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No bluffing: How Bruce Bochy became baseball's best manager

Bruce Bochy assumed his perch on the bench of the visiting dugout at Citi Field for his daily press conference. The night before, Giants rookie Chris Heston had pitched a no-hitter against the Mets, but in a basso profundo that cut through the flight patterns at nearby LaGuardia, Bochy was telling a flock of reporters that he was preaching a return to normalcy. "It's a new day, and we've got another game against another great young pitcher," he said. "The celebration is over. Besides, I've already done a lot of talking about it. Chris and I are both from Brevard County, Florida, and when the reporters there couldn't get hold of him, they started calling me. I told him, 'Chris, you're killing me.'"

It was the Giants' fourth no-hitter in as many years -- two by Tim Lincecum, one by Matt Cain and, amazingly, none by Madison Bumgarner -- and it came during a season in which they're trying to win their fourth world championship in six years. Bochy's teams are clearly not afraid of the big moment, and if you spend even a little time watching him, you can see why.

He's two Gusses -- one of them fact, one of them fiction. The real Gus is Gus Bochy, the sergeant major who was his father and taught him baseball and the right way. The fictional one is Gus McCrae, the former Texas Ranger played by Robert Duvall in the TV version of "Lonesome Dove," one of Bochy's favorite books. You can easily picture Bochy preparing a squad of soldiers for battle, or saddling up for a cattle drive.

"He and Bobby Cox are very similar," says Tim Hudson, who pitched six years for Cox and is now in his second season as a Giant. "They're players' managers, but more than that, they'll fight for you. Their goal is your goal, their passion is your passion."

If the players sense that Bochy is one of them, well, that's because he was -- a backup catcher who spent nine years in the majors without playing more than 63 games in a season. But while his numbers didn't jump out at anybody, something else did. In fact, it was in 1982, when he was with the Mets, shuttling between Shea Stadium and Tidewater, that he got a sense of his true calling.

"George Bamberger was the manager," recalls Bochy. "Great guy, old school. He had this colorful group of coaches who played liar's poker all the time. Frank Howard, Jim Frey, Bill Monbouquette. There I was, a guy who played in all of 17 games that year, and for some reason, they kept inviting me to sit in with them."

It must have been a good reason. For the uninitiated, liar's poker is a variation of poker played with paper money. Your "hand" is the eight serial numbers on the bill (0 is 10, 1 is an ace), and the objective is to survive the rounds of bids and bluffs. It requires a sharp mind, nerves of steel and knowledge of the way your opponents think -- sort of like being a baseball manager.

Bochy has now managed 21 seasons, 12 with the San Diego Padres and nine with the Giants. He has led his teams to seven postseasons and won three World Series -- Hall of Fame credentials. And in an ESPN.com survey of 50 scouts, front office executives, big-league coaches and media analysts, Bochy was voted baseball's best manager.

"He's the real deal. He's got the whole package -- knowledge, intelligence, leadership, presence, heart. He reminds me a lot of Whitey Herzog. And you know the expression, 'Nice guys finish last?' Not true with him." Jim Riggelman on Giants manager Bruce Bochy

He also finished first in the survey's subcategories of Best At Using The Entire 25-Man Roster, Best With A Pitching Rotaton and Bullpen, and Best Leader. He finished behind only Orioles manager Buck Showalter as Best Tactician, and fourth In Best Clubhouse Communicator.

All of which Bochy will dismiss as hooey. When he got wind that he was the players' choice as the Best Manager in the game, he said, "Aw s---. All it really means is that I'm good at faking it."

One of his coaches begs to differ. "He's the real deal," says Jim Riggelman. "He's got the whole package -- knowledge, intelligence, leadership, presence, heart. He reminds me a lot of Whitey Herzog. And you know the expression, 'Nice guys finish last'? Not true."

Oddly enough, the manager who said that, Leo Durocher, was once George Bamberger's manager. And Durocher was managed by Miller Huggins. So Bochy is only two degrees away from the man who got the most out of Murderers' Row.

Bochy recently agreed to talk about his managerial influences. "I think I've learned something from most every manager and coach I've ever had," he said. "You know Eddie Stanky, the old Dodger? Well, he was trying to recruit me for his team at South Alabama, and I remember being ushered into his hotel room, where he was brushing his teeth while doing deep knee bends -- that's dedication. He looked me up and down and said, 'It'll take me awhile, but I think I can do something with you.' When I heard that he would line up 100 guys to teach them how to get hit by a pitch, that's when I decided to sign with the Astros.

"Billy Smith, my first manager in Covington, was a great guy -- he passed away a couple of years ago -- and so was Bob Cluck, who I had in Dubuque. Top baseball mind, Cluckie. Taught me how to block balls. In Columbus, Georgia, we had Leo Posada, who was really tough and a little crazy." (How crazy? Posada would have his players hang their bats upside down, knob at the bottom, so the sap would gravitate toward the sweet spot.)

"When I made the majors in 1978, the manager was Bill Virdon, and to my mind, he's the guy I've most tried to emulate. He was fair, but he was firm, and while he demanded that we play the game the right way, he never embarrassed anybody. He took you into his office and set you straight. I have the highest respect for Bill Virdon.

"The Astros traded me to the Mets, which is where I met Bamberger. He was something. We had this great pitching prospect, Tim Leary, and one day I hear George ask Bill Monbouquette, our pitching coach, 'Hey, Monbo, have you taught the kid the spitball yet?'"

Bochy hit .306 that year backing up John Stearns while sitting in with the coaches as they bluffed their ways through their dollar bills and told stories. It was an education for Bochy as he heard Frank Howard talk about playing for Walter Alston and managing the Senators, and Jim Frey converse about coaching for Earl Weaver and managing the Royals in the World Series. Or the time Monbo punched out a circus bear who wanted his bubble gum on Maine Day at Fenway Park.

Jay Horwitz was the Mets' PR man back then, as he is now. "The one thing I remember," says Horwitz, "is that he claimed Bruce had a bigger head than me. I tried his helmet on and cracked it, so I won -- I'm an 8½, just a touch bigger than Bruce's. To this day, we still talk about our heads."

The Mets released Bochy in January of '83, but the Padres picked him up a month later, and he found himself catching for future Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams. "Demanding guy, strong on fundamentals" said Bochy. "He wanted tough players, and would do anything to harden us -- he called pitcher Andy Hawkins 'the timid Texan' so he would get the message in the newspapers."

Williams once blamed Bochy for a botched rundown between home and third that was really the fault of the third baseman, but Bochy didn't say anything -- even after he was sent down. His last two years in the majors were spent playing for the cerebral Steve Boros and the fiery Larry Bowa, but by then, Padres general manager Jack McKeon saw that Bochy's future was in managing. So after one year as a player-coach in Las Vegas, Bochy was given a team in low A ball (Spokane). From there, he went to high A, where he won the California League with High Desert, and Double-A, where he managed Wichita to the Texas League championship.

When Jim Riggelman was named the Padres' new manager in 1993, he asked Bochy to be his third base coach. "I really enjoyed working with Jim," says Bochy. "A good strategist and a really good man." When Riggelman resigned after two seasons, Padres GM Randy Smith decided to take a chance on the 39-year-old Bochy. "I had played with guys like Tony Gwynn, but it wasn't the age that made it difficult. We were in the middle of the strike, and I was not comfortable managing replacement players -- I felt I would lose credibility. So I let my coaches handle them that spring."

The Padres showed immediate improvement in '95, and in 1996, Bochy led them to the NL West title and was named Manager of the Year -- oddly enough, the last time he won the award. "I'm still learning," he says. "How can you not, when you're managing against Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa and Jim Leyland? And it's not just baseball managers -- I've never met Gregg Popovich, but I follow what he does with the Spurs, what Bill Belichick does with the Patriots."

And now other managers and coaches follow what Bochy does with the Giants.

Yes, he wins on a consistent basis, but he's also built a clubhouse on a foundation of professionalism and created an atmosphere in which both veterans and rookies can thrive. Chris Heston came out of nowhere to take a spot in the rotation this spring, but when he lost his command a few weeks ago, Bochy talked to him, urging him to recapture the fire that had opened his eyes. The result was "the easiest no-hitter I've ever managed."

As it happened, Heston's high school coach was at the game, and Bochy insisted that he be part of the clubhouse celebration.

That, too, is why Bochy has been so successful. For someone with one of the biggest heads in baseball, he is thoughtful and amusingly humble. Jon Miller, the great and longtime Giants broadcaster, tells a story about the time that Bochy noticed he wasn't wearing his World Series ring:

"He said, 'Where's your ring?' And I said, 'Well, it's not like I had anything to do with winning the Series. I mean, I wasn't out there on the field.' And Bruce says, 'Well, I didn't win any of the games, either. What I do works because the players make it work. It's not me who won the World Series.' "

And that's why Bochy is the best manager in baseball. He wasn't bluffing.