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Bruce Bochy Knew When To Get Out Of The Way

Photo: Thearon W. Henderson (Getty Images)

Two things that bind together the usually contentious Bay Area sporting landscape occurred Monday while the rest of the nation was on holiday drinkdown, and neither of them had anything to do with the Golden State Warriors. Joe Thornton nearly broke the internet, and Bruce Bochy announced his retirement as a baseball manager.

You may decide for yourselves which you regard as more important.

The Thornton thing, which happened after most folks’ bedtime, was his first near-rooster trick in six years, and had it happened, it would have deep-fried this and every other internet site not devoted solely to beekeeping. In case you missed its history (and NBCSN avoided bringing it up for obvious reasons), Thornton responded five Octobers ago to a question about whether then-rookie Tomas Hertl showboated his fourth goal in a 9-2 win over the New York Rangers by snapping at the questioner:

“I’d have my cock out if I scored four goals. I’d have my cock out, stroking it.”

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Thornton had his first hat trick since that soliloquy Monday night against Boston in a game the Sharks eventually lost, 6-5, and laughed when he was reminded of his vow (which probably would have fried Don Cherry’s brain out of simultaneous admiration and revulsion). He made the hockey world laugh in the middle of the night, so there’s that.

Bochy, meanwhile, chose a less conspicuous way to make his announcement, telling his players before the San Francisco Giants’ first spring training workout that 2019 would be his last year, at least with them. The players were surprised without actually being surprised, knowing as the rest of the baseball world does that the Giants are undergoing the start of a massive upheaval that would belatedly take them from post-World Series to studs-and-foundation rebuild mode, and that Bochy almost certainly wouldn’t be the manager for that next era.

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In fact, the timing of his retirement announcement made perfect sense because Bochy knew the day that his general manager and longtime friend Brian Sabean was replaced as head of baseball operations by Dodgers transplant Farhan Zaidi that his day was coming. Bochy being Bochy, he wouldn’t want to spend the summer answering the question to which everyone already knew the answer, so he stole one of the season’s prime lines of inquiry before it could begin. It’s called forethought, and Bruce Bochy always took care to work a step ahead.

It has been generally agreed by the Jay Jaffes and Buster Olneys and Jeff Passans of this world ever since Bochy’s 2012 Giants team beat the Detroit Tigers for their second World Series title that he would eventually be inducted into the Hall of Fame. (That was also the World Series in which one particularly unpleasant media natterer poked his head into Bochy’s office in Comerica Park after that game and said, “The game’s up, pal. You can’t pretend you’re not really smart about this any more.” He looked up from his second (or sixth) celebratory beer and smiled.)

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Bochy was not a popular choice in San Francisco when he was hired after the 2006 season. He’d run into regime change in San Diego, with Sandy Alderson playing the Zaidi role, and when Alderson essentially showed him the door by declining to negotiate a new contract, Bochy was hired by Sabean to much local grumping. Bochy was perceived as the oldest of old schoolers; he looked like a duffel bag and moved like a steamer trunk with one broken wheel from years of catchers’ punishment, he spoke too slowly and with a clearly southern growl, and he was best known for having a head so large that former catcher Terry Kennedy was once said to have fit an entire six-pack of beer in his hat to collect on a team-wide bet in the minor leagues, a possibly apocryphal story Bochy never saw reason to correct.

The aggressively uncool Bochy eased through the end of the Barry Bonds era, nursed a young and disparate pitching staff (Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito, Madison Bumgarner, and a remarkably consistent bullpen with the same characters year after year) into a position of non-dominant dominance. They never looked like the best team, but under the old rules of baseball engagement, starters going deep and relievers who knew their roles won those three championships.

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As a result, Bochy carved out a bizarrely brilliant career that, if he doesn’t change his mind about retirement, will last 25 years—a mark only 25 men in the history of the top four American professional sports will have achieved (I include Bill Belichick here on the assumption that he doesn’t quit before September). He will be one of only seven to have done so with a losing regular-season record, but that is brushed aside by the three rings, by recency bias (there is more approval of his career than, say, Bill Fitch, Dick Motta and Gene Mauch because it happened in the last 10 years) and also because he was regarded as one of the best in-game bullpen manipulators of his era. Baseball managers aren’t typically defined by their tactical innovations (handling fractious clubhouses often get more credit), but Bochy seemed far more often than not to have one more move at the end of a game than his opposing managers because, well, he did. Bochy also became part of the Bay Area coaching diorama that includes Bill Walsh, Steve Kerr, John Madden, Tony La Russa, Tara Van Derveer and Pete Newell, just to name a few champions.

But let’s admit that it matters to the voters on the committee who determine Cooperstownian fates that Bochy was a fundamentally decent man who worked exhaustively not to be the face of the franchise. Bochy’s best non-tactical gift was that he ducked credit in good times and took the heat in the bad ones, leaving only a few enemies who mostly didn’t like the way they were used as players.

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Bochy may not enjoy retirement. There is always a firehouse-dog feel to running a team, and its circadian rhythms never truly leave a person. His heart and hip issues are dismissed as reasons for his decision, and though his interests run beyond baseball, he has devoted nearly his entire life to the work and it can be hard to just put it down and walk away toward that next glass of Tractor Shed Red.

But if we take him at his word as he currently understands it, this is it, and it should be. In an era where front-office creep routinely invades managerial prerogatives and second-guessers with MBAs often perceive themselves to be first-guessers who have the benefits of anonymity and deniability, Bochy would have resisted any and all such incursions. He earned those 25 years and the freedom of action they imply, and his long working relationship with Sabean would have made working with Zaidi as unsettling as his 12 years working with Kevin Towers in San Diego made his brief time with Alderson.

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Neither Zaidi nor Alderson are villains here. They just wanted their own guys, and in Alderson’s time he found his guy in Tony La Russa. Bruce Bochy may not be totally ready to walk, but he gets the deal and feels the changing wind direction and chose to go quietly without fuss or drawn-out drama. Timing matters.

He also would have made the time to congratulate Joe Thornton. Two guys who get their places in the universe would appreciate each other’s signature work.

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Ray Ratto has zero National Hockey League goals, to the relief of all humans, living and dead.

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