Playing Bochy Ball
LATE ON A SUMMER AFTERNOON some years ago, Kim Bochy was driving from Dodger Stadium toward her home in Poway with Brett, the youngest of her two sons. The car radio was tuned to a station that featured sports talk.
“I occasionally listened to those shows back then,” Kim says. On this day, it turned out to be an unfortunate choice of programming. The San Diego Padres had won the first two games of a series against their Los Angels rivals, but earlier that day lost game three. In their post-game analysis, the talkshow hosts, who typically specialize more in ranting than reporting, were blistering Padres manager Bruce Bochy for giving stars Ken Caminiti and Tony Gwynn the day off.
The manager is Kim’s husband and Brett’s father. “I didn’t deal well with criticism at the time,” Kim says, “and it was especially hard having someone as young as Brett hear it. We both knew that Caminiti was back in San Diego, being treated for an injury. And that Tony had come to Bruce before the game and told him he couldn’t play.
“Brett wanted to call the show. I wouldn’t let him, but I phoned. And I told them, ‘You guys didn’t do your homework.’ It’s the only time I ever did anything like that. Usually, I keep a low profile. Bruce is the one out front. I’m just my kids’ mom.”
Dealing with public criticism is part of the job description for those out front in Major League Baseball. “It does come with the territory,” says Bruce Bochy, who has survived the barbs and front-office maneuvering to extend his tenure as Padres skipper to a 12th season. Only Bobby Cox of the Atlanta Braves has more longevity in that role with a single organization.
“I’d rather have the criticism come at me than at the players,” Bochy insists. “And if fans are critical, it means they care. I prefer that to apathy.”
FOR THOSE WHO KNOW Bruce Bochy only as a face in the Padres’ dugout, it should be pointed out that there are a wealth of personal qualities that have made him one of the most-admired men in his profession—among players, contemporaries and friends.
“Most people are familiar only with the baseball persona,” says Jim Brown, former manager of San Diego’s City Lakes System, who’s a frequent hunting, fishing and golfing partner of Bochy’s. “What isn’t so obvious is that he is a very warm, considerate, down-to-earth guy with a wonderfully dry sense of humor—one who’s very capable of enjoying a joke at his expense. He’s devoted to family, great with his kids, kind to friends and thoughtful toward people in general.”
No one who accepts the challenge of dealing with 25 professional athletes over a 162-game season is lacking in ego, but those who know him best agree Bochy’s is submerged below periscope depth.
“When I met Bruce the first time, it was intimidating,” says Jeff Bowman, recently retired as San Diego’s fire chief. “He has the physical presence of a bear. I thought to myself, ‘Those are paws, not hands.’
“It turns out he’s one of the kindest, most gentle persons I know. You talk about friendship—if I had a need and turned to him, I’m positive I could count on him.”
Bochy even earns high marks from a normally cynical outpost. “Many managers have set times when you can see them,” says Bill Center, longtime sportswriter for The San Diego Union-Tribune. “Bruce always is approachable, and if he tells you something, it’s pretty much gospel. You may not always agree with his decisions, but I’ve never heard anybody behind the scenes say he’s a bad person. I admire the man.”
Adds Jerry Coleman, the Hall of Fame broadcaster who years ago briefly stuck a toe in the managerial pool: “He’s as good as I’ve ever seen. Casey Stengel [for whom Coleman played as a New York Yankee] won because he had great teams, but Casey had no personal touch with his players. Bruce is a nice guy, but he also has the ability to stand up to people and tell them when they’re wrong. And they’ll listen—because he treats men like men. Give Bruce players, and he’ll win consistently.”
Closer Trevor Hoffman, who has more time in uniform with Bochy than any other Padre, says, “People who hear Boch on TV may not think of him as verbal, but his communication skills with players are through the roof. He’s also grown as an X and O guy and in knowing how to delegate to his staff. I’m a great admirer.”
Sandy Alderson, who joined the Padres as chief executive a year ago, concedes his knowledge of Bochy at that time was gleaned from other sources. “He had an outstanding reputation among rival field managers and front-office people,” Alderson says. “Coming in, I felt having Bruce was a positive—not only because of his competence between the lines but also his personal qualities.
“You don’t survive as long as he has without being able to connect with players. That’s just as important as decisionmaking. I also think he’s well-respected in the community, which is important to our organization. I think Bruce really cares about the fans and the city.”
Bruce Bochy also is serious about winning, and there hasn’t been enough of that (only three seasons of above-.500 baseball) to satisfy him or the fans—or to ensure a perpetuating contract situation.
“Because of the way I manage myself, there probably are people who think I don’t care,” Bochy says. “Ranting and raving in the dugout is something I’m not going to do. I don’t throw things. But I don’t want my personal discipline to be confused with complacency. Losses bother me. I don’t like poorly played baseball.”
From the ultimate source comes verifying information. “I don’t believe Bruce is as even-tempered at the ballpark as most people think,” says the woman who married him 28 years ago. “He doesn’t like to show anger or emotion where it can be seen by others. However, he might go inside and let it out.
“He does bring the game home with him at times. When they’ve had a bad day, it can be pretty quiet around here.”
BRUCE AND KIM MET IN 1974, introduced by mutual friends in Melbourne, Florida, where they attended rival high schools.
Bochy, now 51, was born into a military family at Landes de Bussac, France, but he became a Floridian after a heart attack shortened the Army career of his father, Gus. Early memories include the $10 joint purchase (with a friend) of a johnboat they used to fish the Indian River—until the weary craft literally sank beneath them.
“By then I’d developed a passion for baseball,” Bochy says, “but my first couple of years in high school, I was the shortest guy on the team. I looked like a batboy. I was a pitcher, third-baseman. Fortunately, when I got older and realized how slow I was, I went behind the plate.”
As a senior, he’d lengthened to 6-2, was a star and was waiting for a call on major-league draft day—one that didn’t come. Following a year at Brevard Community College, Bochy was selected in the eighth round by the Chicago White Sox. “But by the time they got around to signing me, they were out of money,” he says.
So back to Brevard—until he was drafted by the Houston Astros in the secondary phase of the 1975 draft. Bochy still was a minor- league property when he and Kim wed. They were apartment dwellers at Class AA Columbus, Georgia, that summer, earning $750 a month, when the Astros phoned. Bochy was to join the varsity for a maximum of 10 days.
“So I stayed in Georgia,” Kim says. “Then Bruce calls to tell me they were planning to keep him and that I should come to Houston. I rushed around, got everything loaded, then made the drive with Bruce’s sister. The night we arrived, there was a huge convention in town and no rooms available. We ended up sleeping in the car.”
There were five years of winter ball. At one point, says Kim, she was “in the Dominican Republic with a two-month-old boy who had chicken pox.”
“I remember a motel room in Venezuela where we had one small frying pan and a tiny heater to provide hot water,” Bruce adds. “That worked about half the time.
“There was nothing in Kim’s background to prepare her for what I’ve put her through. I’m very fortunate to have married a beautiful person who’s able to handle anything thrown at her. She’s the foundation of our family. She’s raised the boys.”
Kim counters, “He missed a lot with the kids, but he also made the most of his time with them when he was around. We’ve always taken one road trip a season as a family, but all the boys wanted to do when we got to a new city was go to the ballpark.” A minor-league player for a short time, Greg, 26, now is in business locally and lives in Pacific Beach. A recent graduate of Poway High, Brett will attend Kansas University on a baseball scholarship this fall.
Bruce Bochy’s major-league career spanned nine seasons. Following a trade from Houston to the New York Mets in 1980, he was allotted one atbat during spring training and spent the entire 1981 campaign with the team’s AAA affiliate at Tidewater. Convinced a year later that he had a chance to win the starting catcher’s job with the big club, he fielded a phone call one afternoon from Kim, who said, “I just heard over the radio that you’ve been released.”
Among ensuing phone calls placed by a desperate Bochy was one to Padres general manager Jack McKeon. Bochy’s final five seasons as an athlete would be as back-up catcher in the local uniform. He’s now added 12 as manager.
“During my playing days, I was one of those guys who went to the last cut every spring,” says Bochy. “There’s no pressure any worse than that.
“When you’re a reserve, which I always was, you’re more sensitive to how difficult the game is, and you treat people accordingly. We don’t run a country club here, but I think we treat guys fairly. I mean everybody, and we’ve had some strong personalities.”
Hidden behind this manager’s calm public façade is one of them.