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The S.F. Interview: Bruce Almighty

Steve Kettmann | April 19, 2013 | Story Profiles

He can’t really be that calm, can he? It’s hard to believe that a man could successfully manage a major-league baseball team the way that Bruce Bochy does the San Francisco Giants, staring out at the action with all the fuss and fury of a guy watching ribs slow-cook on the grill. Yet, there he is, grinning at his players when other skippers would growl, sloughing off the pressure of a World Series game with a sleepy-eyed shrug, and, more often than not these last few years, making the right call over and over and over. So how does Bochy maintain such Zen-like equipoise in a profession famous for hysterics? Long, meditative post-game walks, for starters.

Baseball managers have one of the most discussed and least understood jobs on earth, and it has become de rigueur in this post-Moneyball era to believe that dugout strategists actually have very little to do with the outcome on the diamond. This not only belies much of what happens during a game; it completely ignores what happens before and after it. In both his shambling, inoffensive clubhouse interventions and his turns as an on-field Gandhi, Bochy makes the role of manager seem easier, and more placid, than it is. “He never looks like a guy who is beaten up by the job,” says T.J. Quinn, a contributor to ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “Even Joe Torre sometimes looked like he just came out of an alleyway beating. You could see the scars. With Bochy, you never do.”

The underlying trait that powers the 58-year-old baseball lifer is trust: trust in his instincts—honed over nine years as a big-league catcher and 25 more as a coach and manager—and trust in his players. Case in point: Though the Giants picked up infielder Marco Scutaro late last season primarily as a role player, Bochy liked what he saw so much that he let Scutaro play himself into a starring role. Several weeks later, Scutaro was hoisting an MVP trophy after batting .500 during a thrilling seven-game National League championship series. An even better example: the utterly unprecedented way in which Bochy used slumping ace Tim Lincecum out of the bull pen during last year’s postseason. Bochy had to sell the two-time Cy Young winner on the idea, which was no sure thing. “Timmy could have easily pouted and said, ‘I’m a starter and I’m not doing it,’” says ESPN baseball reporter Pedro Gomez. “But look what happened.”

Coming off of two world championships in the past three years and recently rewarded with a rich three-year contract extension, Bochy is not only at the top of his profession—he might be on his way to the Hall of Fame. The path there has been, in typical Bochy fashion, not a sprint but a meander. Looking characteristically relaxed in the 80-degree March heat of Scottsdale, Arizona, where the Giants have their spring training facilities, Bochy sat down for a wide-ranging conversation with Steve Kettmann, a former Chronicle baseball writer and the author of One Day at Fenway. Bochy may have 18 years of big-league managing experience, Kettmann found, but for him the game has only gotten more fun, more simple, more like living out a dream.

You’ve been in the game of baseball for nearly 40 years, yet until the last few, you’ve never been talked about as a hall of fame–level manager. Now you are. Let’s discuss your managing style a little. You seem to be a guy who trusts his gut rather than reams of data. Is that fair to say?
I’d say that I’m a believer in instincts. I’ve talked to young managers about this, and it was something that mentors said to me when I was new: You have to trust yourself. That’s why you’re managing. That’s why they hired you, because they want you to make those decisions. You can’t get caught up in thinking, “We’ve got to do it this way, we’ve got to go by the book!” Sometimes you go against that book. It doesn’t mean that you’re always right, but, hopefully, you’re right more than you’re wrong, or chances are that you won’t be doing the job long.

Ever since Michael Lewis’s Moneyball came out in 2003, there’s been this conception that baseball managers’ hunches and instincts don’t matter that much. But it seems to me that in your managing during last year’s postseason, you were definitely following a few hunches, weren’t you?
Sure. [Laughs] All the information you can get, it’s critical to your decision making. We have great advance scouts and an operations staff who really do a tremendous job of helping me. But at the same time, when you’re watching a game, you’ve gotta go with your instincts at times. There are times when these players have to know that you have trust and confidence in them. If it doesn’t work out, at least you can say, “You know what, I did it my way. That move didn’t work out, but I still believe that it was the way to go.”

So, basically, you take in as much information as you can from all your years of observing baseball, plus every statistic that you can get your hands on, but in the end, you still go with your gut?
My style is, I watch the game. You don’t see me writing down a lot of things or having to look down at stats. They’re important, but there are some things that you can’t see on a spreadsheet. How a player is performing at that time, the confidence he’s playing with. Or take it the other way: He’s really going through a difficult time, and he’s not comfortable at the plate or on the mound, or he’s not quite there with his delivery. All these things, they play a part in any move that you make, and that’s why you have to trust your gut, your instincts.

Has your style changed much over the years? It seems to me that you go about the job pretty much the same way you did managing the San Diego Padres in the late ’90s.
I don’t think my style has changed much. If anything, I think I’ve developed a little more patience and a little more trust in my coaching staff. I rely on them. When I was young, my first year or two, I did everything. I ran every meeting, whether it was a pitching meeting or how we were going to defend opposing teams. But I’ve learned that you have to let your coaches coach. They have expertise in their area, and that’s why they’re there, and you need to utilize them. Delegating has become an important part of my job.

It seems like you enjoy yourself more than the average manager. A lot of your peers look agitated all the time, but you really look like you’re at ease, even having fun.
I am enjoying myself. I know how fortunate I am to be doing what I’m doing and to have been doing it for so long. I’ve been blessed, particularly to come up here to San Francisco to be part of a storied franchise and, now, to win two World Series. I’m in a good place. I’m fortunate to be around the people I am, our ownership and [general manager] Brian Sabean—who is not only my boss but my friend—and to have them give me the tools to do what we’ve done here recently.

And to have your home ballpark be among the best in baseball. It seems like a great, great place to manage.
It’s unbelievable. Really, it’s overwhelming at times, when every day you look up at the stands and we’re sold out, and you see the support that we get, the enthusiasm, from our fans. You walk around the city and see how passionate they all are. To be part of two World Series champions, again, that’s such an honor. The rings are nice. Winning last year’s World Series was great. But to be part of the two parades and to see how many people have been impacted and how much they care about this team, those are memories that all of these players and I, we’ll never forget. We’ll always savor those memories.

You mentioned walking around the city, and I recall from the last time we talked, years ago, that you are an avid walker. For you, it was kind of like therapy. Is that still true?
What got me into walking really was, with all the years of catching, the wear and tear on the legs. With my left knee at a point now where I can’t run, I still wanted to stay active and, of course, stay in decent shape. So I took up walking. Every city I go to, I get away, particularly after a game that didn’t go well. I can say, “I don’t wanna sit in the bus. I’m gonna walk back by myself.” It is still kind of my therapy, I guess.

What are the best Bruce Bochy walking cities?
Cincinnati is great—you go from one state to the other, Ohio to Kentucky, and you walk across the bridge over the Ohio River. Wrigley Field, you walk down by Lake Michigan. I’ll leave the ballpark and walk to the hotel, or vice versa, and that’s about six miles. Milwaukee, it’s great walking, you can walk along the lake there. Really, there are not too many parks I don’t walk from, because they all have their sights that I enjoy, and most of them are great walking areas.

Do you ever walk to the park in San Francisco? Not to blow your cover.
In San Francisco, my routine is to walk past the wharf and come back. I live close to the ballpark. And it’s such a great walk. You’re walking along the water there, and of course, it’s such a beautiful city to walk in. In fact, when my wife and I go out and get something to eat, we usually walk to the restaurant, whether it’s in North Beach or wherever. She’s a fast walker, so she keeps me at a good pace.

You mentioned earlier that some mentors informed your managing style. Which ones left the biggest mark?
My first manager in rookie ball, Billy Smith. He taught me the professional way to play the game. Then my first manager in the major leagues, Bill Virdon. I just liked his style and how he handled players. He was firm, but fair. If he had a problem with you, he didn’t embarrass you in front of everybody or in the media. He’d bring you into the office, and he’d tell you how it was. And Bobby Cox: I really admired how Bobby ran his team, how professional they were. He gave me some good advice one time. He said, “You know, Bruce, as you manage, you’re going to hear a lot of things, particularly on the talk shows or in the newspaper. You need to back off and stay away from that, because you’re going to want to hear all these things, but it can influence you in your decision making. Just trust yourself.” And that’s what I’ve done.

You have never really gotten caught up in the media crossfire, have you?
No. I’ve had people come up and say, “Hey, they were saying this and that on a talk show about what you shoulda done in that game.” But I don’t hear it. I don’t listen to it. You can’t believe all the great things that are said about you, and you can’t believe all the bad things that are said about you. You’ve just gotta keep doing what you’re supposed to do.

Can you pick one or two managers in baseball to whom you’re the most similar in terms of style?
That’s a hard one.

You probably don’t think that way.
No, I don’t.

How about other managers in the game whom you admire and enjoy watching?
Both of them have retired. Bobby Cox, I’ve already mentioned. Watching the Braves, they were just such a professional team. There was nothing fancy about them—they always played the game hard and played it right. Bobby had his rules: no hot dogging, things like that—he wouldn’t allow it. I’m probably a little different, in that I encourage my guys to be who they are. We’re all different. We’re a pretty diverse group, and I encourage these guys to be themselves—to a point, you know. At some point, you probably have to draw a line, but I think players perform better when you keep them loose and free and continue to let them have fun out there playing.

And another manager?
Tony La Russa. He was always on top of the game. He was so prepared. You knew that you had your hands full when you were playing his team, because he was ready for anything. Tony and I, we did a dinner together two years ago, and we were remembering back to ’96, when we were playing each other [Bochy as manager of the Padres, La Russa with the St. Louis Cardinals]. I remember it just like it was yesterday. It was a first-and-third play, a delayed steal. They threw to second, and we walked home. He said that he was so mad at himself when it happened that he’d never forget it. Here’s a guy, Tony La Russa, who’s going to the Hall of Fame, talking about a play that I had run on him 17 years ago that he said he would never forget. Guys like him—good, great managers—those are the things that stay in their heads. It’s not something you write down and have to go back and look at. You just remember them. Because we probably see the game in a different way than most people.

You see a lot more than most people.
Yeah, we do. It’s probably the same in every sport—football head coaches, basketball coaches. What’s vital to your job is that you do see everything and, hopefully, remember and draw from your experiences, whether good or bad.

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