Three years ago, before his troubles started and playing baseball became an ordeal, Bruce Bochte was programmed to be the show in Anaheim. At 25, he was the big hitter the California Angels had been waiting for. In almost three seasons in the minors he had never hit under .319, and when the Angels called him up in July 1974 from Triple-A Salt Lake City, he was batting .355. The next year, his first full season in the majors, Bochte had 48 RBIs and led the Angels in hitting with a .285 average, despite missing seven weeks with a fractured thumb. But that, if Dick Williams, then the California manager, perceived it right, was promise only partially fulfilled. He foresaw that Bochte, a strapping 6'3" 200-pounder, was about to accomplish far greater things.
"The swing, the desire, the concentration, the ability to consistently get a piece of almost every pitch," Williams said at the time, "makes this kid a natural to win a batting championship."
Three years can be an eon in baseball. Williams is in Montreal now, where he is having a fine old time, and Bochte (pronounced BOCK-tee), after a brief side trip to Cleveland, is the first baseman for the Seattle Mariners. There has been no batting title for him, nothing remotely close, but for the first 2� months of this season he finally has been hitting the ball the way Williams said he could. Through last week, Bochte was the fifth-leading hitter in the American League at .344. Batting third in the Mariner lineup, in front of the ageless power hitter Willie Horton, Bochte was third in the league in runs batted in, with 56, and was leading the Mariners in game-winning RBIs, with nine. "This is the most fun I ever had," he says. "It came from learning how to relax and take things as they come."
The learning process took a while and had its price—in frustration, confusion and disappointment. Bochte began paying it in Anaheim in 1976. If the year began with Williams seeing him as a future batting champ, it ended with Bochte wondering if the Angels would be trading him. "I bombed out," Bochte says. "It's the best example in my career of my putting too much emphasis on stats and performance. I was hitting .320 in the middle of May. By the end of the year I was pressing unbelievably." And hitting in the .250s. The harder he struggled, the deeper he sank. To save himself, he began making the mistake of analyzing his hitting technique too closely. With balls coming toward him at 90 mph, there was Bochte in the batter's box, pondering over the position of his arms, his hands, his feet, his head, his bat, his elbows. "Thinking about all those things, you fail to see the baseball," he says. "I was swinging the bat so poorly I was wondering whether I'd ever hit again."
Having finished the '76 season at .258, he went into the winter feeling expendable, especially after California signed Don Baylor, Joe Rudi and Bobby Grich from the first free-agent draft. "It made my position very shaky," Bochte says. He did not sign a 1977 Angels contract, and on May 11, 1977 California traded him and Pitcher Sid Monge to Cleveland for Pitcher Dave LaRoche and a minor-leaguer. Bochte got his stroke back in Cleveland, climbing steadily from a midseason slump to end up batting .301, with 51 RBIs. However, he wanted no permanent part of Cleveland—of the organization, the city or its weather. He didn't sign with the Indians, instead choosing to try the reentry draft. "I didn't want to live in Cleveland," says Bochte, a native of Arcadia, Calif. who attended the University of Santa Clara. "I didn't think the team had any future. After the last game of the season, they told me they wanted me to stay. They said the future of America is in the Midwest, because there is no water in California. They also said there would be no money left for the guys who went into the reentry draft because the teams had given it all away the year before."
Bochte nonetheless decided to try his luck, and the Mariners took him in the third round. For a Southern Californian, drizzling Seattle was no orange grove, but Bochte liked the organization and the city. And the Mariner contract offer was right. While he is only an adequate fielder, a plodder with limited agility and mobility who catches what comes to him, Seattle desperately needed his bat. With one .300 season behind him and no reason not to believe another was on the way, the Mariners signed Bochte for a reported $325,000 over three years. He and his wife Linda settled in a two-story cedar house in nearby Woodinville, at the edge of what he describes as a rain forest, and planted their first garden. But it would still be a year before he would begin to reap a big harvest on the diamond.
As the free agent brought in to hit .300, Bochte felt himself under extreme pressure to produce in '78. "I expected to win games singlehandedly," he says. "In the beginning I was the only one hitting the ball. It got to the point that I felt if I didn't get two hits and drive in two runs, we wouldn't win the game. It gets to be mental torture. My attitude let me down. It was the theme of the club last year. We got to a point where we expected to lose. Everyone else expected us to lose, too. Under those conditions, you do things subconsciously to prevent yourself from winning. I was as much a victim of it as anyone."
And Bochte was hampered physically as well as mentally. The fences in the Kingdome are only 316 feet down the foul lines, and Bochte—a spray hitter who gets lots of singles and doubles—started swinging like King Kong, trying to pull the ball while adding a home run hitter's uppercut to his stroke. "That's not his style," Seattle Manager Darrell Johnson says. "He hits to all fields." Moreover, the hard AstroTurf of the Kingdome put additional strains on the chronically weak muscles in Bochte's knees and feet. His mobility was limited even further, and he had to play in pain. No wonder he foundered right along with the rest of the Mariners. He hit .263.
Bochte says that the reason he has sailed through the first third of the '79 season and emerged as one of the league's better hitters is that the game no longer rules him as it used to. It doesn't govern his outlook and shade his moods so strongly. "It has been a gradual thing," Linda Bochte says. "It just evolved over the last couple of years. Bruce is more in control of himself."
That was clearly the case three weeks ago, when Bochte went into a mini-slump (going 5 for 22) before recovering strongly (13 for 32) last week. The drop-off didn't seem to bother Bochte a bit. Nor did it make his batting instructor, Vada Pinson, at all edgy. "He's been playing every game, and there's a tendency to get in and out of the groove when you do that," Pinson says. "He's a natural hitter—opposite field, up the middle, pull if he has to. I've always liked that type of hitter. That real estate out there isn't owned by anybody. You can claim-jump anytime and anywhere you want. There's no reason he shouldn't be a consistent .300 hitter."