social, having started it in 2021 to supplement the athletic budget. Ken Griffey Sr. was the first speaker, followed last year by Goose Gossage. McAlister said he expects his department to net between $20,000 and $25,000 this year. The total "profit" for the first two years was $48,000, with the speaker fees (which are contractually confidential) being financed through a combination of sponsors, donations and the Major League Players Alumni Association. Tickets were priced at $150 and sold out in 2 1/2 weeks. A VIP ticket at an extra cost included a meet and greet and photos with Bench prior to dinner. When McAlister came up with the idea for the event, which he patterned after similar events among high schools in the Cincinnati Catholic League, he relied heavily on what he refers to as "the old guard" for support. That's a group of former teachers/coaches/administrators, including Unruh; Jim King, D.J. Hines, John Breeding, Vernon Neimeier, Shawn Garmon and Glen Snow. "I was told by the Cincinnati ADs not to expect to sell out for six or seven years," McAlister said. "Can I tell you that I expected to sell out in the second year? No, but that's what makes New Albany so special is that there are so many people who care and we have all these people who have a connection (to NAHS)." Instead of a long wait, it was an instant success, coming within about 20 of a sellout for Griffey the first year. "We have a large high school fan base and B.J. does a great job," Mayor Gahan said. "A shout-out to B.J. for making this a super program, a super fundraiser for high school athletics. I can't thank him enough." As for the benefits of the Social, McAlister listed an increase in the number of meals for athletes for travel outside an hour of New Albany; availability of more shoes for athletes who can't afford them; a private pool party for athletes, including incoming freshmen; new cases for trophies, team photos and other memorabilia; and facility upgrades. Now that another successful Social is in the books, what former major leaguers are on McAlister's wish list for 2024? "Right now I'm just trying to enjoy having Johnny Bench," he said. "I'm trying not to think about getting back to that level next year."