SAN FRANCISCO -- Bruce Bochy’s job status won’t officially change for another few days. But he has already morphed into a new figure. He might as well no longer be Bruce Bochy, manager of the San Francisco Giants. He has become Bruce Bochy, icon.
That’s a label which Bochy himself would spit a mouthful of tobacco juice upon -- that is, if he hadn’t quit using nicotine-based products several years ago. He refuses to bask in the superlatives aimed his way.
“He’s still the same person that I met. Still low-maintenance,” said Bochy’s wife, Kim, referring to the somewhat gangly 19-year-old she first encountered in Florida.
And yet, the 64-year-old Bochy has spent the decades since distinguishing himself as one of history’s most successful baseball managers. It’s a highly difficult and stressful job that requires practitioners to excel at psychology as well as strategy. It demands knowledge -- not only of one’s own ballplayers, but also those on other clubs. Such knowledge must be a compendium of a player’s past, present and immediate possible future. A manager must master the ability to anticipate how a ballgame will develop long before actual events occur and decide what tactics he will use to respond. And he had better act quickly.
Bochy played this high-stakes chess game well enough during 25 seasons to win World Series championships in 2010, '12 and '14 with the Giants, who had remained a storied but mostly luckless franchise until his arrival in ‘07. Before his San Francisco tenure, he spent 12 seasons managing the San Diego Padres to one World Series and four National League West division titles. On Sept. 18, Bochy recorded his 2,000th Major League managerial victory. The other 10 men to accomplish this milestone earned enshrinement into baseball’s Hall of Fame, an honor that awaits Bochy.
In a voice husky with emotion, Pittsburgh’s Clint Hurdle, who has managed 17 big league seasons, recently called Bochy “the best manager of my generation.”
The nostalgia surrounding Bochy has remained as thick as San Francisco fog since he announced at the outset of Spring Training that he will retire after this season. Widespread praise -- as well as plenty of gifted bottles of wine -- have come his way since he made those plans public. And the celebration will reach a crescendo this week as the Giants return home for the final homestand of 2019.
All eyes will be on No. 15
Yet any look back at Bochy’s career ought to be more than whimsical. Understanding how “Boch” became Boch -- a man who has commanded such respect and behaved with such integrity -- requires a look back at what shaped him and how he shaped himself along the way.
A GIFT FROM DAD
Baseball is like a family heirloom, passed from generation to generation. Fathers playing catch with sons, as poet Donald Hall eloquently put it. Thus, it’s fitting that Bochy is quick to cite his father, Gus, as his most significant influence in his baseball career.
“He’s the one who really inspired me to develop a passion for baseball and was the guy who really played the biggest role in my career, both as a kid, and after I signed, with his support,” Bochy said. “Also, his knowledge. He coached me in Little League, played catch, threw batting practice and all those things. That’s something I’ll never forget.”
Gus was a fleet, switch-hitting shortstop as a youth.
“He was disappointed that we did not inherit his running speed,” noted Bruce’s brother, Joe.
Gus Bochy was also a sergeant major in the Army, and that job required his family to move every three years. Excelling in athletics helped young Bruce cope with the transitions.
“Sports was a way for me to make new friends,” Bochy said. “It’s tough for a kid to pack up and leave your friends and go to a place where you don’t know anybody. It’s not easy, especially the older you get. You get to junior high and high school, and you’re making that move. It can be clique-ish because they don’t know who you are.”
Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who played for Bochy in San Diego and San Francisco, emphasized the importance of the military-athletics connection. Roberts’ father served in the Marines.
“By default, as a military child, when you’re moving around every three years, to assimilate with people, you have to be open, you have to be friendly,” Roberts said. “And I think that helped me adapt to all types of people. I look back at my teammates and being friends with pitchers, position players, Latin players, American players, East Coast, West Coast. It became easy to me. And when you’re talking about coaching or managing, you need to get all those components to work together for one common goal.”
CATCHING A BREAK
Bochy wasn’t as tall as his idol, 6-foot-7 Washington Senators slugger Frank Howard. Still, at 6-3, Bochy was an ideal choice to play first base as a freshman at Brevard (Fla.) Community College. A year later, a decision made by Brevard coach Jack Kenworthy changed Bochy’s career path. He moved Bochy to catcher, the cradle of numerous managerial careers.
Seeing the entire field and being involved in every pitch when their teams are on defense are just two aspects of the position that make catchers ideal candidates to manage. Additionally, catchers must learn the tendencies and personalities of each pitcher. From there, it’s just another step or two to be able to analyze the entire ballclub.
“I look back at what Jack did for me and I’m very appreciative of him and his coaching, but also for being a mentor,” Bochy said.
Bochy’s professional baseball journey began after the Houston Astros selected him in the first round (24th overall) in the 1975 Supplemental Draft, which was reserved for previously drafted players (the White Sox picked Bochy in the eighth round of the regular draft earlier that year but he didn’t sign). A stroke of luck brought Bochy and the Astros together.
Bob Cluck, then the Astros’ Minor League coordinator, recalled that he needed to organize a practice game for some players left in camp, which led to a scrimmage against the nearby Brevard ballclub. An Astros coach advised Kenworthy to brace himself -- they had six or seven players with above-average speed who liked to show it off by stealing bases. One by one, they were humbled by Bochy, who threw out each of them on attempted thefts. Cluck quickly telephoned the Astros’ scouting department.
“Is this guy on your radar?” Cluck inquired. “Because he’s a hell of a catcher.”
Bochy hit a rousing .338 in rookie-level ball through the remainder of the 1975 season and played 69 games at Double-A Columbus (Ga.) the following year. But he slipped back to Class A in 1977. Bochy had hopes of breaking camp with Houston’s Triple-A Tucson affiliate in ‘78. However, he was sent to Double-A as a backup.
Bochy felt like quitting, and he said so to Cluck, then the Columbus manager.
“I’m thinking, well, I might need to start looking at what I’m going to do with the rest of my life,” Bochy said. “It wasn’t looking too good.”
Cluck, a genial and positive man by nature, maintained his sunny attitude while talking with Bochy.
“I told him that it’s amazing what happens to catchers. Stick it out for this year,” Cluck said.
As it turned out, Joe Ferguson was traded to the Dodgers in early July, and a couple of other catchers were injured. On July 19, 1978, Bruce Douglas Bochy made his Major League debut, going 2-for-3 in the Astros’ 2-1 loss at New York.
What Bochy didn’t know was that the Astros already saw something more.
“The one thing we recognized about him was that he was smart, a leader,” Cluck said. “We considered him a potential coach in the Major Leagues.”
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
Bochy migrated to the Mets and Padres organizations, finishing his career with San Diego in 1987. He appeared in 358 games, retiring with a .239 average, 12 home runs, 93 RBIs and a hat size of 8 1/8, renowned as one of the Major Leagues’ largest.
Before leaving the Astros, he met Randy Smith, son of Houston’s general manager, Tal Smith. One thing about Bochy: Unfailingly polite and eternally friendly, he has never met a stranger. While other players might have mistrusted or even scorned the younger Smith because of his relationship to the Astros’ chief baseball executive, Bochy welcomed his presence.
Their paths crossed again when Randy joined the Padres’ front office in 1984. By '89, when Bochy began his managerial career with the Padres' short-season Class A Spokane affiliate, Smith was San Diego’s scouting director. Their fortunes were bound together, since Bochy would manage the players Smith drafted.
As Smith recalled, at the Padres’ headquarters on the day of the Draft, Bochy told him, “Smitty, make a good Draft. Don’t screw up my career before it starts.”
As part of their respective duties, they spoke frequently that summer. After the 1991 season, Smith joined the Colorado Rockies, who assigned him to scout personnel throughout three organizations: the Astros, Dodgers and Padres. While watching Bochy’s Double-A Wichita team that summer, Smith realized that the Minor League skipper was one of the Padres’ top prospects.
“I happened to sit with Bruce for 10 straight nights,” Smith said, “And I told him then: ‘If I’m ever fortunate enough to become a general manager, you’re the guy I’d want managing for me.’”
One thing led to another. Smith became the Padres’ GM in 1993. Bochy was coaching on manager Jim Riggleman’s staff at that time. Smith liked Riggleman. So did the Cubs, who asked him for permission to interview Riggleman for their managerial vacancy before the '95 season. Smith allowed it, and Riggleman eventually went to Chicago, leaving Smith without a manager. He knew exactly who to call.
“As soon as Jim left, there was one guy that I thought of and that was Boch,” Smith said. “To me, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
Asked to enumerate Bochy’s personal assets as a manager, Smith cited many, including “his knowledge of the game. His personality.
“He has a great feel for when to pat a guy on the back or kick them in the butt,” Smith added. “He can defuse situations with his humor. Very good feel for pitching. To me, one of the biggest differences between winning and losing is how you handle the bullpen, and I thought Bruce showed a lot of knowledge in that area.”
Bill Virdon, Bochy’s first big league manager, didn’t realize that his backup catcher was essentially a protégé of his. In retrospect, Bochy’s managerial aptitude was more apparent.
Asked whether he knew that Bochy possessed managerial aptitude, Virdon, now 88, said, “I don’t know that I did at that time, but after I look back, I can see that he was a guy who would probably learn that. He was always straightforward, always strong, always ready, and I always liked him. He didn’t have great talent, but he had good talent. He always did his job. He was always quiet, but he always worked hard. And he never questioned me.”
BRINGING OUT THE BEST
The 1995 Padres finished 70-74, third in the four-team NL West, in Bochy’s inaugural season. One year later, they won the division title. Two years after that, they reached the World Series. Already, patterns had begun to develop.
Players tended to perform at their best under Bochy. After eight professional seasons, Phil Nevin became an All-Star in 2001, combining a .306/.388/.588 slash line with 41 homers and 126 RBIs. He also had three other seasons of 20-plus homers and 100-plus RBIs with San Diego. Mark Loretta was an All-Star in '04 and '06 under Bochy. Roberts slashed .285/.358/.409 in '05-06 as a Padre.
“The one thing I noticed early on was he put his players in the best possible places to succeed,” Nevin said. “I had been in the league for a little while, but he gave me opportunities in the right spots -- knew the right days to give me off; the right matchups when I would pinch-hit. With success, I grew to be able to go out and have that confidence every day.”
Of course, Bochy has occasionally had to be stern to coax a player’s best effort. Such was the case with Giants right-hander Matt Cain, who endured poor luck in his first few seasons yet, in Bochy’s estimation, didn’t devote himself to physical conditioning as much as he should have.
A discussion they had on the subject went something like this: “You don’t work hard enough,” Bochy told Cain. “I am working hard,” said Cain, who later admitted that his notion of tough conditioning was shagging flies. “No, you’re not,” Bochy said.
Cain overhauled his training program, and three All-Star selections, a perfect game and a 2.10 ERA in eight postseason starts followed.
Bochy acknowledged that maintaining relationships is essential to his job.
“I think managing is managing your people. That’s probably the most important aspect of the game,” he said. “In-game strategy, sure, that’s great. But hopefully these guys are comfortable around me. As you well know, my office is right here and the door’s always open. I do like to give them their clubhouse -- I go out there once in a while. But it is managing your people. Because you’re going to do things they’re not going to be happy about. I don’t always get it right, but I do try to communicate with them and let them know what the thinking is.
“At the same time, this is a spot where you have to make difficult calls. But that’s your job. And your job is to put the best team out there to give you the best chance to win. I don’t think that should ever change. And I don’t think any relationship should ever change that. But you have to do what you need to do for what’s best for the club.”
Bochy has a knack for being able to read each player’s temperature, so to speak, at any given time. “He knew the personalities and makeup of each player, every day, in the room,” Nevin said.
This understanding helped Bochy derive maximum performance from his roster. Giants catcher Buster Posey recalled a teammate he refused to name who threatened to be disruptive. Bochy preferred to handle the problem in a subdued manner. “Otherwise,” Posey recalled Bochy saying, “he’ll shut down.”
CALL TO THE BULLPEN
Many observers affirm that handling his bullpen has been the backbone of Bochy’s success. But don’t expect Bochy to conduct any clinics on the subject, mainly because his procedures remain unwritten.
“I don’t think there’s any rules,” Bochy said regarding bullpen management. “I think you have to adapt to your team every year, and that‘s including your pitching staff. The dynamic changes constantly. So I think it’s up to me to adapt to how I use the pitchers or the bullpen.”
Take 2012, for example, when Bochy constructed a bullpen sans set roles. Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla divided the closer’s duties. Left-handers Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez might be used as lefty-on-lefty specialists. Or they might join right-handers Clay Hensley, George Kontos or Guillermo Mota to record key outs, regardless of what inning was being played.
Bochy met with his relievers around midseason to discuss this. Toward the end of his address, he pointed a long finger at Affeldt and said, “In order for this to work, I need you to be on board with me.” The Giants needed the versatility of Affeldt, who had proven capable of handling any role.
Result: A second World Series win in three years. Affeldt further proved his versatility in 2014, appearing in every inning from the second through 10th during the postseason.
Affeldt praised Bochy’s ability to sense every possible situation, when he might summon a particular reliever and how that would affect the remaining bullpen men, rather than limit pitchers irrevocably to certain responsibilities. “He looks at the feel of a game,” Affeldt said.
Bochy also tries to focus on the positive aspects of every situation, whether he’s talking to reporters or cheering on a struggling hitter from his perch in the dugout. Former Giants right fielder Hunter Pence recalled a team meeting Bochy led in early August of 2012, days after Pence joined the Giants from Philadelphia in a Trade Deadline deal.
“The meetings that he had were incredibly encouraging,” said Pence, now with the Rangers. “Usually, when you’d have a meeting, the manager would yell at you and told you that you were terrible and kind of attacked you. That was all that I had known. He was one of the first managers I met who gave a pump-up speech. He told us, ‘I don’t care if you lose. Just step on the gas.’ He had this movie clip and everything. It was really inspiring and motivational and made you feel really good. I remember we all started screaming ‘Step on the gas!’ and started playing really well.”
THE FINAL OUT
Now the time has come for Bochy to ease up on the accelerator. After all these years in baseball, he might struggle to walk away from it. The game doesn’t let go of its lifers so easily.
“Oh, he’s going to miss a lot of it,” Kim Bochy said. “And he’s going to miss the guys, and even all the ups and downs and the trials and tribulations that go on, on a daily basis, and the fires he has to put out.”
Many observers believe that though Bochy is a devoted grandfather, he’ll remain involved with baseball somehow. Projecting him as a consultant or special assignment scout is easy. Yet as an individual who trusted his soul instead of the spreadsheets that many contemporary managers embrace, he might indeed separate himself from MLB.
During a recent interview on KNBR, the Giants’ flagship radio station, Bochy mentioned the possibility of coaching Team France in an upcoming qualifying tournament (he was born in Landes de Bussac, France, during one of his itinerant father’s stops around the globe).
Whatever decisions Bochy makes will be well-considered. When a reporter carelessly suggested that he might have operated by the seat of his pants in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series -- the Madison Bumgarner game -- Bochy said with a slight edge in his voice, “I don’t manage by the seat of my pants.”
Of course. While ascending from anonymity to the pinnacle of baseball success, Bochy knew exactly what he was doing every step of the way.
Said Smith, “He was a backup catcher, an up-and-down guy most of his career. So I think he spent a lot of time watching, listening, talking. I think he just soaked all that in and somehow, in that big head of his, it all came together, and he’s become one of the greatest managers in history.”