One time boxer has delivered right 1-2 punch as River Cats manager

Dave Brundage is in his 22nd season as a manager in the minors, the last 14 in Triple-A.
Dave Brundage is in his 22nd season as a manager in the minors, the last 14 in Triple-A. Sacramento River Cats

Dave Brundage used to box.

The proof is right there on his face.

“Oh yeah, I’ve had four nose surgeries,” the River Cats manager said, laughing and nodding. “Got those just to get some air passages to breathe, not to make me look prettier.”

Brundage looked the part of one intensely fierce athlete growing up in Salem, Ore., dancing and boxing, hammering foes in football at 6-foot-3, muscling in for rebounds and tearing fastballs apart as a slugger.

He pitched and hit at Oregon State and also punted one season for the Beavers. A fourth-round draft pick by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1986, Brundage fought and scratched his way through eight minor league seasons, logging six of those at the Triple-A level. He was a position player and then a pitcher, so Brundage has a good grasp and feel of what it takes to compete at this level.

He has pulled the right strings, inserted the right players and coached them all up with his brand of positive reinforcement in driving the River Cats to their best season since 2008.

Sacramento hosted games 1 and 2 of the Pacific Coast League championship series against Round Rock, the Houston Astros affiliate, with the remainder of the best-of-five series taking place in Texas. Sacramento took the opener in walkoff fashion.

Sacramento took Game 2 on Wednesday night 4-2 in front of 3,949 fans as Cristhian Adames and Jacob Heyward each drove in two runs, including a sixth-inning homer for Adames.

And there was the 53-year old manager after the Game 1 winner, jumping as high as his creaky limbs would allow, a man basking in a kid’s game. He didn’t yelp after Game 2, but his smile spoke volumes.

“My arms were raised (after Game 1), I’m excited and happy, like a little boy,” Brundage said, his eyes widening. “Sometimes, you wish you could get out there and still play. I threw batting practice the first half of this season but I’m running out of juice, which is probably the wrong word for that (laughs). I’m getting old and fat, and the body aches.”

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“We had 12 go to the big leagues this season, and 19 make rosters,” Brundage said. “Our job is to get our guys ready for the major leagues. I think we’ve done that. I’m proud of our team, proud of our staff. When guys leave, it gives other guys an opportunity to show what they can do.

Brundage’s good cheer resonates over a team and season that started April 4 and has gone virtually nonstop since. The guys are still upbeat, because they reflect their leader, and because the season and sport matters.

“I saw the excitement and enthusiasm in the clubhouse in Las Vegas (during the PCL semifinals), and you can see Dave and the guys are having a good time, playing loose,” River Cats general manager Chip Maxson said. “He’s done a great job.”

Brundage is not ready for the season to end, but then again, he is. He’s tired. All of the players and coaches are tired, though Brundage insists there is plenty of gusto left to finish this season on top.

When it’s over, Brundage will head home to Portland to be a husband and father full-time with wife Dameron and their teenage twins. The endless grind of baseball at any level affords little chance to be with family.

“I’ve only seen my family a couple/three days since spring training,” Brundage said. “It’s been a long time.”

Brundage met his wife at an Oregon State tailgate scene, before a football game.

“We’ve been married 23 years, and it works for us,” Brundage said of being married to Dameron and married to baseball. “It doesn’t work for everyone, but it does for us.”

Brundage dreamed of reaching the big leagues as a boy, like his grandfather did. He treasures the photo he has of Babe Ruth with his grandfather during their playing days.

By the time Brundage was winding down his playing career, he focused on coaching and managing. He is in his 22nd season as a manager in the minors, the last 14 in Triple-A. He, too, aspires to reach the bigs.

“When I pitched in the minors, I spent a lot of time watching the game, wondering what to do here and there, and that had me thinking of coaching,” Brundage said. “It gave me a leg up on what I wanted to do. I understood what position players do, what pitchers do, and how to relate to people.”

In an era heavy on analytics, Brundage said one thing remains fixed in baseball.

“Instincts,” he said. “That’s a vital part of the game. The game is so tough if you don’t have baseball instincts. You can have all the talent in the world, all the tools, but if you don’t have a feel for the game, the instinctive part ... that’s what separates the good players from the great ones.”

Brundage also stresses a positive outlook. It’s OK to laugh a little, live a little, otherwise the pressures of the game will devour you.

Said River Cats shortstop Abiatal Avelino, “We respond to him.”

“Being upbeat, that’s how you build relationships, how you get the most out of players, how you reach them, how you get them to run through walls for you,” Brundage said.

There’s only one wall left: this series.

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Joe Davidson has covered sports for The Sacramento Bee since 1988 and is award-winning authority on high school sports, specializing in going behind the scenes. Davidson was a high school athlete in Oregon, where he participated in football and track.