Bench raises skin cancer awareness at Cave

Bench raises skin cancer awareness at Cave

NEW YORK -- Hall of Famer Johnny Bench spent Saturday at the MLB Fan Cave serving in his role as official spokesman for Major League Baseball's Play Sun Smart campaign to raise skin cancer awareness, and all around him this city was abuzz over what had happened the night before -- Johan Santana's historic first Mets no-hitter.

After all those years of battling such great Mets pitchers as Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan, Bench especially appreciated the meaning of that feat. The question for him has to be, "What took so long?"

"Well, everything is big for the Mets," Bench said in true Reds fashion. "It was a heck of a game, and of course he threw more pitches than he's ever thrown before. He just came off the disabled list, so I'm not sure how smart that was. But he was out there for the no-hitter, and it hadn't happened in 51 years. He's quite the pitcher. I always was a fan of his when he was in Minneapolis, playing for the Twins, and now he'll be a real big reason that the Mets have a chance to challenge for this division."

Next month, Bench will be back in Cooperstown with fellow greats like Seaver and Ryan, guys who somehow never threw a no-hitter back in the day at old Shea.

"Tom Seaver had it three times going into the ninth and didn't quite get there, neither did others," Bench said. "There are a lot of guys out there who have tried and failed, so congratulations to Johan.

"We faced (Jerry) Koosman, (Jon) Matlack, we faced Seaver, Ryan, (Gary) Gentry, (Jim) McAndrew ... it was the worst-hitting park in all the league. You never did get much of a feel when you went in here. If you came out with three hits in a four-game series, you probably did pretty well."

Bench, 64, made opposing pitchers pay in many other ways, finishing his career with 389 homers (the most by any catcher when he retired), two National League MVP awards and a World Series MVP trophy for leading Cincinnati to the back end of a 1975-76 repeat.

Today, he is making his presence known in a new way. Bench was recently diagnosed with and treated for basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer, on both of his lower eyelids. With a unique procedure called Mohs surgery, he has had a full recovery and is now committed to raising skin cancer awareness. The Play Sun Smart program is a joint effort by MLB, the MLB Players Association and the American Academy of Dermatology.

Bench spent the first part of Saturday at the Fan Cave, where he played a few games of pool with son Bobby (who just graduated from Boston University) and then joined up with a bunch of Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) kids from nearby Harlem to taped a public-service announcement about skin cancer that will be replayed on ballpark scoreboard screens.

"I've always been around skin cancers," Bench explained. "My lawyer has it, my in-laws have it, and unfortunately for me, I had it. I'm a survivor. I had Mohs surgery on the lower lids of both eyes. I had them removed in January, and fortunately for me it's an area where most of this is curable, 98-percent curable.

"I know that as you age you are probably going to develop some form of skin cancer. My doctor said old age and sunshine will do that. When they approached me it was a very easy decision. I don't want anybody to have to go through that. I've seen so many people in Florida and California, and of course you don't just have to be in the sun belt, you're going to develop sun cancer soon or later. Skin cancer, whether it be a mole or a change in color, you need to see your dermatologist to make sure you are all right."

Bench said he had skin issues around his eyes before but added that "it really wasn't something I even considered."

"I had the bumps on my eyes and I had them lasered one time, and it didn't seem to be anything," he said. "I've always had little eye problems, with ridges and stuff. So I was just in for my examination, and my doctor said, 'You know what, we need to have these looked at a little closer.' So a specialist came in, looked at them through a high-powered microscope and said I think they are basal cells. We did a biopsy, and sure enough they were. I had to have them removed -- the sooner the better. If you find it early enough, like we know about most cancers, usually most of it is curable."

After enjoying lunch with the Harlem RBI kids downstairs, Bench was whisked off to the airport for a cross-country flight to San Francisco, where he will continue his spokesman role.

"It's been an amazing experience," said Yeison Pimentel, baseball/softball operations coordinator for Harlem RBI. "Our kids have been talking about this all week. Some of them have read up on Johnny Bench. He's not a Yankee, so it's kind of interesting how they had to research for him. The kids get to play around and interact with a Hall of Famer, and they will soon find out as they get older that this was one of the best players of all-time.

"A lot of our kids spend a lot of time in the sun, especially in the summertime. . . . This movement of talking about sunscreen and protecting yourself from the sun definitely hits (home) with us because we spend a lot of time in the sun, and I think it's very important to share with the community."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. Read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com community blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.