To begin with," says Rocky Bridges, the manager of the San Jose Bees, "I'm a handsome, debonair, easygoing six-footer. Anyway, that's what I told them at the Braille Institute. As you can see, I'm really a five-foot-eight-and-a-halfer and I weigh 190, but what you may not know is that my weight is very mobile—it's all moved around in front of me."
This is Rocky's first year as a manager, but he has come prepared, for he is one of the best stand-up comics in the history of baseball. "I'm back in the California League, where I started my slump," he says. "I'm the only man in the history of the game who began his career in a slump and stayed in it. I could play here as well as manage, but I have no guts. In 1947 I hit .183 for Santa Barbara and I'll be damned if I'll try again. I always wanted to be a baseball player. Now that I've quit playing, I still entertain that idea."
No man ever had a greater love for the game of baseball than Rocky Bridges. He considered it a privilege just to sit on the bench in the big leagues, which is a good thing because that was his usual position. "It was like being a little boy forever," he says. "I got a big charge just out of seeing Ted Williams hit. Once in a while they let me try to field some of them, which sort of dimmed my enthusiasm." Rocky's glove was mightier than his bat, but he could always handle a one-liner better than a line drive.
Rocky played (more or less) in the majors for 11 years and coached for two more. All told, he was on seven different teams: Brooklyn (1951-52), Cincinnati (1953-57), Washington (1957-58), Detroit (1959-60), Cleveland (1960), St. Louis (1960) and the Los Angeles Angels (1961-63). "I've had more numbers on my back than a bingo board," says Rocky. "My wife had to write to me care of Ford Frick. He was the only one who knew where I was. It's a good thing I stayed in Cincinnati for four years—it took me that long to learn how to spell it."
Rocky was a shortstop and second baseman by trade, a third baseman out of desperation and a left fielder for a third of an inning. "If I did anything funny on the ball field it was strictly accidental," he says. "Like the way I played third. Some people thought it was hilarious, but I was on the level all the time. When Charlie Dressen asked me if I could play third, I said, 'Hell, yes. I'll mow your lawn for you if you like. I want to stay up here.' "
Rocky endured in the majors because of his enthusiasm, his versatility and his hustle. "If I told him to go up and get hit on the head," Birdie Tebbetts once said, "he'd do it." For the most part, Rocky was a utility man, cheerfully accepting bit parts as a pinch runner or late-inning defensive replacement. For instance, in 1956 he appeared in 71 games but had only 19 at bats. And hustle, he says, "is not running out of the dugout, as some of my troops at San Jose think."
Rocky's best year was 1958, when he was chosen for the All-Star team. "I was hitting .307 at the break," Rocky recalls, "but then I checked out Frank Lary's fast ball on my jaw. The trouble with having a wired jaw is that you can never tell when you're sleepy—you can't yawn." Rocky didn't play in the All-Star Game, nor did he play in the 1952 World Series, when he was with the Dodgers. "I've been a paid spectator at some pretty interesting events," he says, "and I've always had a good seat. I guess they figured there was no point in carrying a good thing too far."
Rocky has a .247 lifetime average and hit 16 home runs during his career. In fact, about his only statistical distinction is that he started triple plays in both leagues. "There used to be a rule against hitting me or walking me," Rocky says. "They had a lot going for them if I swung. I never figured myself an out man—I always swung, let it go wherever it wanted. Like I tell my troops, swing the bat. You never know what might happen. Two might get together." In 1961, after hitting his first homer in two seasons, Rocky said: "I'm still behind Babe Ruth's record, but I've been sick. It really wasn't very dramatic. No little boy in the hospital asked me to hit one. I didn't promise it to my kid for his birthday, and my wife will be too shocked to appreciate it. I hit it for me."
All of which adds up to the kind of record that leads a man whose life is baseball back to the California Leagues of the world, and Rocky is not crying in his Lucky Lager. He was asked the other day whether he thought he had reached his full potential as a baseball player. "I might have gone beyond it," he said.
Rocky finds that the league has changed a shade since he compiled an .884 fielding average in 39 games for Santa Barbara before being put out of his misery with a broken leg. " Reno wasn't in it," Rocky says. "That helped. The last time the Bees were in Reno, I lost the bus and two outfielders, but I won a shortstop and a bat."