The 100: Bob Brenly (98)

For the past several years, Bob Brenly has provided color commentary on baseball telecasts. Anyone who has heard Brenly, whether with TBS in the postseason, or during the season with the Chicago Cubs and now with the Arizona Diamondbacks, knows that he has opinions. Who can forget the “dart” comment he made about Alfonso Soriano‘s defense in 2008? And, of course, as befits a manager who called for so many sacrifice bunts during Arizona’s unlikely journey to a World Series championship in 2001, Brenly was all about “fundamentals,” constantly bemoaning the fact that they are not taught nor learned.

I loved Bob Brenly the player, but he is prone to “old ballplayers” disease from time to time. I’ve heard him (justifiably) complain about fundamental mistakes made by Hanley Ramirez or Starlin Castro. But he usually then adds something that is nonsense. He’ll say, “It used to be that you were expected to play at least 500 games in the minors to learn the fundamentals,” or words very close to that.

Brenly didn’t give a time frame for this old standard, but I think context makes it clear he’s speaking of the 1970s and 1980s, when ballplayers were men and played the game right and waited their turn to take the field. It also just happened to be the era when Brenly himself toiled in the minor leagues. (It couldn’t have been much earlier than that because the draft didn’t start until 1965 and before that any player who signed for a bonus was expected to go straight to the majors because of the “Bonus Baby” rule.)

Sure enough, Brenly played in almost 600 games in the minor leagues before he got the call. He spent one season in rookie ball, three years in A ball, one in AA, and two in AAA. But as Brenly himself often admits, he wasn’t much of a prospect. He was an undrafted free agent out of a minor college program, Ohio University, who was signed by the Giants in 1976 to fill out a minor league roster. Six years in the minors frustrated him, though, and he confided to Ron Pruitt during spring training in 1982 that if he didn’t make the big club, he might call it quits at 28. But Giant manager Frank Robinson brought Brenley north that April, and on a team that struggled for the next few years, Brenly found a place in Giants’ fans’ hearts with tenacious, if inelegant, play.  (He once admitted to Sports Illustrated, “It’s not great physical ability. . . .I’ve just busted my butt.”)  Every once in a while a guy like Brenly turns himself into an All-Star, and to his great credit, Brenly did just that. He was selected for the All-Star team in 1984, during what would be his best season (.291/.352/.464 or an OPS+ of 131).

But guys like Brenly aren’t just escorted into a major league locker room. They have to prove themselves at every level, often more than once, just to prove that the scouts who wrote them off in the first place were wrong.  If you look at the roster of any team in the 1980s, when Brenly was playing, you’ll see lots of players who played more than 500 games in the minors. Brenly’s teammate on the Giants, Jeffrey Leonard, played over 500 games in the minors before getting the call and over 700 before he finally stuck. Of course, Leonard was also an undrafted free agent, and he was only 17 when he started in the minors. His fellow rookie on the ’82 Giants, Chili Davis, played 450 games in the minors.

But while Brenly, Leonard and Davis all turned themselves into good players, Brenly doesn’t just dis ordinary players. Hanley Ramirez at one time was the second-best player in the National League. Starlin Castro, however he eventually turns out, was certainly considered a much better player when in the minors than Brenly, Leonard or Davis were.  (Leonard was so highly regarded, he was traded twice.)

But Robby Thompson, who Brenly also played with, played 287 games in the minors – two and a half seasons. Will Clark was a huge star at Mississippi State and on the U.S. Olympic team and played a grand total of 74 games in the minors. There are others, of course. Andre Dawson (Expos organization) only played in 186 minor league games. Mark Grace (Cubs) checks in at 270.

Look at any of the big stars of the 1980s, and you’ll see that most of them played far fewer than 500 games in the minors. Darryl Strawberry played 312. Mike Schmidt played 205. Fred Lynn played 174. Ricky Henderson played 252. Robin Yount and Paul Molitor each played 64. Ozzie Smith played 68 minor-league games. Dave Winfield and Bob Horner played zero games in the minor leagues.

Back in his playing days, Brenly was a catcher, but manager Roger Craig would sometimes use him at first or third (just as Craig would on occasion later use Kevin Mitchell and, still later, Matt Williams, at short). While playing third in a game against Atlanta at Candlestick on September 14, 1986, Brenley committed an error on Bob Horner’s grounder to lead off the fourth inning. He committed a second error on a groundball by Glenn Hubbard, and his third error later on the same play, allowing two runs to score. His fourth error of the inning came on a Dale Murphy groundball, and while nobody scored on that one, all four of Atlanta’s runs were unearned, thanks to Brenley tying a major-league record with four errors in one inning. But Brenley’s day was not done. He homered in the fifth, and the Giants cut the deficit to 4-2. He tied the game, 6-6, in the seventh with a two-run single. And in the bottom of the ninth, Brenley hit a walk-off home run for a 7-6 win.

Brenly no doubt will always remember that game.  He should also remember that 600 games in the minors hadn’t prevented him from committing those four errors in one inning.

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