Bob Brenly helped create one of the coolest moments in Arizona history: when the Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series in 2001, as manager of the team. His friendly demeanor and honest approach as a Diamondbacks broadcaster translated to the field as the leader for the championship-winning team, and now the 60-year-old Scottsdale resident is back in the booth, calling games as a color commentator for FOX Sports Arizona.
The former San Francisco Giants catcher offered his insight to this year’s Diamondbacks team and how he’s evolved as an announcer. Keep reading to see a video of him talk about his favorite reasons for living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
I’ve been here since ’97, when I first took the job to come here and broadcast back in ’98. (Former Chicago Cubs announcer) Thom Brennaman was made the play-by-play voice here, and Thom and I had a relationship for years. He said, “Hey, why don’t we both go down to the desert and put the band together down there?”
That’s what brought me to Arizona, but, of course, I had been coming here for spring training since 1976 or ’77 (as a player), so I was familiar with the Valley, too.
What drew you to color commentating?
Being in the right place at the right time, being lucky. When my career as a player ended, I had a friend who worked at WGN Radio in Chicago. I called him up and told him I thought I was going to retire. He said, “If you’re serious, we’re hiring a whole new radio crew for WGN next year. Why don’t you come make an audition tape?” Following Thom Brennaman, who was going to be the new play-by-play guy, I went and made some audition tapes and got the job and went to Chicago initially.
I then went back to the field as a coach for a few years (for the San Francisco Giants), then went back to the booth. I’ve been bouncing back and forth, and it always felt very natural to me. I love the game of baseball and love to look for the nuances, the things that don’t jump out to you immediately. Being an analyst, especially on television, is the avenue you go if you like to do that kind of thing.
How would you say your career as an analyst has evolved?
It definitely has evolved, because I knew nothing about the business. I knew a lot about baseball, but I knew nothing about TV or radio. I was very fortunate in the early parts of my broadcasting career to work with some of the legends of televised sports, including (producer) Michael Weisman, who has about a million sports Emmys. Thom Brennaman was a great teacher for me. I got a chance to work with (broadcaster) Harry Caray in Chicago a couple years.
Just like a ball player, if you have the right coaches along the way, your development gets sped up quite a bit. I was very fortunate to have some great mentors as a broadcaster.
What’s your preparation like for games now as a commentator?
It kind of depends on the series. The first game of the series, it’s a little more intense. You’re trying to get up to speed as quick as possible — who’s hot, who’s not? Who’s been pitching well? Who’s been pitching poorly? What kinds of things does the manager like to do? Is he a bunter? Is he a hit-and-run? Does he like to steal?
Certainly, all that stuff is available on the Internet, but I like to get down on the field and talk to coaches. I usually have a couple friends on every staff, and they give me the inside dirt.
After the first game of the series, it kind of all grows off of that. Once you have the background, and you feel like you know the other team OK, and certainly, I know the Diamondbacks very well, you kind of follow the action from that point forward.
From one game to the next to the next, certain shorelines will develop, certain guys will be playing well or playing poorly, and you can kind of just follow that along.
How would you characterize the Diamondbacks right now?
This is what we hoped for when the season started — the pitching has been really good, the timely hitting has been very good, and any time you get those two aspects of the game going, you’re going to win. They’ve been winning series, but, unfortunately, they really dug a bad hole in the beginning of the season with the horrible start. It’s going to be an effort to really dig out of that and get back to where they want to be. But, they’re going in the right direction.
What are the biggest keys to improving and turning things around?
From this point forward, they have to stay healthy. With Patrick Corbin getting hurt, David Hernandez going down, Mark Trumbo getting hurt — those are three really key losses, guys we were definitely counting on. You’d like to think we’re treading water right now, but you can’t afford any more injuries. We just cannot. We’re thin enough now, and the depth of the organization has really been tested. I think the biggest key the rest of the way is, how good are our trainers? (Editor’s note: this interview took place before center fielder A.J. Pollock fractured his hand May 31.)
How would you characterize Kirk Gibson as a manager?
I think he’s doing great under the circumstances. It’s easier to manage when your team’s playing well, and everybody’s hitting, and everybody’s pitching. It’s certainly never easy, but it’s easier when that happens.
When a team struggles out of the shoot, that’s when you earn your money as a manger, keeping everybody confident, everybody pointed in the right direction, and making sure you don’t have any dissension in the clubhouse or finger-pointing. We’ve seen no evidence of that, so under the circumstances, he’s done a great job this year.
How can a manager try to keep spirits up?
I think you have to have fun. I don’t care what your job is, if you wake up in the morning, and the first thing that pops into your mind is, “Geez, I have to go to work in a couple hours,” you’re probably not going to have a good day at work. You want to wake up in the morning and can’t wait to get to work because you want to be around your co-workers, because it’s fun, because you’re having some level of success, enough to bring you back for another day.
I was always big on humor. I wanted guys to have fun. Be very serious about your craft, work hard, practice hard, but have fun doing it. It doesn’t have to be a miserable grind every day. You work hard on the things you have to work hard on, and there’s nothing wrong with having a little bit of fun. And, winning is always fun.
Do you ever see yourself being a manager again?
Probably not. Every year, there are more and more retired players and more coaches who are moving up the ladder, more minor league coaches who are looking for their opportunity. I think probably enough water has passed under the bridge that it would probably take a real special circumstance for me to get back on the field, somebody who would identify me as the guy they want to manage their team.
I’m not actively pursuing a manager’s job. I like what I’m doing now. I have a lot of free time. My son plays minor league baseball, so I get a chance to go see him from time to time, and my daughter just had our first grandchild back in Chicago, so whenever we get a chance, we try to shoot back there.
Those are things you can’t do as a manager. Your time is really taken, and your phone rings 24 hours a day, and there’s always a fire to be put out somewhere. I kind of like my free time. If I want to come to the ballpark at 5 o’clock instead of coming at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, I can do that, whereas, when I was a manager, I was here at noon every day, regardless of game time. It’s a little different lifestyle.
I really enjoyed managing because of the team we had, some really good motivated veteran players. That was a fun team to work with. I really enjoyed the wins. I didn’t enjoy the losses.
Do you still keep in touch with your former players?
A lot of them, I run into coming into the ballpark. I see Gonzo (Luis Gonzalez) quite often, and Mike Fetters down on the field. RJ (Randy Johnson) was just here last week for the anniversary of his perfect game. We run into each other from time to time, different places we go on the road. Occasionally, just out of the blue, you’ll walk into a restaurant, and there will be somebody.
A lot of the guys will call a couple times a year, just to touch base and see how things are going. I stay in close contact with Craig Counsell and am trying to give him some career advice. Personally, I think he should be down on the field. Right now, he’s working a front office job (with the Milwaukee Brewers), but I keep trying to push him back down there in uniform.
Do you still vividly remember winning the World Series?
Yeah, it’s funny, though, things kind of have come back to me with time, because when you’re in the moment, everything is so focused, it seems like there’s not enough time in the day.
I don’t remember eating or sleeping for 10 days. I know I did, but I just don’t remember that. All I remember is going to the ballpark and the things that happened at the ballpark. As soon as that game was over, you start thinking about the next game, and, “What can we do better?” or “How can we gain an edge?” It was just the pinnacle — I can’t describe it any other way.
You’re raised as a ball player, and I coached and broadcast and did all these things, but when you’re in that situation, where you’re playing for a World Championship, there’s no feeling quite like it. Maybe I would feel differently if we had lost that World Series, but because we won it, it was the best memory professionally you could possibly imagine.
What are your goals now?
Hopefully to call a World Championship. I’ve been down in the field, when Thommy and (announcer) Jim Traber were up in the booth with The Gub’nuh (announcer Greg Schulte). I talked to them every day. They were down in my office before the game and after the game talking about things that happened so they could prepare for their broadcasts, but as a manager, it was just something I had to do.
Now that I’m up in the booth again, I’d like to go through a World Series as a broadcaster and see what that feels like.
What are your thoughts on the expansion of instant replay?
I think it’s working well. I think they understood there would be things that would need to be tweaked and streamlined a little bit, but the bottom line is, the last few years, we would sit over here, and there would be a play on the field. Within seconds, we could look at a replay in the TV booth, and within seconds after that, the fans in the stands who had smartphones or brought their iPad to the game could see the replay. The umpires on the field who were in charge of judging the game didn’t have access to those things. I thought there was a serious disconnect there.
We have the technology now to get most of the calls right, and I think that’s what we all want. We just want to get it right. It would be horrible, and it’s happened in baseball history, where a bad call would cost a team the World Series. I cannot imagine, in this day and age, a bad call not getting reviewed, and the wrong team ends up winning the World Series. That’s just ridiculous.
I’m all in favor of replay. I have a lot of friends who are umpires, and we argue about this all the time, but I don’t want it to be like figure skating in the Olympics, where one umpire’s strike zone goes up to the letters, and another umpire’s goes up to the belt, and one umpire will go six inches off of the outside corner. That should never happen. It’s in the rule book what the strike zone is supposed to be. The closer we get to that, the better.
How do you spend your free time?
I’m trying to become a better guitar player. When I first started broadcasting, I had a lot of free time on the road when I was with the Cubs organization, and I really knew nobody other than Thommy Brennaman. I always wanted to play guitar, so I bought a cheap one and a portable amplifier and some headphones and taught myself. Here I am, 25 years later. I’m still not very good, but I really enjoy playing the guitar. It’s very soothing for me.
I like to fish, I like to ride my motorcycle. I keep myself busy.
What do you like to play on guitar?
I kind of lean toward the classic rock stuff, easy three-chord songs. I’m a big Led Zeppelin fan, but Jimmy Page is way out of my league. I can play riffs, little bits of this song, and little bits of that song, but there are only a few songs I can play all the way through, start to finish.
On the music side, when I was working in Chicago, my (broadcast) partner Len Kasper was big into music and was actually in a band when he was in college. We wanted to raise some money for charity, and he wasn’t really a golfer or a bowler, so we decided to have a concert. He allowed me to play with his band, and we opened at the House of Blues in Chicago, with The Hold Steady, Tom Morello and some really good bands that played our fundraisers. We got to go on stage and play three or four songs every year.
Talk about being out of your element. I love to play guitar, but I realize I’m not in the league with people who really play guitar. I was so grateful for that opportunity to stand on stage in a different environment, having people look at you and expect you to perform, and not really knowing if I could or not. We did it for about five years.
With your son playing as a catcher for the Portland Sea Dogs, do you give him advice?
Mostly in the off-season. When we first moved to Arizona, we had a batting cage in the backyard before we had a kitchen table. We ate on TV trays, but I knew we wanted to put a batting cage in so Michael could continue to do the things he wanted to do. To this day, when he comes home in the off-season, a big part of our day is spent outside in the batting cage.
We try to smooth some of the rough edges. I try to offer suggestions, he tells me what he’s learned from his coaches from the year before, things he maybe wants to work on and get better at. It’s funny, because as a dad, you want to be involved, especially as a dad that’s been around the game of baseball. I also know, when you’re out there on a daily basis, seeing what’s going on and actually watching the at-bats, and critiquing his swing, it’s better left up to the guys who are there. That’s what their job is.
Once the season starts, I try to be encouraging and positive, but I don’t mess around too much with mechanics.
Why should people support the Arizona Diamondbacks?
No matter where you go, if your team wins, people are going to want to come and be a part of it and enjoy the atmosphere and the excitement. If you don’t win, it’s a little tougher to get them to come out. But, I don’t think I’ve ever been around a group of guys, and it’s a cliche, that are such good people. They go out of their way to do things in the community without getting credit for it.
Paul Goldschmidt is the easiest example. He shows up at Phoenix Children’s Hospital unannounced and just spends time with the kids. I’ve never seen that anywhere I’ve ever been before. Usually, it’s pre-arranged by the media relations or community relations departments, and you have cameras there. It’s nothing like that. These guys do it because they’re genuinely good people, and they realize their position as a Major League ballplayer.
Even though Phoenix is a big area, it feels like a small town. They understand the impact they can have on people just by showing up to an event, going to a Little League opening day, going to a hospital visit, going to a school and reading to the kindergartners. They all get it and understand they have a job to do off the field, as well.
I’ve been around teams that were exactly the opposite and went out of their way to avoid things like that. That’s the reason I would come out and root for these guys.
What advice do you have for aspiring pro baseball players?
Play as much as you can. The times are a little different now, and there are a lot of other things for young players to do, but I grew up in a small town in Ohio, and we had nothing else. I played on three different teams in the same summer.
My mother, god bless her heart, would wash all my uniforms and put them in the trunk of her car, and that day, I would drive 35 minutes to a small town and play a game for one team I was on. As soon as that game was over, I would change uniforms in the parking lot and drive to another town to play for another team I was on. That night, I was playing with a group of adults in a semi-pro league, where I was 16, and they were all in their 30’s and 40’s, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. Here I was, a junior in high school.
Play as much as you can. Play the game, play the game, play the game. Baseball is all about repetition. The more you do it, the more comfortable you become with the things you have to do, and the more confident you become in yourself. My advice is always just play as much as you can.