Fittingly enough, I first got word of Rocky Bridges' passing from my ex-Bison broadcast partner, Greg Brown on Thursday. Everett Lamar "Rocky" Bridges died on January 28th of natural causes at the age of 87 in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
You have probably already read an entire collection of stories about him and the hilarious quotes. I was fortunate enough to have met him before he became the Bisons' manager in 1988.
From the Los Angeles Times: Even bouncing among seven teams in 11 seasons did little to temper his zeal for the game, Bridges once noting, "I've had more numbers on my back than a bingo board."
Bridges, who played for the Angels in their debut season of 1961, also said he wouldn't eat snails because "I prefer fast food." He described one club executive as so skinny he could tread water in a test tube. And he said of a diet drink he'd supposedly concocted, "You mix two jiggers of Scotch to one jigger of Metrecal. So far I've lost five pounds and my driver's license."
In a lengthy Sports Illustrated profile from 1964 - Bridges was described as "one of the best stand-up comics in the history of baseball."
My first baseball job was with the 1981 Albuquerque Dukes. The Dukes were in the same Pacific Coast League division with Salt Lake City, Tucson and Phoenix. The schedule was heavily tilted toward divisional play, so I got to know the other managers (Moose Stubing in Salt Lake, Jimmy Johnson in Tucson and Rocky Bridges in Phoenix) very well.
One of my friends, Don Stevens (now the long-time Voice of the Rochester Americans), was the radio announcer for the Phoenix Giants. I ended up spending a great deal of time absorbing the "Wisdom of Rocky Bridges" that summer.
Rocky was a humble, simple guy. Like some other managers in the Pacific Coast League (Stubing in Salt Lake and Rene Lachemann in Spokane), Rocky did not rent an apartment in Phoenix. He lived in the (thankfully) air-conditioned clubhouse at Municipal Stadium.
A lifelong baseball man, he started managing before minor league managers had any help. He made out the line-ups, gave the signs from the third base coach's box (that conjures up some stories there), filled out the reports for the front office in San Francisco, AND was the batting practice pitcher.
Thanks to his time on the mound, and not wanting to throw from behind a screen, he got nailed on the knee once by a Jay Johnstone line shot. As a result, he walked with a peg leg-like limp for the rest of his life.
Unlike his contemporary, Preston Gomez (who had a different set of signs for each of his players, in case they might get traded), Rocky's signs were simple. He realized that it was all about execution, and not necessarily trying to fool the opposition.
For a steal, he might whistle at the runner and point to second and sometimes yell, "go!" for good measure. He sometimes called for a bunt by squaring around with an "air bat" in the coach's box when the batter checked in.
So I was prepared when the Pirates named Rocky (along with pitching coach Jackie Brown and trainer Carlos Ledezma) the Bisons' manager for 1988.
At a media conference at the not yet completed Pilot Field, he was pure Rocky. It may have been the only time I ever saw him in coat-and-tie. He made it clear that wasn't part of his look when he told reporters: "this is kind of like putting earrings on a pig, isn't it?"
It was a marvelous season in many ways. The 72-70 record was not spectacular and Rocky made it clear he wasn't necessarily managing to win, but to prepare the players for the major leagues, but they were capable of putting on a good show.
Off that team, shortstop Felix Fermin would play over 900 games in the majors. Catcher Tom Prince spent parts of 18 seasons in "the show." Pitcher Rick Reed would retire 18 years later from the Minnesota Twins after winning 93 big league games.
It was his approach to baseball and life that made him so special. He wasn't only the guy who loved to mix a chaw of tobacco with an airport hot dog first thing in the morning. He had enjoyed his playing career and he wanted to make sure his players did the same. "The umpire says 'Play Ball,' right?" he asked.
When the Bisons would travel to Louisville, who would come out to the ballpark to visit but his former Brooklyn Dodger teammate (and best man at his wedding) Pee Wee Reese. Reese made the Hall of Fame as a player, the spiritual leader of the "Boys of Summer." But he did not want to miss a chance to re-connect with Rocky.
It is difficult to imagine a man who epitomized baseball more than him. According to a 1973 publication, (The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book): "Rocky Bridges looked like a ballplayer. In fact, he may have looked more like a ballplayer than any other ballplayer who ever lived."
Buffalo was just one of many stops for Rocky Bridges, but wherever he worked and whatever the job, he was unique: "I managed, I scouted, I coached, I did everything," he says. "I was like a house without toilets. I was uncanny."
And he was absolutely unforgettable to anyone who ever met him.
Pete Weber is the former 'Voice of the Bisons' and a Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer. He is now the 'Voice of the Nashville Predators' of the National Hockey League.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.