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The S.F. Interview: Bruce Almighty

How can a team of Freaks and Pandas be led by such a self-effacing manager? The Giants’ Bruce Bochy finds answers in solitude.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy, photographed in Scottsdale, Arizona, on March 21.

Bochy looking his mustachioed finest as a minor-league catcher in 1983.

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.