When the pundits and fans go through the annual rites of spring training, analyzing everything from the team’s starting rotation to break-glass-in-case-of-emergency depth at every position at every level in the minor leagues, the same fascinating, up-for-infinite-debate question is invariably asked in regards to each team:
Who is the one guy they simply can’t afford to lose?
Among the most common answers, in no particular order, are the closer, the ace, the best all-around hitter or slugger, and the leadoff man.
As applied to the defending world champion Giants, the answer is altogether unique, and that fact may very well have dawned on — and maybe even surprised — a lot of people this past week:
Does any other team in the big leagues need its skipper to be of sound mind and body if it has a shot at doing any serious damage the way the Giants need Bruce Bochy?
No. Not even close.
So while the first thoughts that came to mind when the news broke that Bochy had been sent to the hospital and was undergoing a heart procedure were centered around his general well-being and the surely panicked emotions of his family and closest loved ones, the next thought likely was, “Whoa. What the hell what happens to the Giants if this guy can’t strap it up?”
This answer is easy: nosedive. No two ways about it. They would be cooked, plain and simple. For the first year, at least — maybe two. But make no mistake about it. If the relatively minor procedure that Bochy underwent in Scottsdale, Ariz., was something far more serious or, heaven forbid, tragic, the 2015 season would be over before it even started.
In every sport and at virtually every level, when a team’s indispensable player goes down for what everybody knows is going to be an extended period of time, the team in question typically elevates its play, sometimes dramatically, and manages to soldier on with a surprising modicum of success.
Eventually, however, the reality that said stud is not coming back anytime soon starts to play on the collective psyche. Confidence and competence wanes, and in combination with the actual production that the team is missing without the player, it creates a vicious and destructive dynamic that ultimately leads the team where everyone expected it to go without its shining star. As in nowhere.
Without Bochy, who leads the charge in every imaginable way, from strategic to emotional to serving as the moral compass, there would be no such period of elevated, we-can do-this-boys play. The Giants would go straight to nowhere, and they’d go there fast.
That’s not an indictment of the players’ strength of character. The team would do its best to rally around the cause. Hunter Pence would bug out his maniacal eyes and deliver the most impassioned “Win One For The Skipper” speech of all time. And it would be received with the type of steely, determined resolve with which Bochy seems to magically infuse his club whenever the situation calls for magic — or champion’s blood.
But the reality and all-encompassing impact of life without their surrogate father would hit hard, immediately and with supremely deflating consequences.
That’s not to say there aren’t incredible leaders on the coaching staff, mind you. There are. In fact, every one of them is an incredible leader. But they can’t do for a team what Bochy does, because THEY follow HIS lead, and they’d be as lost as the players without him.
The man is simply special. And this little episode with his heart provides us all with the opportunity to acknowledge as much, and be grateful on so many levels that it was, relatively speaking, a little episode.
Bruce Bochy IS the Giants. More than any one man in uniform has ever been, and that includes legendary figures such as Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Will Clark and Barry Bonds.
It’s nice that the three titles the team has won over the past five years has finally given Bochy the widespread respect he deserves throughout the game. But the truth is, it took those three titles for even the local fans to appreciate who and what he is. Now, once and for all and forever, his presence in Orange and Black will be appreciated at unprecedented levels.
He’s so unassuming and humble, two of the many qualities that separate him from so many of his peers, that it’s been easy to take him for granted.
No more. That little episode, and the maudlin thoughts that followed, served as a poignant reminder that the one guy that the best team in the world — and the Giants are just that until further notice — can least afford to lose … doesn’t even play.
Mychael Urban has been covering Bay Area sports for 25 years and has worked for MLB.com, Comcast SportsNet Bay Area and KNBR (680 AM).