Last Saturday, during their first visit Mm together to New York, Bob and Joan Brenly, like many tourists before them, gawked at skyscrapers, took a horse and buggy ride in Central Park and had lunch at the Stage Deli. Then Bob took in a ball game at Shea Stadium, where he toured the base paths after crushing a Bruce Berenyi fastball for a three-run homer to beat the Mets 5-4.
Brenly, who plays catcher—and a little first base—for the Giants when he isn't sightseeing, had clubbed a two-run homer off Ron Darling and a three-run shot off Jesse Orosco to defeat the Mets 7-6 in the first game of a doubleheader sweep on Friday. "He's a one-man wrecking crew," said Met manager Davey Johnson. "He just obliterated the staff. Three-run homers seem like a common occurrence with him."
Joan wasn't at Shea for her husband's heroics either night. She had first-trip jitters about taking a cab from Manhattan to the stadium in Queens. Nonetheless, after Saturday's game. Bob said. "I'm going to buy the song I Love New York. And the T shirt."
Brenly, 30, is in his third full season in the majors and just getting in stride. Through Sunday he was fourth in the National League in batting at .315 and had 17 homers and 70 RBIs, including 14 last week. The Giants, on the other hand, have the worst record in the majors (51-77) and are on track for their lowest winning percentage (.397) since they moved to San Francisco from New York in 1958. In a year of tremendous disappointment, Brenly has been a giant surprise. "It's not great physical ability." he says. "I don't have a catchy nickname. I've just busted my butt."
His success has been muted by the Giants' poor play. "Most of your celebrations have to take place in private, after you get home," says Brenly. The Braves defeated San Francisco 11-6 in a June game in which Brenly hit two homers. The night he heard he had been chosen to the All-Star team, the Giants lost 5-4 to the Cubs. Brenly kept his emotions under control at Candlestick Park, but as soon as he was alone, they erupted. "I rode home from the ball park with the windows rolled down, screaming out of them the whole way," he says. Though it was 2 a.m. back in Ohio, he called home to Coshocton to tell his family the news.
At the All-Star Game, Brenly spent an hour or two getting autographs from other players. He struck out in his one at bat but had a memorable chance encounter with Reggie Jackson near the rightfield bullpen in Candlestick late in the game. "I'd met him once or twice, but I'm not sure he knew who I was," says Brenly. "Reggie said, 'Boy, I really admire you.' I said, 'You do?' He said, 'You play in this blankety blanker every night.' "
After Brenly batted only .224 last year, the Giants hoped to have someone else playing in windswept Candlestick every night. In spring training, San Francisco was aggressively pursuing a trade for a catcher. But when Brenly began to hit, the Giants stayed with him. He has always been solid defensively. While three other Giant catchers have thrown out only six of 52 runners attempting to steal this season. Brenly has caught a respectable 33 of 101. His only shortcoming, according to Frank Robinson, who was canned as the Giants' manager a month ago, was that Brenly wasn't a take-charge guy. "It isn't my personality to chew butt, crack the whip," Brenly says. Yet Giant pitchers think Brenly has taken control. "He'll come out and bitch at you," says starter Bill Laskey.
"The biggest change in Bob is confidence," says righthander Mike Krukow. "In the past he was too tentative. This year his attitude has been, 'I can do it. I'm good.' "
San Diego rocked Krukow for six runs in the first inning of a game on April 24. "Bob came to the mound, and he was plenty upset," Krukow says. " 'O.K., veteran, see if you can get the blanking pitcher out,' Bob said. After that, I pitched six shutout innings."
No one has questioned Brenly's durability. He has played with a partial tear in the cartilage of his right knee since early June. He caught both ends of a double-header against the Mets last month and has rested just once in the last 35 games.
Brenly's reluctance to sit stems partly from the fact that he had such a long, tough haul to the majors from tiny Coshocton. ("There are more people in this hotel than there are in our hometown," Brenly said of the Grand Hyatt in New York.) Let's pick up his career from age five. Bob has known Joan, who lived two blocks away in Coshocton, ever since kindergarten. "He liked another girl then," Joan says. Retorts Bob. "Well, you have to play the field at that point." They started dating as freshmen in high school and were married after his sophomore year at Ohio University. Though Brenly caught in his junior season at Ohio, he finished up at third base, at which position he was named an All-America. In the process, he broke or tied a number of school records held by a pretty fair in-fielder named Mike Schmidt. In June 1976 Brenly got his degree in health education, but he also received a stunning rejection: Nobody drafted him.
He continued to work out at the school's ball park. Joan hit grounders to him at third, and he threw to a stack of tires they had piled up at first. Finally, the Giants called. They needed an in-fielder for their Rookie League team in Great Falls, Mont. "I asked about a signing bonus," Brenly says, "and the scout just giggled." Brenly had to borrow money for the trip.
Still playing third, he began a dreary five-year sojourn in the minors. "Physically, I think a lot of my best talent was left on the back of a bus in Texas," Brenly said earlier this year. It wasn't until 1980, when he was with Phoenix of the Pacific Coast League, that Brenly was moved back behind the plate. The Giants' front office gave him a hard look during the 1981 strike and called him up for the second half of the season.
As the Brenlys drove from Phoenix to the Bay Area, their van blew its alternator at 2 a.m. The first to arrive on the scene were highway patrolmen who saw Brenly pushing the van off the road and thought he was trying to steal it. An hour or two later, he was back on the road. At 5 a.m., Bob and Joan reached San Mateo, only to find that there was no room at the Hillsdale Inn. Welcome to the bigs; practice at 9 a.m.
Brenly hit .333 in 19 games that year. A broken collarbone sidelined him for nearly six weeks in 1982, in which he batted .283. Brenly believes that a major reason he hit so poorly last season was that he rarely knew when he'd be in the lineup.
It wasn't until Brenly reached the majors that he and Joan started a family. Daughter Lacey was born in July 1982. A born fan, she can already sing Take Me Out to the Ball Game and part of the national anthem.
Giant second baseman Duane Kuiper has been kidding Brenly all year that he wants to take Lacey out for pizza and wine. After a game last month, Kuiper came by to say hi to Lacey. Sweetly, she said, "Duane, grab some pine, meat." That's Giant talk for "take a seat, buddy."
No one has asked Lacey's daddy to grab any pine recently.
Brenly must savor his success in private.