For Giants, success starts with Bruce Bochy, 2014 Coach of the Year
This story appears in the Dec. 15, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Know how sometimes you watch a person from afar and form a preconceived notion about him, and then he turns out to be nothing like that?
That's not the case with Bruce Bochy.
Anyone who's followed the Giants knows the drill. The game begins, and Bochy stares out from the dugout. The Giants take a lead (or fall behind), and Bochy continues to stare placidly. Sometimes, he strolls a couple of steps left, or right. On the field players grunt and yell and curse and celebrate, dying a thousand deaths and living a lifetime in one game. Bochy stares, animated as a cow chewing its cud.
This calm is powerful, his players say, as if the San Francisco manager were a human sedative. "I think that's why we do so well in the playoffs," says reliever Jeremy Affeldt, one of nine Giants to play on the 2010, '12 and '14 championship teams. "When the pressure increases, he actually gets calmer. We see that, and it gives us confidence."
This has long been Bochy's hallmark — one could make the case that he, not Phil Jackson, is the real Zen Master — but this season tested him more than most. At first the Giants were really good, as you perhaps recall. Then, for a while, they were really bad, blowing a prodigious division lead and watching the Dodgers take the NL West rather easily. Then came yet another improbable postseason run: a wild-card win over the Pirates, a 3-1 series triumph over the Nationals. The Cardinals fell in five games, and then, led by Madison Bumgarner, the Giants took down Kansas City in seven in the World Series. The final math: eight straight victories in elimination games, 10 consecutive postseason series wins, a playoff record of 34-14 under Bochy.
All of which is enough to earn Bochy a likely plaque in Cooperstown as well as this year's Sports Illustrated Coach of the Year award, a relatively new but nonetheless esteemed title for which he gets, well, this story. And a copy of that gingerbread house photo. (more on that later).
To get to Bochy's house, you head a half hour northeast from San Diego, on two-lane highways and then eucalyptus-lined streets, until you arrive in Poway, which bills itself, somewhat aspirationally, as the City in the Country.
Tucked into a cul-de-sac, past houses dotted with American flags, is the two-story home where Bruce and his wife of nearly four decades, Kim, have lived for the past 17 years. The living-room mantel holds photos of their two sons, Greg and Brett, both of whom played baseball. Greg, 35, spent four seasons in the Padres' organization and Brett, 27, is a minor league pitcher in the Giants' system.
On this rainy Tuesday afternoon in early December, Bochy has recently returned from a trip to Atlanta. Already, it's been an off-season of change. A week earlier, World Series hero/Bay Area cult figure Pablo Sandoval signed a lucrative deal with the Red Sox. Then Bochy's longtime third base coach and good friend/drinking buddy Tim Flannery retired to spend more time on his successful music career. "Good for him," says Bochy, in that deep scratchy drawl of his, somewhere between construction foreman bass and whiskey-tinged, country-singer rumble. "He's got real talent."
The purpose of the Atlanta trip, undertaken with a Giants delegation that included Tim Hudson, was to woo free-agent lefthander Jon Lester. From the sound of it, Bochy and Lester hit it off. Both men had recently gone on buffalo hunting expeditions. (Lester felled his beast with a rifle; Bochy got his with a bow. The stuffed head is due to arrive in two weeks.) As for signing Lester, however, Bochy isn't sure. "Some big offers still to come," he says. "Yankees, probably."
That's a problem for another day, though. Ignoring the rain, a flannel-clad Bochy leads a visitor out back, past the pool and the hot tub, to what amounts to an above-ground man cave: a back building complete with a marble bar, pool table, wine cellar and Giants-themed blackjack table given to him by former Padres players. In person, Bochy is a powerful presence, looming at 6-foot-3 like a large but docile bear. As he walks, he moves purposefully, on account of two bad knees and a balky left hip, which he blames on all the years of throwing BP and landing on his left leg.
"Don't come out here that much anymore," says Bochy, opening the door. Not many people to drink with these days, he explains. But the winter meetings are coming to San Diego in a week, so he's stocking up on vodka for GM Brian Sabean, and getting a keg of pilsner for his kegerator. Because of course Bruce Bochy has a kegerator. He points to a framed poster for the miniseries Lonesome Dove. "Favorite movie of all time," he says. "Duvall was amazing."
Though you wouldn't know it from meeting him, Bochy is one of only eight major leaguers born in France. His father, Gus, a sergeant major, was stationed at Landes de Bussac, an Army installation in the country's southwest. The family moved around, from France to South Carolina to the Panama Canal Zone and later to Melbourne, Fla., where they eventually settled. Gus was military to the core. If Bruce failed to run out a grounder in Little League, he heard about it. If he slouched in his chair at dinner, Gus would bellow, "Get out of that recumbent position!"
In parts of nine seasons as a backup catcher with the Astros, Mets and Padres, Bochy hit .239, never surpassing 154 at-bats in a season. He hit home runs off Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan (a walk-off), but his career highlight was a hit in his only at-bat in the 1984 World Series, with San Diego. When he began his managing career, he strove to be "fair but firm" with players, like both his father and his first manager and greatest professional influence, Bill Virdon. "Bill never embarrassed anybody," says Bochy. "If he had an issue with you, he did it behind closed doors."
After winning three titles in four years as a Padres minor league manager, Bochy signed a one-year, $175,000 deal to manage the big league club in 1995. In 12 years in San Diego, he won roughly as many as he lost and took the team to the postseason four times, including the team's second World Series, in '98, where it was swept by the Yankees. At the end of the 2006 season, unsure if the Padres intended to keep him around, he left for the Giants. The hire was met with something short of elation in the Bay Area. no 'wow!': just a solid choice read one local headline.
You know the rest. A year of late-career Bonds babysitting, then an unlikely title in 2010, an equally unlikely title in '12 (after being down 3-1 to the Cardinals in the NLCS) and arguably the least-likely title run of all earlier this fall. He has more postseason victories than all but four managers in MLB history, three of whom (Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa) are in the Hall of Fame.
When others talk about Bochy's success, they mention four traits in particular. His serenity ("rock solid," in the words of Hunter Pence). His uncanny ability, as Bumgarner put it during these playoffs, to "always make the right move." His enormous, and oft discussed, dome (a size 8 1/8). And perhaps most striking, the way he gets the most out of his players.
Indeed, plenty of managers excel at game strategy. And plenty are good with personalities. Few are as adept at both as Bochy.
He abides by certain rules. Approach each player as an individual. ("You learn one size doesn't fit all.") Cajole, criticize in private. (You can search 20 years of news stories, and good luck finding Bochy saying anything bad about a player.) And remember that in the end, "for the most part they all need your support." After all, Bochy was once a scuffling backup catcher. He knows how hard the job is.
That support — genuine and given freely — is part of why Bochy becomes close to so many of his players. He's tight with Trevor Hoffman, Ryan Klesko and a number of other former Padres. Among current Giants, he considers Pence, Buster Posey and Tim Lincecum in particular to be friends. Those types of relationships help when it's time to make difficult decisions. Like leaving his $126 million pitcher off the playoff roster, as he did in 2010 with Barry Zito (who came back to win a crucial game in '12). Or telling Lincecum, a two-time Cy Young winner who'd won the deciding game in the '10 World Series — "he put a ring on our finger," as Bochy puts it — that he was out of the postseason rotation.
Bochy has evolved as a manager. He was once criticized for being too loyal to veterans; now he's more willing to play young players, so much so that the primary knock on him in these playoffs was that he relied on rookie reliever Hunter Strickland too much. He is an excellent, progressive tactical manager. He'll use his closer in tie games on the road. He'll use relievers as multi-inning Goose Gossage-style weapons as he did Lincecum in that same postseason that he dropped him from the rotation. And he'll trust in role players when many wouldn't. Think of Travis Ishikawa's walk-off NLCS-ending home run this fall, or Yusmeiro Petit pitching six innings of relief in Washington.
Affeldt tells a story about coming in to face Arizona slugger Paul Goldschmidt in a one-run game in June 2013. Affeldt meant to throw a ball outside. He thought he sent it far enough away from the plate. Only Goldschmidt reached out and put it over the wall, costing the Giants the game and teammate Matt Cain a victory. Affeldt, one of the more emotional guys on the team, beat himself up. Why didn't I just throw it in the dirt?
Later that night, just after midnight, he received a text from Bochy. Brush that off. You've been throwing well. Don't worry about it. Affeldt was both heartened and shocked. "I don't remember any manager in my entire life texting me like that."
Told this story, Bochy responds with a laugh. "If you notice, it was at midnight, after I had a couple hours to settle down." He pauses, becomes serious. "That's important, though. You try to remind yourself of when you played, how tough you took it, how hard it could be to sleep at night."
The afternoon wears on, and the pool table beckons. Bochy racks the balls and pours a pair of short glasses of rum from a bottle that Felipe Alou brought him from Venezuela, then launches into a story, of which he has many. About his friendship with Waylon Jennings, who used to call him every Opening Day to remind Bochy to "do it his way." About epic poker games, which, word has it, Bochy often wins, and comic bus rides. About how Pence drinks roughly 20 cups of coffee a day, seemingly subsisting on a diet of caffeine and kale. Bochy is a natural people person. Welcoming, inclusive, respectful. Later he will invite a reporter and photographer to stay for dinner. "We'll open a bottle of good wine," he says. It's easy to see why his players like him.
In this era of analytics, Bochy is the rare manager who is both open to new ideas and, at the same time, decidedly old-school. He counts Jim Leyland and Cox as role models. He says he manages based on "my feel and my gut." Before games he spends 15 minutes alone in his office, feet up on his desk, ass in his chair, a lineup card in hand. Staring down the list of names, Bochy goes inning by inning, envisioning possible scenarios. Which pitchers he might need against which hitters. Which bats and which gloves he might rely on off his bench. He tries to cover, as he puts it, "anything that could go awry." Explains Bochy, "If you lose your starter in the first inning, you better have somebody ready, instead of having to shoot from the hip in the dugout and going, 'Oh, s---!'"
Finally, just before heading out to the field, Bochy gives himself a pep talk, reminding himself of what's most important. "That covers ever-thing to me. How we're going to pitch our hitters. Position our defenders, our hitters, their game plan. And so, why beat yourself up during the game? Because it's not going to go the way you want all the time, but as long as you've done your job, why are you getting so upset?"
Once the game begins, Bochy's countenance belies the emotions underneath. This season in particular included, he says, "probably my toughest couple months as a manager," as the team went from invincible to lifeless. It got to the point, after he fired his hat in the dugout enough times, where a couple of the Giants veterans pulled him aside. "We see such a consistent, calm person, that if it's out of the ordinary, we panic," explains Affeldt, one of those vets. "He's so calm that when he's not, it makes you feel awkward."
Confronted by his players for a perfectly normal reaction to a team's losing streak, he did not boil over or become defensive. Instead, he listened. "It was a great reminder to me, it really was," says Bochy. "To step back and realize how hard this game is and that they're trying."
Now the sun has gone down, and we are back in the main house. The time has come to take the photo for this story. The one involving the gingerbread house and the Christmas apron.
SI photographer Robert Beck broaches the frosting idea to Bochy. The concept: to have the Giants' manager doing something totally incongruous. This would certainly qualify. "I don't think he's ever worn an apron," says Kim, barely hiding her glee.
"Yeahhhh," Bochy says. Then he pauses. "Hmmmm..."
He looks pissed off. Or maybe he's not. It's hard to tell. He may just be deep in thought. Or perhaps he is on the verge of telling a story. As far as I know, he could be happy, so unchanging is his expression.
"Yeah. ... Hmmm," says Bochy again, in that drawl of his. His face scrunches up the tiniest bit. And then, slowly and awkwardly, because he is a good sport, Bruce complies, using a spatula to apply an uneven sugary layer of fake snow.
Kim tries not to laugh. Bruce does his best, but he's not very good at it. And this is the essence of Bruce Bochy: A man incapable of pretending to be anything but what he is.