Bruce Bochy was 34 years old, finished as a backup catcher and about to start a new career as a rookie-league manager for the San Diego Padres. Just before the June draft, when the team would select the players for his roster, Bochy found the scouting director, Randy Smith.
“Smitty, do a good job,” he pleaded. “Don’t mess up my career before it gets started.”
Three decades later, it is still going. Bochy, 64, is retiring at the end of the regular season, after 12 years managing the Padres and the last 13 with the San Francisco Giants. In the end, he will have managed 4,032 major league games, eighth on the career list. He won three World Series with the Giants, but those were not his only championships.
The first was with that debut team, the Spokane Indians, in 1989. The pitcher Smith chose in the seventh round, Rick Davis, was Bochy’s ace starter. He used him to close out the title game against the Southern Oregon A’s, foreshadowing his most celebrated move 25 years later.
“Before Mad Bum in the World Series,” Smith said, “he showed a willingness to trust his instincts, to trust his gut. He’s not afraid to take chances.”
Madison Bumgarner stifled the Kansas City Royals in relief to save Game 7 in the 2014 World Series, making Bochy one of just 10 managers with three championships, after others in 2010 and 2012. Bochy’s feel for the game shone brightest at the biggest moments, in his mastery of bullpen strategy.
His five best relievers in that championship stretch — Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo and Brian Wilson — combined for 23 World Series innings and allowed one earned run. And when Bochy deployed two starters, Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum, as Series relievers, they spun 11 1/3 scoreless innings.
“I don’t think it matters what era he managed in, because it was probably something he was born with, just a relentless pursuit or a God-given will to win a baseball game,” said Buster Posey, the Giants’ veteran catcher. “It doesn’t matter if we’re pushing for a playoff spot or we’re in a position like we are right now.”
The Giants have improved this season but have fallen hard from their recent glory. Yet in the wee hours on Tuesday night in Boston, there was Bochy trudging to the mound, over and over, tying a single-game major league record by using 13 pitchers to secure a 15-inning win. Reminded of that, Posey smiled.
“Sometimes you wonder if it’s a blessing or a curse to be that way,” he said. “But I think that’s what’s driven him for as long as it has.”
Bochy never knew if he would manage in the majors, he said, but he knew from the start that the job was made for him, whether or not he advanced.
“My first year, I said, ‘This is what I should be doing,’” Bochy said last Wednesday on the bench before his 2,000th career victory that night. “I loved it. Not that I thought I was any good at it, but I wanted to get better at it.”
Bochy was born in Landes de Bussac, France; his father, Gus, was a sergeant major in the United States Army. The family — with three boys and a girl — moved often, including spending about three years in the Panama Canal Zone. Bochy would play sports with his brother Joe, older by three and a half years, and Joe’s friends.
“Our father believed that listening was a great leadership skill, and you didn’t want to be a follower growing up,” said Joe Bochy, who is also retiring this year from a scouting job with the Giants. “You wanted to hang around people smarter than you so you could learn.”
Gus Bochy grew up as a switch-hitting shortstop and filled the home with baseball broadcasts on Armed Forces Radio. He made his sons catchers because they were slow; he would joke that they inherited their lack of speed from their mother, Rose, who once filled in as coach for the Little League team and ran drills when Joe was gone.
Bochy reached the majors with Houston in 1978, then played briefly for the Mets in 1982 before five seasons with the Padres. He played in two postseason games: in the 1980 National League Championship Series, when the Phillies’ Pete Rose knocked him over with a forearm to the face at the Astrodome (Bochy got right up), and in the 1984 World Series at Tiger Stadium, when Bochy singled in his only at-bat.
That appearance came in the last inning of the series, a sentimental gesture from the Padres’ gruff manager, Dick Williams. Bochy had a gentler personality, and General Manager Jack McKeon — who was also a longtime manager — kept him in the organization after his final season in the minors in 1988.
“He never complained, great team player, and he was such a good guy at the end of his career I had to do something with him,” said McKeon, who gave Bochy the Spokane job. “He’s got great communication skills. Everybody said Dick Williams didn’t have ’em, and I probably didn’t have ’em half the time, either. Some guys have ’em and some guys don’t.”
Smith’s father, Tal, was the Astros’ general manager when Bochy played for Houston, and Randy Smith knew him in passing as a teenager. When Smith went to work for the Padres years later, Bochy still remembered his name, and they grew closer as colleagues.
When Smith left for the expansion Colorado Rockies, he spent two weeks scouting Bochy’s Class AA team in Wichita and spending time with him away from the field. Bochy’s sense of humor, understanding of people and handling of pitchers persuaded Smith to hire him if he ever became a general manager.
He got the chance in 1995, the year teams used replacement players for most of spring training because of a strike. In Bochy’s first game, the Padres made three errors and lost to Houston, 10-2. He listened to talk radio on the drive home, and fans were livid.
“It couldn’t have gone worse,” Bochy said. “You get boat-raced.”
Soon, though, the Padres would be the team pulling away. They won the N.L. West the next season and the pennant in 1998, before the Yankees swept them in the World Series. After two more division titles, in 2005 and 2006, he left for the Giants when Felipe Alou retired, managing Barry Bonds’s final season and guiding the team through a redesign that suited Bochy’s strengths.
No player hit more than 26 homers in any of the Giants’ championship seasons, and only one had 90 runs batted in — Posey, with 103 in 2012. Yet Bochy made the formula work.
“Even though we were morphing into different ball clubs from championship year to championship year, the mantra was the same: It was pitching, defense and timely, professional hitting,” said Brian Sabean, the general manager of those teams. “And the pitching side of things, that played into his hands.”
Stephen Vogt, the veteran catcher who joined the Giants this season, said Bochy seemed to have a left-hander and a right-hander warming up whenever a starter had reached about 85 pitches. Sabean — as Kevin Towers had done in San Diego — stocked the bullpen with varieties of arm angles and pitch types, and Bochy knew when to unleash them.
His playing days — largely spent warming up relievers — sharpened that instinct, but so did his relationships. Romo, who closed out the 2012 World Series in Detroit, called Bochy the “ultimate players’ manager,” always available to talk. Bochy was clearly the leader but treated players as peers, Romo said, which helped him match the pitcher to the situation.
“Incredible sense of feel,” Romo said. “He respected us enough to get to know us on every level.”
After winning a wild card in 2016, the Giants fell to 98 losses the next year and are likely to finish below .500 for the third season in a row. With a transition in the front office — Farhan Zaidi took over as president of baseball operations last November — Bochy said the time was right to retire and spend more time with his wife, Kim.
“She can see that the game does put a lot on you, maybe a little stress,” he said. “I’ve always said I don’t think it’s a game you should get stressed about, but the game can get you sometimes.”
Bochy said he would miss the strategy but mostly the players, because they keep him young and entertained. He will finish with a losing record — like the Hall of Fame managers Connie Mack and Bucky Harris — but said that he had learned more from losses than wins, and that players needed him more in losing seasons.
The record (2,000-2,024 through Friday) also reflects unwavering support from his bosses. Bochy has never been fired, and few, if any, of his teams could be judged as underachieving.
“His in-game is next level,” said Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts, who played for Bochy with the Padres and the Giants, referring to strategy. “If you’re talking National League, where a lot of that in-game has to happen, he’s kind of the last man standing.”
Roberts did not explicitly say it, but modern managing is largely dictated by front offices, with analysts advising on lineups, pitching usage, defensive alignment and so on, scripting games for managers who often have little experience.
Bochy is hardly an old-school caricature. He used hypnosis to quit smokeless tobacco, lobbied for rules to promote catcher safety and wrote a short book about his love of walking (for exercise, not from the plate to first base). He can be fiery but is not known for his temper; Tigers Manager Ron Gardenhire has more ejections than Bochy despite managing about 1,600 fewer games.
“He doesn’t overreact to anything,” the longtime Giants coach Ron Wotus said. “But it’s more than the steady hand. We have all this information today, but you’ve still got to watch the game and go with what you know. It’s not always the statistics that have the final say. Not only Boch, but Felipe used to say, ‘Remember the last swing,’ and that has to do with being in the moment. He manages in the moment.”
As those moments draw to an end, Bochy may savor a sweet one from Wednesday. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the Giants fans in Boston started chanting his last name, “Bo-CHEE! Bo-CHEE!” reverberating around Fenway Park as he reached his 2,000th win.
It was a touching show of affection, clearly. But Bochy was reluctant to view it that way.
“I view baseball, I’ll start with that, how much they love the game,” he said. “I guess they appreciate people who — I guess — have in some way done something in the game that made a little bit of a difference.”
Tyler Kepner has been national baseball writer since 2010. He joined The Times in 2000 and covered the Mets for two seasons, then covered the Yankees from 2002 to 2009. @TylerKepner