Bruce Bochy was still busing through the backwaters of baseball when he first realized that managing was his calling.
A year removed from his final major league season, Bochy, then 34, was the rookie skipper for the 1989 Spokane Indians, the Class A Short Season affiliate of the San Diego Padres.
“My first year when I started managing [in the minor leagues], I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” said Bochy, now in his 24th major league season in the dugout and 12th with the San Francisco Giants.
In a famously volatile industry, Bochy is a rare untouchable. He’s first among all active managers in wins. With 1,855 heading into the weekend series with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Bochy is on the verge of surpassing Dusty Baker, recently returned as a special advisor, for No. 14 on the all-time leaderboard.
In all these years, Bochy has never been fired, a remarkable accomplishment for a guy who never was certain he’d make it to the show.
“I didn’t know about managing in the major leagues,” Bochy admitted. “I had that on such high pedestal that I didn’t know if that would ever happen.”
Even after his days as a backup catcher, Bochy couldn’t get enough baseball.
“I really enjoyed the minor leagues,” Bochy said. “I had a lot of fun with it. Of course, you’re doing a lot of traveling on the buses and not making a lot of money, but I loved it. So, I knew that I probably would be doing it a long time.”
It was on those bus rides that Bochy learned one of his most important lessons: how to be the leader while never taking himself too seriously.
When asked if he’d ever grabbed the wheel on one of those long rides, he offered a memorable anecdote.
“No. No. I’ve had a couple players that I had to fine for doing that. They took the bus on a little fun-run and had some good times,” Bochy said. “But those are the great stories that you enjoy in the minor leagues.”
Amid the opening days of 2018, Bochy is smiling far more than he did a season ago, when the Giants lost 98 games. The mounting defeats, unfamiliar for the three-time World Series champ, wore on Bochy, who was frequently more curt with reporters than he’d been in years past and often caught grimacing in the dugout by TV cameras.
On the season opening trip to Los Angeles to face the Dodgers, the 62-year-old manager made an unintended cameo on Instagram.
Johnny Cueto, the Giants eccentric right-hander, posted a photo of himself posing mid-flex. The problem? Bochy was behind him, striking the same pose, a big smile on his face.
“When your trying to have your workout selfie game on point but el Jefe photo bombs you,” Cueto wrote in the caption.
Pablo Sandoval, who lockers next to Cueto, cracked up when shown the photo. Hunter Pence called it “awesome.” Sandoval and Pence, who’ve won a combined five rings with Bochy, both agreed that the candid moment encapsulated the genius of their boss. He’s carries himself with the kind of gravitas that has demanded the respect of major league clubhouses for a quarter century, but he’s not too cool for a photobomb.
“He has fun with the players. He doesn’t put pressure on you,” Sandoval explained. “You have to put [down] the rules, but sometimes you have to break them.”
Brian Wilson, the one-time closer and unexpected guest of honor for the home opener, summoned up Bochy succinctly.
“He’s a player’s dream,” Wilson said. “He’s just a happy guy.”
Sandoval raved about Bochy’s ability to relax the room, communicate with players and shuffle lineups. Pence, like the Panda, praised Bochy’s people skills.
“There’s no way to bottle up the secret,” Pence said. “He’s just a special guy. I can’t say there’s one thing in particular. Some people just have a magnetism and charisma and he puts a lot of work in as well and looks at a lot of different things.”
It’s impossible to find anyone with a bad thing to say about Bochy. It’s equally impossible for anyone to settle on a favorite story.
Pence paused and offered a sigh when confronted with the request.
“There’s a lot,” Pence said. “There’s, like, too many, but most of my best memories are some of his speeches that he’s given us. He’s given some really incredible speeches.”
That’s high praise coming from Pence who famously predicted the second of the Even-Year titles in an incentive-laden speech after the Giants clinched a wild-card berth. It was during that speech that Pence dropped the iconic “champion blood” line, a phrase he’d borrowed from Bochy.
“He definitely has a presence,” Pence said. “When he walks in, he changes the room and it’s fun to see.”
The gregarious Sandoval, who, like Bochy, lights up every room he steps into, also couldn’t pick just one story.
“Everything, man,” Sandoval said.
“I think the favorite that I remember is that like he’s my dad. He’s one of the guys that gave me the opportunity to be part of this team and he always cared about.”
Bochy, who remains under contract through the end of 2019, has already delivered a Hall of Fame career. Even with his resplendent résumé, he’s never let those credentials define him. Instead, he remains the same fun — and humble — dude who used to ride the bus.
“To get the chance to manage in the major leagues, I’m lucky. I’m fortunate that somebody took a chance on me,” Bochy said. “I’ll never forget that.”