By Dennis Lin
Apr 7, 2022
PEORIA, Ariz. — They were teammates on the 1988 Giants, one a fiery infielder at the end of his career, the other a catcher still establishing himself in the majors. Together, they enjoyed discussing strategy.
Phil Garner had the time. The infielder known as “Scrap Iron” pinch-hit twice that April, underwent back surgery and returned before the season was over. Along the way, more off the field than on, he formed a connection with Bob Melvin.
“Personality-wise, I’m more high-strung,” Garner said. “He’s high-strung too underneath, but he’s calmer on the outside than I am. So it was a good fit. He sort of tolerated me, and I really appreciated him.”
Three years later, in 1991, Garner was named manager of the Brewers. Five years after that, Melvin embarked on a post-playing career as a scout for Milwaukee. By 1999, Garner had enlisted his one-time teammate to be his bench coach.
That March, Garner managed to bring out his friend’s inner angst.
Both men remember one morning with particular fondness. Garner had given Melvin the task of running spring training drills at the Brewers’ complex in Phoenix. There were five fields to coordinate. Every 12 minutes or so, players were to rotate from one field to another. About 30 minutes in, Melvin went up to Garner. The new bench coach was sweating profusely.
“I don’t know how you do this,” Melvin told Garner. “How can you be so calm?”
“Bob,” Garner replied, “this is exactly why I have you, because you can take care of that. You handle that for me so that I can see the big picture here.”
All these years later, the lessons of that spring still resonate. On Thursday, Melvin will make his Padres managerial debut at Chase Field in Phoenix. He will likely never break a sweat. He is now 60 years old, and he has done this for nearly a third of his life.
His experience has shown. Melvin, one of baseball’s most beloved managers, exuded calm throughout a chaotic spring training. He ran what players and staff described as a seamless camp despite a compressed schedule. He has preached the power of collectiveness. He wears No. 3 on his back, a nod to the man who encouraged him to see both the bigger picture and the finer details.
“He’s quieter than you think,” Garner said. “He’s more observant than you might imagine. He doesn’t miss a thing. There’s not going to be anything that gets by him.”
Over the winter, something did get by Melvin. It got by everyone with his new team. There was an explanation, though not one that provided any comfort.
Franchise shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., the Padres learned at the start of spring training, had fractured the scaphoid bone in his left wrist. It is the kind of injury that can take weeks, even months, to fully manifest. It was an injury more easily concealed during MLB’s 99-day lockout, when team officials did not have direct communication with players.
The reveal was devastating. The roster already looked top-heavy; now, it would miss its biggest star for three months or more.
In response, Melvin gathered the players he had inherited and sought to emphasize the rest of the organization. He stressed that it would take all of them to traverse a full season. He focused on how they might find an upside in Tatis’ absence, not how they might struggle because of it. He spoke of flipping the club’s recent history.
“I don’t know that it’s not a bad thing for us to be tested right away with a little bit limited flexibility and roster construction,” Melvin said a few weeks later. “I think we have an ability to get better as the season goes along.”
The message has appeared well-received. Since the start of spring, players have parroted various lines uttered by their new manager. They say there has been no soaring oration, that Melvin does not call many meetings, and when he does speak the words seem to mean more. They note the casual confidence of a man who played for, among others, Sparky Anderson, Frank Robinson and Buck Showalter.
“Putting him in our situation where we’re all in this clubhouse to win a championship and so is he,” third baseman Manny Machado said, “I’m excited for what he’s going to bring to this ballclub.”
“He’s been incredible since he got here,” second baseman Jake Cronenworth said. “There’s too many good things to say.”
“He has that calmness in him,” Opening Day starter Yu Darvish said.
“He is,” reliever Craig Stammen said, “what a great manager seems to be like.”
The praise has flowed, uninterrupted, even as the Padres have hit more turbulence.
Last weekend, the players learned the front office was again discussing a potential trade of popular teammate Eric Hosmer, this time with pitchers Chris Paddack and Emilio Pagán also involved. Hours later, the Mets declined the offer. Inside the Padres clubhouse, there was relief but also tension; the front office would surely continue pursuing other deals. (Editor’s note: On Thursday morning, after this story was published, the Padres agreed to trade Paddack and Pagán to the Twins for reliever Taylor Rogers and outfielder Brent Rooker.)
Meanwhile, multiple players alluded to a certain source of comfort. Melvin had already succeeded in defusing at least some of the tension.
“His greatest attribute is a steady hand,” Stammen said. “He’s just the same guy every day. He’s got our backs no matter what.”
Melvin and Bryan Price had never met until 2002, when the former replaced Lou Piniella as Mariners manager and the latter stayed on as Seattle’s pitching coach. They knew they already shared common ground; both men are Bay Area natives, Cal alums and fathers of daughters. Their bond soon deepened into mutual respect and unwavering loyalty.
When the Diamondbacks fired Melvin in 2009, Price resigned as their pitching coach.
A decade later, with two years left on his contract, Price stepped down as the Phillies’ pitching coach, citing a desire to spend more time with his family.
In December, the former Reds manager came out of retirement, taking a part-time position with the Padres.
“If you’re going to die on a hill, there are only a few people in your life that you die on a hill for,” said Price, a senior advisor to Melvin’s major-league coaching staff. “And he’s one of them.”
Melvin’s blend of tactical and emotional intelligence has earned him similar plaudits throughout a lengthy career.
Garner recalled how the Brewers were one of the first teams to use the Inside Edge scouting service — and how Melvin demonstrated a knack for separating relevant data from noise. Around the field, Melvin showed a different kind of deftness. He rarely raised his voice. He also had a way of delivering a stern message when needed. Sometimes — say, after, a player failed to run out a groundball — a simple glance was enough.
“I always tried to be more like Bob in that way,” Garner said. “I tend to get pissed off.”
Price observed how Melvin’s even-handed temperament has proved an ideal fit for the modern game, how the former catcher connects equally well with position players and pitchers. “He’s able to cultivate relationships quickly,” Price said. “He cultivates trust quickly.” The same qualities enable Melvin to handle tough conversations with grace. “He’s very honest with players, which is something that you don’t always have in pro ball,” said Pagán, a former A’s pitcher who played for Melvin in 2018.
In Oakland, Melvin’s last and longest stop, tough conversations were regular occurrences. The A’s trotted out low payrolls and turned over chunks of their roster. Melvin, with input from a famously analytical front office, sought to create advantages where he could. He heavily used platoons and pinch hitters. He was seldom accused of misusing pitchers.
The results, across 11 seasons, included six postseason berths and dozens of walk-off victories.
“I could not admire anyone more for their ability to do what he’s done in a place that isn’t L.A., Chicago, New York, Boston,” Price said. “Oakland is not a place where you’re going to say, ‘We’re going to outspend everyone else and put the best product on the field, get every free agent, sign our best players to long-term deals.’ It was never once in that situation, nor was really any manager of that franchise. But I would say, as a baseball lifer, he did more with less than any manager of his time.”
There was something else, too.
“Part of why you never heard much internal conflict coming from the Oakland A’s is because Bo (short for Melvin’s “BoMel” nickname) was able to see it before it happened,” Garner said. “Some managers are crisis managers. And some managers manage way out in front. And from a personnel standpoint, I think Bo manages out front. He’s so in touch with the players and the team that he may see things come before they come and so he can head off some of that stuff.”
The 2021 Padres, of course, appeared to collapse amid crisis. First-time manager Jayce Tingler struggled to maintain respect inside the clubhouse, where he allowed certain tensions to fester. The players were roiled at the trade deadline, when the front office tried to move Hosmer and failed to acquire starting pitching. There were documented confrontations between outfielder Tommy Pham and a coach, between the same coach and Tatis and, most publicly, between Machado and Tatis. And for the second time in three years, the club nosedived after the All-Star break.
Melvin has looked into the various factors that might have contributed to the Padres’ downfall. As one might expect from someone so savvy, he has declined to go into depth about what he learned. On a recent morning, he opted to look ahead.
“I do think it looks like in the past here maybe the second halves weren’t as good as some of the first halves or the shorter season (in 2020),” Melvin said. “At the end of the day, if we stay with it and we’re disciplined and we’re focused on what we’re doing and we do the little things right and we get guys over in situational at-bats and big pitches and big situations, we’ll hold the fort down.”
Melvin, by nature, stresses details. He still carries the lessons of his first spring as Garner’s bench coach. “It set me on a path,” he said. His tenure in Oakland reinforced the value of meticulous preparation.
One opponent, in particular, tended to bring out his inner competitiveness. Whenever the A’s played the Giants, Melvin — who grew up watching both clubs — would subtly remind his players and coaches of the rivalry’s significance. The details mattered, as much as ever, but there was a bigger picture, too.
“It was important to everybody in the Bay, and it’s the one time that the whole baseball world was watching both teams,” Melvin said. “Our guys knew, every time we played the Giants, it was a little bit different.”
Over Melvin’s 11 seasons, the A’s finished 29-27 against their well-heeled neighbors.
“He’s not a rah-rah kind of guy, and some people have mistaken that for a lack of passion,” Garner said. “And that’s a foolish mistake.”
Now with San Diego, Melvin will face the Giants even more often. The Dodgers have long been the Padres’ greatest tormentors. The new manager might not have to nudge his players.
“There’s probably nothing I need to say to them,” Melvin said, “but my experience is I need to feel it first, too.”
After more than a decade in one place, so much about this latest challenge will be different. The Padres’ payroll dwarfs that of the A’s. There are high-paid stars in the clubhouse. The jump in resources might not signal automatic success: The roster, as currently constituted, appears less flexible than what Melvin worked with in Oakland. The Dodgers are baseball’s most formidable team, and the Giants are coming off a 107-win season. The Rockies signed Kris Bryant.
“I think it’s every team in the National League West now,” Melvin said.
On Thursday, Melvin begins a new chapter at Chase Field, where he once managed home games and where he won his only World Series title as Arizona’s bench coach in 2001. Bob Brenly, the Diamondbacks’ manager that year, will be calling the game from the home TV booth. Garner, whom Melvin credits as “the reason I’m managing,” will be rooting for him from afar. Melvin has called Garner and Brenly, another former Giants teammate, his two closest friends in baseball. And there will be other confidantes in the building.
“Beyond his family, I don’t imagine there’s going to be anybody pulling harder for Bob to have success (with the Padres) than I will,” Price said. “And there’s going to be a ton of other people because he’s so well-liked and respected.”
“Whatever the situation is, I think Bo will be able to handle it,” Garner said. “The real key is getting everybody to play with one goal in mind, and that’s to win. No matter how you do it, whether you have to sit on the bench for a while or you have to hit in a certain place in the order, you’ve got to buy into it. And that’s the responsibility of your leader, your manager, to get the players to buy into that, and I think Bo will do that. It may not happen overnight, it may not happen in spring training, but I promise you, it will happen.”