STILL WATERS

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To Kevin Towers, the San Diego Padres' general manager, he is "Nanoo, the world's greatest athlete."

It is Towers' way of needling friend and frequent sporting rival Bruce Bochy, the Padre manager, about a fierce competitiveness often belied by his impassive demeanor.

To Tony Attanasio, Bochy's agent, he is "the Gary Cooper of big league managers." Strong, stable, seldom wasting words. A tall, swaggering walk with the touch of "High Noon."

To many who may know that the Padres consist of Tony Gwynn and Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley and Wally Joyner, Greg Vaughn and Andy Ashby, Kevin Brown and Trevor Hoffman, he is the answer to the frequently asked question, "Who did you say the manager was?"

Or as longtime Padre broadcaster and former New York Yankee infielder Jerry Coleman said, "He's probably the best unknown manager in baseball."

But the guys he beats know him. Bochy's peers recognized him as the Sporting News' manager of the year in 1996, the year he led the Padres to a National League West title.

Now he has his veteran team winging toward another division championship, but cares little about credit and attention.

Bochy believes his job is to give the Padres a goal and the preparation to attain it.

"Bruce would never be comfortable going on the Leno show," said Joe Bochy, his older brother and a Padre scout.

"His ego doesn't require notoriety. His confidence and fortitude are such that he doesn't need the spotlight."

He didn't have it during his nine seasons as a backup catcher in the big leagues. Didn't have it and didn't think about it while winning three titles in four years as a minor league manager. Now, in his fourth year as the Padre manager, the spotlight, he believes, is where it should be--on the players, who recognize stability when they see it.

"You've had to have been here a while to really know that makes a difference," said Gwynn, who has been here for 16 of the Padres' 29 years. "I mean, for years we had the manager thinking one thing and the GM thinking something else. We had GMs getting fired, managers getting fired. There's hardly ever been that harmony between what goes on in the clubhouse and what goes on upstairs. There was never a GM or manager here long enough to develop it."

The manager and general manager finished their playing careers together at San Diego's triple-A Las Vegas affiliate in 1988. A year later they were manager and pitching coach at Class A Spokane. Towers became a scout and ultimately succeeded Randy Smith as general manager in November of 1995 after Smith moved to the Detroit Tigers.

Bochy advanced through the organization's managerial ranks, served two seasons as a Padre coach under Jim Riggleman and was selected by Smith to replace Riggleman for the 1995 season after Riggleman went to the Chicago Cubs.

Now Towers, 36, and Bochy, 43, are signed through 2000, and Towers says he wouldn't trade the manager for any other in the game.

Of course, there's a little gamesmanship going on here. Towers wouldn't want to lose Nanoo, his keen rival in. . . .

Well, there was the night on the Padre charter that Towers and Bochy got so hot playing cards that Becky Moores, the wife of owner John Moores, thought they would come to blows, not realizing that's just the way they are.

Or the night in Arizona when they kept a bowling alley open past closing hours because neither would give in playing double-or-nothing until the stakes climbed to almost $200,000, which neither could afford.

Or all those times on the golf course when it comes down to who has the fastest cart to get to the other's ball and apply a foot wedge, kicking it out of bounds.

"Name it--golf, bowling, basketball, cards--Bruce thinks he can beat you in anything," third base coach Tim Flannery said. "He's Nanoo."

Said brother Joe: "I don't think I've ever met anyone less intimidated or more competitive. We had some pretty good battles growing up. He hates to lose more than anything, but he's just one of those guys who doesn't show it. He keeps that intensity inside."

The TV portraits of 6-foot-4, 215-pound Bochy on the bench seldom catch any emotion, but in his office he said:

"I don't want anyone to confuse personal discipline with complacency. Sure, I may look calm sitting in the dugout, but the wheels are turning, the fire is burning. I get as upset as anybody, but I've got to stay focused."

Said Gwynn: "He's not the type to rant and rave or kick over a [food] spread after a game, but the fire comes out. This is a veteran team that generally doesn't have to be reminded about what's at stake or what we should be thinking about, but Boch has a very good sense of timing as to when to call a meeting and when not, when to snap and when not."

Bochy snapped about 10 days ago, in Texas, when he got into the Padres for straggling in late for stretching and batting practice. His team then won seven consecutive games--including a three-game sweep of San Francisco over the weekend that helped build a 3 1/2-game lead in the NL West--and will be looking to stretch the string to eight in to night's opener here of a two-game series with the Dodgers.

Bochy set the tone in the spring, telling the Padres that he was concerned about a loss of concentration last season after the '96 division title, and that they would have to cut down on golf on the road and card-playing in the clubhouse.

Said Bochy: "Last year was a struggle, but there was no finger-pointing, nobody made excuses. These guys do a good job of checking their egos at the door and going about their business, and that makes the task of managing a lot less daunting. The best thing I can do is stay out of their way, figure out how not to lose it for them. I mean, I try to treat them like I would want to be treated. I believe that fun and discipline can co-exist. I think I'm firm but fair."

Gwynn agreed, saying he considers Bochy a " '90s type of manager," capable of getting along with everyone in an era of multiyear, multimillion-dollar contracts.

"Boch is big on the little things, which is why I enjoy playing for him so much," Gwynn said. "He lets you know if you screw up, but it's never in front of the cameras, which the players' respect. He's also confident enough in his authority to give veteran players their space, knowing they won't abuse it or undermine him."

He is also confident enough, Gwynn added, to be open to players' opinions and judgments, willing to rely on them, "very good at calling players in and asking, 'What's going on in the clubhouse? Are there any battles I need to know about and fight?' "

Bochy's self-assurance is such that he welcomed the forceful and strong-minded Dave Stewart to the clubhouse this year as pitching coach, a key addition to a staff of equally strong minded personalities--Davey Lopes, Merv Rettenmund, Rob Picciolo, Greg Booker and Flannery.

"One thing about being a good manager is a willingness to delegate authority without relinquishing your position as the main man," said Stewart. "Boch does that well. It's an illustration of his confidence. I'd put him in a class with some of the best managers I played for."

Delegating authority is one of Bochy's inherent traits. His late father, Gus, was an Army lifer, a sergeant major who believed in protocol, delegation, discipline and baseball. Gus grew up in West Virginia, a fan of the Cincinnati Reds, a switch-hitting shortstop who dreamed of reaching the majors until he was drafted during World War II.

Bruce, the third of four children, was born in Landes de Boussac, France, where his father was stationed at the time. Bochy, his two brothers and sister learned early that when Dad had a radio at his ear, he was not to be disturbed. The best bet was to listen to the game with him.

"Dad had tremendous knowledge of baseball," Joe Bochy said. "He understood the strategy, where the cutoff man was supposed to be, playing it the right way, doing the little things. We got all of that from him."

Bruce began to blossom while his father was stationed in Panama. Bruce was only 6 but played at a higher Little League level. A third baseman to start, he was soon moved to catcher because of his lack of speed.

So young was he, that he was barely able to read manuals on catching, but he was willing to do that little extra, just as he would have to during those nine big league seasons with the Houston Astros, New York Mets and Padres. A backup catcher, he never appeared in more than 63 games in any season, and he played winter ball for five years so he would be ahead of his competition when camp opened. He enjoyed his biggest moment as a member of the 1984 Padre pennant winner, delivering a pinch-single in Game 5 of the World Series.

"I always wondered what I might have done if I had gotten 500 at-bats in a season," Bochy said. "I really appreciate a catcher like Mike Piazza, who goes out there every day and produces like he does."

Long nights in the bullpen gave Bochy time to consider career options. Dad had provided the foundation, though, and Bochy decided in the early '80s that he would like to manage. In essence, he reflected, the catcher is the manager on the field, so he had a head start.

Randy Smith, who gave him the major league job, and Towers, who has kept him in it, concur that Bochy's two greatest strengths are his insight into pitching and his ability to communicate.

"He knows when and how to pull a starter without burning up the bullpen, and I've never seen him end up without a player, no matter how many innings the game goes," Towers said.

This season, nothing has been automatic. Older players are susceptible to injury. Gwynn, Caminiti and Joyner have been sidelined at times. Bochy has to decide when rest is advisable, prescribing it so as not to offend the player.

Gus Bochy didn't live to see his son manage in the majors, but his wife, Rose, did, and now their grandson, Greg, the oldest of Bruce and Kim's two sons, may be on his way as a player. Greg Bochy, a pitcher at Palomar Community College, was recently drafted by the Texas Rangers.

Bruce Bochy attends as many of his son's games as possible and is often unrecognized, although that may end if the Padres win again. Some see it as a must-win situation, a last chance for this nucleus, given that Caminiti, Finley, Joyner and Brown are all eligible for free agency and the Padres have talked about moving if the electorate doesn't approve financing for a new park in November.

Nanoo will confront any challenge, but he doesn't make out the payroll and can't stuff the ballot box.

"We have a good club with high expectations, and that creates some added pressure," Bochy said.

"As for the stadium, the free agency--hopefully we'll play well enough to help resolve those issues. But there are some things I can't control."

TONIGHT'S GAME

Dodgers at San Diego

Time: 7 p.m.

TV Fox SW2

Radio: AM 1150

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