Baseball / Sports

Giants' Bruce Bochy is the winningest active manager in big leagues

SAN FRANCISCO -- Bruce Bochy didn't feel like the major leagues' winningest active manager Wednesday morning.

A five-game losing streak had left the San Francisco Giants closer to the third-place San Diego Padres than the first-place Dodgers in the National League West. It also left Bochy in a foul mood.

So when a visitor strode into the manager's spacious clubhouse office to talk about the art of leadership, Bochy greeted him with a firm handshake and a wan expression.

"Great timing on your part, talking to me now," he said. "Because I'm not very smart right now."

Four hours later, though, Bochy was a genius again. His successful challenge of an innocent-looking play at the plate opened the floodgates for a seven-run inning, his team's biggest inning in nearly two years, that stopped the Giants' slide.

The manager hadn't thrown a pitch, swung a bat or caught a ball, yet his fingerprints were all over the victory just the same. The pinch-runner he inserted in the seventh inning wound up scoring the tying run. The pinch-hitter he used four batters later chased the opposing starter, then scored. And the relievers retired six of the seven batters they faced.

But most important, the manager had refused to let the Giants quit despite their recent free fall. Baseball can be a fickle game and Bochy's success comes from riding out the glories and the failures in the same stoic manner.

"He's got a lot of poise. When your leader is a rock, it leaks into your team," said Hunter Pence, who has played for five managers.

"He speaks, people listen. He's a game changer," said pitcher Jake Peavy, who played for four other men.

Bochy's peers agree, with a recent poll of NL managers selecting Bochy as the best in the league. Then there's what the numbers say, namely that he's a Hall of Fame manager in waiting.

With the Giants' comeback victory over Philadelphia on Saturday, Bochy has won 1,594 games in 20 seasons, more than Hall of Fame managers Dick Williams, Earl Weaver, Miller Huggins and Whitey Herzog and nearly 300 more than any other current manager. Barring another losing streak, he'll soon pass Tom Lasorda for 19th place on the all-time list for victories.

Of the 18 managers ahead of him on that list, 13 are in the Hall of Fame. And if the Giants win the NL pennant this season -- they've won two of the last three -- he'll become the 23nd manager to win more than three league championships.

The other 22 have plaques in Cooperstown.

"He's very quietly putting together a Hall of Fame career," said the Angels' Mike Scioscia, the second-winningest active manager. "When you talk about Joe Torre, about Tony La Russa, about Bobby Cox, about guys that have made it, Boch is going to be right there when it's all said and done.

"And it will be very deserving if he gets in."

Bochy waves away such praise, refusing to even utter the words "Hall of Fame." For him the victories and the titles inspire thoughts of simple human mortality more than they conjure comparisons to baseball immortality.

"When I'm told how long I've been managing or the wins, I just don't know where the time went," he said. "This is what I love to do and it's hard to believe I've been doing this since 1995."

At 59, Bochy's graying beard speaks to the passage of time while his stiff, shuffling gait bears testimony to a youth spent squatting behind the plate, taking fastballs and foul balls off any place that wasn't protected. He didn't set out to be a manager, but after an unspectacular 14-year career in which he caught for three major league teams and passed through more minor league cities than Greyhound, he was coaxed into retiring as a player in 1989 when the Padres offered him the job as manager of their rookie league affiliate in Spokane, Wash.

The team won the title that summer, the first of three for Bochy in four minor league seasons.

"He's one of those guys that has incredible instincts," said Arizona Diamondbacks General Manager Kevin Towers, a former teammate who was Bochy's pitching coach in Spokane and later his general manager in San Diego. "As a backup catcher he spent all those years watching the game, studying the game."

But as good as Bochy is at managing a game -- "one of the best in the business," Towers said -- he's even better at managing people.

"You can get anybody to come here and have a computer, or however they work it, and make moves. He's really great at that," said Giants third base coach Tim Flannery, who has been beside Bochy as a coach, confidant or teammate for most of the last three decades.

"But what makes him one of the great managers 1/8is3/8 he's adapted. Players have changed in his 20 years doing this. It's a real art keeping everybody on the same page for the whole season."

An art Bochy picked up playing for Williams and Bill Virdon, and one he has perfected, tailoring his style to his team rather than the other way around.

As a result he won a World Series in San Francisco with a payroll of $131 million and won a pennant in San Diego with a payroll a third that size. He won a league championship with great starting pitching and a division title with a great bullpen.

He has managed teams that could hit, ones that could run and still others that could hit and run.

But his greatest performance came in 2010, when he led a disparate team of journeymen (Cody Ross, Edgar Renteria) and malcontents (Pat Burrell, Jose Guillen, Aubrey Huff) to San Francisco's first World Series title.

Two years later, after replacing six of the eight regulars, Bochy won another.

This season, just getting to the postseason is shaping up as a challenge. The Giants led the division by 91/2 games and were a season-high 21 games over .500 in early June, but a month later they were looking up at the Dodgers in the standings and now are locked in a five-team fight for a wild-card spot with 40 games to go.

"This has now become more of a sprint. The margin of error is not quite there," Bochy said. "I think that's everybody's goal: find a way to get this done. It's up to us now."

Back in his clubhouse office, the one with the fully stocked wine cooler and a mounted elk head draped in an orange-and-black Giants scarf, the manager sits behind a large wooden desk and bounces quickly from baseball's Golden Rule to the humbling nature of the sport to his late father, Sgt. Maj. Gus Bochy, the son of a hardscrabble West Virginia coal miner who made the military his career.

Bochy is rarely ruffled, and when he does show emotion he does so behind closed doors, where he tries to treat others the same way Virdon treated him.

"He was fair but firm," Bochy said in a deep, gravely monotone reminiscent of Lou Brown, the old-school manager in the film "Major League" who told Ricky Vaughn to "give him the heater" two months before Bochy managed his first minor league game.

"If he had an issue with you he brought you into the office and he was straightforward," Bochy said of Virdon. "He didn't' sugarcoat anything. He didn't embarrass anybody. But he demanded that the guys play the game right."

Even played right, though, the game can be difficult, something Bochy learned in a career in which he had nearly as many strikeouts (177) as hits (192).

"This game, it'll get you," he said. "Any time you may think you have it figured out, whether you're a player or a coach or manager, it does make you realize how difficult it is to win a World Series.

"You never arrive in this game. You can't ever stop trying to get better because this game will humble you."

That respect for his men and their mission came partly from Sgt. Maj. Bochy, who became the first manager in the family when he ran the camp baseball team while stationed at tiny Ft. Kobbe in the Panama Canal Zone.

The younger Bochy was still managing in the minors when his father died in 1990, but many of the things the old man taught him live on.

"He's a military chain-of-command guy," Flannery said. "So if a sign is missed, I can't go to him and tell him that 'hey, that guy missed a sign.' He doesn't want to hear any of that. What I control and my department has to be handled or I will hear from him.

"And it can be tough. It can be real tough."

But Bochy's father also schooled him about honor and loyalty. So, four years after firing Flannery as his third base coach in San Diego, Bochy made him one of the first hires when he moved to San Francisco in 2007.

"He called me and he goes 'you've got one more ride left in you,' " Flannery said.

Bochy then sent a copy of "Lonesome Dove," the Western bromance starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as aging and ornery former lawmen on a final epic journey

Flannery immediately signed on; with Bochy, loyalty and inspiration apparently go both ways.

"He's an incredible leader and he's able to take ballplayers and make them usually better than what they are," said Towers, among the manager's closest friends in baseball.

Towers then relates a tale from spring training. Every year, he says, Bochy gives a talk he prepares for all off-season.

"It's about 45 minutes to an hour, no notes," Towers said. "And I'll tell you what, when he's done with it, myself, the players, they're ready to run through a frickin' wall for the guy.

"He gets up and walks out of the room and guys are all going 'let's go boys.' It's pretty impressive."

(c)2014 Los Angeles Times

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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