Bruce Bochy steps into his car and guides it away from his North San Diego County home and onto Interstate 15, going north.
About the time city turns to country, he flips on the air-conditioner. He drives past the roadside fruit stands and into the desert heat, the kind that shimmers up off the road and dances in your face.
Eighty-one miles later, he pulls into the Riverside Sports Center parking lot and walks into the clubhouse and toward his future. He is the manager of the Riverside Red Wave, a Padre Class A affiliate.
Actually, the drive isn’t bad. On the way up, he has a chance to think about game situations and analyze players. On the way home, he has a chance to unwind.
Bochy makes this drive into one of the lowest levels of the minors almost every day the Red Wave is home. Sometimes, such as when day games follow night, he will get a hotel room and stay in Riverside. When the team is on the road, Bochy lives from bus ride to hotel room to ballpark.
He is 35 and played professionally for 14 seasons. He is a former catcher, and maybe that’s part of the reason why his second career is off to such a good start. Anyone in baseball will tell you that catchers see the game differently than almost everyone else and, in most cases, that helps them to understand it. Everyone and everything is in front of them. They see it all laid out.
As his playing career wound down during his time with the Padres, he began planning ahead. He sat in dugouts throughout the National League and silently second-guessed his managers.
“What would I do in this situation?” he asked himself. He knew he eventually wanted to manage. Bruce Bochy, you see, is a baseball man.
Like the players in Class A ball, Bochy is working for his future. Sure, he would like to manage in the majors some day. For now, though, he is content. He is still learning, and he is running into situations he never imagined during all of those years in the dugout.
Take, for instance, an incident earlier this season. Riverside was tied in the bottom of the 10th, and speedy outfielder Darrell Sherman tripled. Bochy, coaching third, was tense, but he noticed Sherman staring up into the stands with a puzzled look.
“Sherm, are you all right?” Bochy asked.
“What’s the matter?”
“You don’t look good.”
“I’m trying to find my dad. He’s my ride home.”
“You’re killing me, Sherm. You’re my winning run. I’ll give you a ride home.”
No, this wasn’t what he imagined when he first started managing last season in Spokane, Wash., home of a Padres’ Rookie League team. Bochy led the team to the Northwest League title. The job he did--and in the minors, that means developing players, not just winning--grabbed the attention of the Padre organization.
“He is highly respected,” said Tom Romenesko, Padre director of player development. “He’s got a chance to really be an outstanding asset to the Padres.”
The thing Romenesko likes best about Bochy is his adaptability. Here’s a guy who climbed all the way up the ladder in professional baseball, including major league stops with Houston, the New York Mets and the Padres. He was with the Padres the longest, from 1983-1987, and even got an at-bat in the 1984 World Series.
Now, just like the kids he manages, he is starting from the bottom. He is molding young prospects and at the same time shaping himself in a new aspect of the game. And people are watching.
“He’s adjusted from being at the upper level for 14 years and now he’s adjusted to a different generation of kids,” Romenesko said. “Everyone asks the question how will a guy deal with the low minor leagues. Bruce Bochy has dealt with it and turned it into a very big plus.”
Said Bochy: “The guys have been great. This is probably as much fun as you can have as a manager. The guys are young, and eager to learn. They know they have a lot to learn, and their ears are open when you talk to them. And you probably see as much improvement at this level as anywhere.”
No question, Bochy is popular with his players. Several of them say how patient he is and how much they appreciate the fact that he will not criticize them without explaining what they should have done.
Said outfielder Vince Harris: “He’s great. He’s a good manager to play for. He tells you exactly what he expects and what you have to do.”
He must be doing something right, because ask Bochy what his most difficult adjustment has been from playing to managing, and he says patience.
“I have to remember, the game is not as easy as it looks,” Bochy said. “The guys are going to make mistakes. I’m going to make mistakes.”
It’s an interesting mix. Bochy is trying to build a managing career for himself, but he needs the help of young kids in their early 20s, most of whom will never see a day of major league baseball in their lives. But if they do have a chance, they will have to listen to Bochy. They feed on each other.
Bochy realized immediately last year at Spokane that managing would be quite a learning experience. He took losses harder as a manager than he did as a player, and he learned that an uptight manager in Class A does not help when he is trying to teach a bunch of guys from different schools and different parts of the country how to play professional baseball. He learned that for the most part, these kids will do anything to get a break.
“The thing you have going for you,” he said, “is that these guys have just signed a contract, and they’re so enthused. They’ll go through a wall for you. Even in A ball, they’ll give you 100% for the most part. In the big leagues, it’s hard to get that. Here, guys listen and don’t give you a hard time.”
He has been forced to learn how to lose. The Red Wave started 0-7 this season, and that eventually turned into 2-14. During that time, Bochy’s players were calling him “Sybil,” after the woman of multiple personalities. The Red Wave improved, though. They finished the first half of the California League season at 35-36, and they were 15-12 before Wednesday night’s game.
Bochy is a laid-back sort. The dry desert air is matched only by Bochy’s dry sense of humor. Not much ruffles him--not the 100-degree heat or the broken pitching machine or the long bus rides, the longest of which is the eight-hour trip to Reno.
Anyway, bus rides aren’t what they used to be. Riverside charters a bus complete with air conditioning, televisions, VCRs and video games.
“Hell, when I played in the Southern League, the bus broke down half the time,” Bochy said. “That part of it never bothered me anyway. The guys I’ve been with, I’ve had fun with them. Maybe after four or five years, I’ll change my mind.”
Managing in A ball is not the most glamorous position in baseball. The manager throws batting practice, solves problems and fills out daily game reports for the organization after each game. Bochy calls a Padre 800 number and tapes a short summary that includes the game result, the team’s won-lost record, league standing and the starting pitcher for next game. Then he comments on pitchers, the offense, the defense and generalities.
The unwritten rule is that a manager should keep a distance from his players. Getting too close could color his judgement. But Bochy doesn’t worry too much about that.
“They say you can’t get close to them, but I do,” Bochy said. “Bus trips, you’re here every day. . . .
“I tell them if I can help them, come in at any time. Sure, they’re going to have personal problems, and I try helping. It’s tough. A lot of them are away from home for the first time. You feel like a baby-sitter. They get down when they go through their first slump. It’s all part of my job.”
Earlier this year, shortstop Luis Lopez--one of the best players on the Riverside team--tore up a knee. Bochy stayed overnight and took Lopez to San Diego the next day. Romenesko was ready to take Lopez to the doctor, but Bochy volunteered.
Lopez was going to have to undergo reconstructive knee surgery. As Dr. Jan Fronek relayed the information, he told Romenesko later, Bochy had tears in his eyes.
Said Romenesko: “That told me a lot of things.”
The players know Bochy cares, and since most of them are away from home for the first time, Bochy’s job is surrogate father as well as manager. When a player fails to pay a bill or has some other kind of problem, it somehow comes back to Bochy.
Nobody has bothered him at home yet, but he has had a few calls on the road. And he has also had a few phone calls from security when things get too noisy on the road. Nothing serious, Bochy said, but boys will be boys.
The Padres as an organization, do not allow their minor leaguers to have beer or women--wives and girlfriends excepted--in hotel rooms on the road.
Once, last year, Bochy heard some noise, walked into a hotel room and found three of his players and some girls. One of the players was hiding between the mattress and the box springs of the bed. It didn’t take long to find him. But . . .
“I was airing him out,” Bochy said. “We were up three stories, and one guy was outside hanging from the balcony by his fingertips.”
Bochy did not find him.
Bochy can tell the story now only because he was fined in the players’ Kangaroo Court for not catching the fourth guy.