Barber: For Giants’ Bochy, it was always ‘about people’
Bruce Bochy sat through a lot of praise, said some very nice words of his own and walked, one last time, off the diamond at Oracle Park. He descended the dugout stairs and disappeared from the view of the stands.
That stroll marked the end of an era in San Francisco. It feels a little like the end of an era in Major League Baseball, too.
Bochy began his managerial career with the short-season Class-A Spokane Indians in 1989. It was a time when high-profile baseball managers ruled their clubhouses like banana-republic strongmen. Sparky Anderson, Whitey Herzog, Tommy Lasorda, Frank Robinson, Bobby Valentine, Davey Johnson, Tony LaRussa - all of them were skippering MLB teams in 1989.
Those men had a wide range of personalities and skill sets. What united them was their authority. Yes, they had to answer to ownership once in a while. But when a game was in progress, they were in complete control.
The job is evolving. Managers are hired these days, at least in part, for their willingness to understand and accept the tenets of data analytics, and to comply with the front-office executives responsible for interpreting the data.
“I mean, the game has changed,” Bochy said after that elaborate and emotional post-game ceremony. “It’s the way of the world. There’s changes everywhere. And in our business, sure, it’s changed. And you talk about analytics becoming more involved. It’s just more of a collaboration right now that it’s probably ever been. Doesn’t make it a bad thing.”
Bochy has never ranted against metrics, and nor will I. Baseball, more than any other sport, ?generates numbers. Layers and layers of numbers. Sometimes they reveal truths that the “eye test,” a hopelessly outdated form of evaluation, is liable to overlook. A baseball team that ignores the raw data in 2019 is playing with a cracked bat.
But if Bruce Bochy’s managerial career has proved anything, beyond the importance of an even keel and a measured tone, it’s that baseball still has room for gut instinct - when left to the right gut.
It should be obvious to everyone by now that the Giants didn’t have the talent to win three World Series titles between 2010 and 2014. Take the 2010 squad, the one that brought a city’s sports fans to joyful tears. The pitching staff was outstanding from top to bottom. But how could a team reach the World Series with a starting outfield of Pat Burrell, Andres Torres and Aaron Rowand?
“That team was good, I would say. I wouldn’t say we were great by any means,” noted Cody Ross, who arrived via the waiver wire on August 22, 2010, and went on to play an important role in the championship run.
It’s hard to discern during a season like the ones the Giants have put together recently. But in the days of the Even-Year Miracles, it was like Bochy couldn’t make a wrong move, especially when the Giants got into the postseason and decisions were magnified.
The Giants’ most consistent weapon between 2010 and 2014 was their bullpen, but they had three different primary closers in the three World Series years. Bochy didn’t have a Mariano Rivera. He had a bunch of useful tools that he deployed like a master craftsman. While pitching moves haunted some other managers in big games, the Giants seemed to benefit every time Bochy made that hitched walk to the mound to relieve a gassed starter, or signaled with his left arm that it was time for Javier Lopez to face that one left-handed batter.
And it wasn’t just managing the throwers. Bochy had a gift for filling out lineup cards - for knowing when it was time to give a young player a chance and when a struggling veteran needed a day off to recalibrate.
Before Sunday’s game, someone asked Pablo Sandoval what he’ll miss most about Bochy as a manager.
“The interesting move he did,” Sandoval said in his second language. “Bring the lefty and the right pitcher, the right bullpen in the right situation. Every move he make, every lineup he make during the years. In 2012, that was the most lineup he made in a year on this team. One-hundred sixty-two, 161, something. That’s telling you how special he is with his players.”
The Panda was exaggerating. Bochy used 140 lineups (including pitchers) in 2010, 135 in 2012 and 138 in 2014. It only seemed like there was someone new in the order every single day.
The one thing more important to the Giants’ five-year run of glory than Bochy’s deft juggling of players during games was the way he treated them in the other 21 hours of the day. Not to infantilize athletes - and the Giants had a particularly strong clubhouse in the first half of this decade - but managing or coaching in any sport demands good parenting skills. No one alternated the carrot and the stick quite like Bochy.
In the current issue of Giants magazine, the publication sold at the stadium, San Francisco third base coach Ron Wotus talks about how in 2007, their first season here, Bochy took a baseball bat to a clubhouse television monitor when the team was playing indifferently.
Ross told me a different TV story when I bumped into him at the Safeway Open Pro-Am on Wednesday. “I’ll never forget this,” he said. “We were kind of on a little skid (in 2010). We were like five games back or whatever it was. And he brought us together in the clubhouse. It sounds kind of cheesy, but it wasn’t. He brought out the TV. He put on the movie “Braveheart,” when Mel Gibson gets up and says the speech.”
The result? According to Ross, the Giants went on a “little tear” and never looked back.
“He was very good about picking us up when we needed to be picked up. He was very good about getting onto us when we needed a little push,” Ross said. “And I mean, the timing was always on point. Almost similar to him pulling guys or leaving guys in when they were pitching.”
In his final press conference as Giants manager, Bochy took exception with my suggestion that managers like him rely on intuition.
“Not so much a gut feeling,” he said. “Because I would take that personal, that I used my gut. Well, no, we prepared. And that’s how we do it. We may not have had the access to the numbers they do now. But even ’95 when I started managing (the Padres), I’ve talked about this, I had my own way of doing analytics.”
However, this was also part of his answer: “To your point, I hope we don’t lose the game to numbers too much. It’s still about people.”
It is. And it always will be. Bochy understood that from the start. It was his true genius, and the main reason three orange World Series flags fly above Oracle Park.