The San Diego Union-Tribune
SAN DIEGO — Bochy Ball is bouncing into mid-October and it’s a wonderful thing.
But I have to admit: Boy, was I wrong nearly three decades ago.
Bruce Bochy was just starting out as a big league manager with the 1995 Padres. Yes, I was impressed by the calm and steadiness he exuded. It seemed ideal for the rhythms of baseball. Yes, I found credible reports that the former catcher had a rare feel for baseball chess. That he had shown as a Padres third-base coach that he could “slow the game down.” That his people skills were A+.
The scouting reports on Bochy were, by and large, ringing true in those early days. But as that first journey ramped up, my duties as a beat reporter exposed me to a Bochy trait that hadn’t been much discussed.
The calm and unassuming rookie manager possessed a simmering intensity that was often shielded from his Padres players. In the intermediate aftermath of many rough defeats, his presentation brought to mind the football coaches I’d been around. He looked like he’d emerged from a bar fight. Face flushed. Hair disheveled. Eyes a little glassy, his voice almost disconnected.
As he talked off the cuff, winding down, I came to believe Bochy was absolutely convinced every game could be won and that if the team lost he deserved some of the blame. He wasn’t irrational about it. He maintained that baseball, above all, is a players’ game. But there seemed a lava flow inside him that would not be easy to reckon with. “Washing off” defeats, as he often said after the tougher losses, would be a huge challenge in a sport that dishes out so many of them.
I wondered if he would wear down within a few years. That is, if he first managed to prevent Larry Lucchino — the prickly CEO who inherited him — from firing him.
Of course, I was dead wrong.
Bochy stands seventh all time in games managed with nearly 4,200. He’s tied for fourth with three World Series titles. His teams have won four pennants, the first coming a quarter of a century ago with the 1998 Padres via upsets of the Astros and Braves.
This year, at 68, he has reached his eighth postseason, this time with his third franchise, the Rangers. And Bochy is headed to the ALCS after his team completed a best-of-five sweep of the Orioles with Tuesday’s 7-1 victory.
There were indeed physical setbacks that put a scare into Bochy, his wife and their two sons. He had stents put into his heart. Back pain gnawed at him for many years, causing him to conduct interviews while lying on his back with his feet propped up. Without successful acupuncture, he said he doubted he would’ve managed nearly as long as he has. His attachment to chewing tobacco tested him more than a little.
Five consecutive losing seasons with the Padres, for sure, took a toll. “Boch and I are burnt out,” his friend and Padres boss Kevin Towers said in 2003 amid the fifth losing season following the World Series run.
Disagreements with the Sandy Alderson-led front office chipped at Bochy, contributing to the end of his Padres tenure, and when his longtime Giants boss Brian Sabean moved on in favor of a heavy analytics approach, it was clear Bochy’s run in San Francisco was soon to end.
Yet here he is, re-emerging in full force, managing October baseball once again. In his first season of riding the tiger since he took a three-year recharge while scouting for the Giants, he appears fresh and very much on his game. He reports to his former Padres pitcher Chris Young, with whom he collaborated in 2006 to help produce the most recent of Padres runs to the National League West title.
Many ingredients go into the explanation for how Bochy has weathered so many challenges.
To pick just one, I’ll go with my favorite: his dry sense of humor.
There’s no baseball metric for effective humor, but if there were, Bochy would be among MLB’s leaders in win shares. His isn’t the goofball humor and high jinks that are as old as baseball. He drops occasional one-liners. It’s all in the timing.
New to Bochy when this season began, Rangers players tell about his deft comedic touch that has eased their journey. A year after finishing 38 games out of first place, Texas won a wild card berth and beat both the Rays and Orioles in the playoffs.
Rangers first baseman Nathaniel Lowe explained to ESPN’s Tim Keown recently how Bochy’s humor unburdened him during a heavy August. The Rangers were flailing amid a seven-game losing streak, and Lowe, out of sync, rolled over a changeup, producing a sickly dribbler.
“He was angry with himself,” writes Keown, “and he ran as hard as he could toward first base, as much out of irritation as professional responsibility.” Only because the ball squeaked between two Twins fielders, Lowe ended up with the “saddest of all possible hits.” Still furious, he jogged back to the dugout after the inning ended, and noticed Bochy inching toward the steps and leaning toward him, as if he’d just hit a homer.
“That’s a good piece of hittin’ right there,” Bochy grumbled in Lowe’s direction.
Lowe looked at him, saw the glint in his eye and burst out laughing.
“He’s got such a good feel for getting the most out of guys,” Lowe told Keown. “After he says it, I wasn’t even mad anymore. He’s the master of knowing what to say and when to say it.”
With the Padres, among Bochy’s best uses of humor involved Kevin Brown, the newly acquired and volcanic ace pitcher.
Bochy knew the pitcher’s temper tantrums were part of managing Brown, whom Towers had traded for ahead of the 1998 season.
Brown was so intense that Padres teammates would refer to him as “Hornet” and avoided him in the hours before he started a game. With other clubs he had destroyed fixtures and equipment inside clubhouses and dugout bathrooms throughout the big leagues.
Bochy welcomed Brown by directing him to a hard-plastic replica of a marlin. Six feet long, the ridiculous fake fish was mounted inside Bochy’s tiny office. It seemed a prop in a Monty Python skit.
Bochy invited his perplexed ace to hammer at the plastic fish, preferably with an instrument other than his right hand, whenever he felt the need to vent.
The two men bonded. Coincidentally or not, in response to enormous expectations put on him, Brown produced perhaps the best full baseball year in team history to lead the Padres to a franchise-record 98 wins, a trip to the World Series and, indirectly, a successful ballpark campaign that led to Petco Park’s construction.
Bochy has been able to pull off that kind of humor not just because he’s witty and judicious about making quips, but because ballplayers don’t perceive him as a phony. They know that as both a former big-league starter and a longtime backup, he appreciates how difficult the sport is. In an ecosystem of not inconsiderable ego and insecurity, he earns trust. They’re probably grateful his own outbursts are seldom, given that at 6-foot-4 and some 240 pounds, he’s bigger than most of them.
One other thing about Bochy, and it has nothing do with his success.
He had a funny way of injecting references to animals, fish and fowl into his postgame comments.
If baseball had dealt cruelly with one of his players or teams, he described it as a “buzzard’s luck.” A Padres pitcher who’d shown insufficient guile “tried to bull his way” through a lineup. A pouting player — or team — had “a mule lip.” Baseball mysteries left him “buffaloed.”
And what did the laconic former catcher say if the ball clanged off a catcher’s mitt? “You mean the catfish skillet,” he’d deadpan.
The Rangers are a serious bunch, but it’s the smiles and the laughs that are part of their dangerous look. A year after the soulful Dusty Baker won his first World Series title, directing the Astros at age 73, their own stiff-legged manager is striking another blow for old dudes.
The pastime is not past his time.