The Red Sox' offseason has been a turbulent one, as befits a team that committed one of the worst regular season collapses in baseball history. (Nearly as bad as...well, never mind.) Their curiously torturous managerial search is the latest example. You'd think there'd be no shortage of candidates for one of the game's most high profile (and most high paying) jobs, and yet somehow the hunt has dragged on longer than the Orioles' quest for a GM. The team's rumored top pick, the immortal Dale Sveum, joined old boss Theo Epstein in Chicago, thus throwing things into further chaos and hysteria.
The latest wrinkle has Boston GM Ben Cherington interviewing Bobby Valentine. Whether Valentine had always been a candidate or is only now being considered out of desperation is unclear. The truth is further muddied by rumors that Red Sox ownership has already made up its mind about hiring Valentine and is simply giving Cherington a thin but face-saving illusion of choice in the matter.
All of these Machiavellian schemes have overshadowed the fact that Valentine may finally have a major league job again, something he has seemingly craved since he was kicked to the curb by the Mets after the disastrous 2002 season. My own thoroughly informal polling of BoSox fans reveals virtually no enthusiasm for this possibility. At best, there is a sense of resignation or acceptance. Most have varying shades of objection, from "I'm not sure about this guy" to "HELL NO."
As an unapologetic fan of Mr. Valentine, I am here to assuage the fears of Red Sox Nation. I'm of the opinion that much of his negative reputation is just as much narrative as it is reality. He is not a man without faults, but I sincerely hope you get to embrace them.
Bobby Valentine's last stateside gig is usually recalled for its turbulence. A USA Today article on his Red Sox candidacy takes all of three sentences to describe him as "confrontational" and say he "rubbed some of his players the wrong way." It's important to remember that he was just one element of a chaotic period in Mets history (though most periods of Mets history are marked by some chaos or another).
When Valentine took over the Mets late in the 1996 season, they were still trying to recover from The Worst Team Money Could By years, and from the flaming wreckage that was Generation K. Less than a year after he took the job, Steve Phillips ascended to the GM seat. His damn-the-torpedoes approach to roster construction wasn't so much team building as it was a very expensive game of Jenga, and it imbued the Mets with a win-now-or-else attitude that would define them (mostly for the worse) for the next decade. Oh, and ownership was feuding with itself, as Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday sniped at each other and struggled to determine the team's direction.
And yet somehow, Valentine is the one who gets the lion's share of the "craziness" of this era. Steve Phillips is probably more responsible than anyone else for the mess the Mets became post-2000. His serial zipper issues are the clear mark of a not-very-good human being, as far as I'm concerned, and far worse than anything Valentine has every done. Despite all this, Valentine remains much less welcome in Queens than Phillips. Just this past year, when SNY produced a special about Ralph Kiner, Phillips was one of many ex-Mets interviewed for the event; Valentine was nowhere to be seen.
The only conclusion I can come to is the differences in how each man handled the press. Phillips played them like a fiddle. He was legendary for the treatment he lavished on writers, from creature comforts to juicy gossip. Valentine? Not so much.
Bobby Valentine was behind the eight ball with the press in New York even before he started. He had a rep from his years in Texas as being combative with reporters, umpires, and opposing players--an entirely deserved rep, to be fair. His tendency to squawk from the highest perch of the dugout earned him the nickname Top Step, which was not meant to be a compliment. He had little collateral or good will on which to draw when he arrived in New York, and he quickly spent most of it with his preternatural ability to aggravate those who covered the Mets.
He'd been a baseball lifer, and yet the fact that Valentine managed a year in Japan (a successful but doomed campaign where he was constantly undermined by the front office) struck some as elitist, effete. His predecessor, Dallas Green, was considered an uncompromising straight shooter. In comparison, Valentine was seen as slick and sophisticated, in the worst sense of the word. In the Times, Harvey Araton summed up the prevailing mood about his arrival in Queens thusly:
With his neatly combed salt-and-pepper hair, his trim physique and his engaging smile, Valentine will come across better to Sound Bite America. He will reach out to those tarnished young pitchers, regale them with stories of the Japanese leagues, instruct them what to watch out for at the sushi bar.
Valentine did not help himself with the few members of the press who were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. His counterpart in the Bronx, Joe Torre, was adept at giving reporters what they wanted and protecting his players. Valentine pretty much did the exact opposite. If he had an issue with a player, he was not shy about airing it in public, as he did with Todd Hundley over his extracurricular activities. If he found a beat writer's question stupid, he was very bad at hiding his feelings. Worst of all, he lacked the filter between brain and mouth necessary for the modern celebrity. "Sometimes I wish I had the 'no comment' in me," he once lamented.
There's a saying about not offending people who buy ink by the barrelful, and it explains why we don't often hear about Valentine's accomplishments. He juggled his lineup on an almost daily basis to account for opponent, hot streaks, and hunches, and somehow he played his cards right more often than not. For two years--1999 and 2000--he juggled a patchwork outfield and managed to wring maximum value out of it. Though he had little patience for easily bruised egos, he was skilled at getting the most out of rookies and journeymen; the more marginalized the player was, the better they seemed to play for him (think Benny Agbayani). He was one of very few major league skippers who could engage Bobby Cox move for move in a managerial chess match.
Valentine remains the only manager in franchise history to guide the Mets to consecutive playoff appearances. Though neither team won it all, both played--at various times and to varying degrees--over their respective heads, while also taking part in some of the most amazing, heart-stopping, come-from-behind thrillers imaginable. If you want to say Valentine's influence over any of this was minimal, that's your prerogative. I personally feel a manager's role can be overstated, but I don't think it's fair to say he had nothing to do with it, either.
Valentine's infamous "disguise incident" is an emblem of his career, though not in the way most people think. It is constantly pointed to as an example of unprofessionalism and clownery. But to those who recall the context of the incident, it means something else entirely.
It occurred just after the low ebb of the 1999 season, with the Mets having finally extricated themselves from a disastrous losing streak that briefly plunged them below .500. In the middle of the Subway Series, the Mets' front office sent a warning shot across his bow by firing his three most trusted coaches. They then forced him to sit through a sham press conference, during which Phillips insisted that Valentine was not being undermined and everyone still believed in him and everything was sunshine and lollipops.
When Valentine was finally allowed to speak, he told reporters that his team was good enough to win 40 of its next 55 games. And if they didn't, he should be fired. Reporters all but made cuckoo sounds. Thereafter, every minute detail of every game became a small referendum on Valentine's ability to manage, his future calculated on an at-bat-to-at-bat basis.
Flash forward a few days later. The Mets had won three games in a row and were attempting to complete a sweep of the Blue Jays at Shea Stadium. An unexpected rally in the bottom of the ninth against David "Boomer" Wells sent the game lurching into listless extras. In the top of the twelfth, Randy Marsh called interference on catcher Mike Piazza. Valentine was enraged by the call and expressed those feelings in terms that got him tossed from the game.
Moments after Valentine was given an early exit, the Fox Sports cameras spied a lurker in the Mets dugout. Actually, the man was not in the dugout per se. The culprit was careful to make this important distinction later--mostly in a vain attempt to forestall an inevitable suspension and fine. He stood on the last step that connected the dugout to the clubhouse tunnel. On his head, a black baseball cap. Not a Mets hat, but one with an indecipherable logo. He wore a Mets t-shirt, and a cheap looking one at that, the kind of thing enterprising souls sold in the Shea Stadium parking lot to free-spending tailgaters. His eyes were obscured by a large pair of aviator sunglasses, almost Unabomber-esque. Below his nose, a laughably fake mustache painted on with eye-black.
It is the kind of "disguise" a person would wear to stand out rather than go unnoticed. Because that is exactly what Valentine wanted. In the midst of this ridiculous game, where he was tossed for arguing a ridiculous call, amid a similarly ridiculous stretch of baseball where his competence was judged on a ridiculously minute level, Valentine decided to out-ridiculous all of it.
"It was a mistake," he admitted later, "but for a moment in the emotions of a group of tight people, it was a break, and for me too."
The crime he committed, one for which some will never forgive him, was to point out that that maybe baseball didn't warrant life-and-death seriousness, or angry screeds. Maybe it could have done with a few more laughs. Isn't this is supposed to be fun? he said without speaking a word. Valentine's sin was to remind us that this was, after all, a game. If there's one place in America where this notion is more reviled than New York, it's Boston. Which is precisely why it could use such an attitude.
Please hear my plea, Red Sox fans. If Bobby V does in fact manage your team, I promise you it will be great. I'm not saying a World Series or even a playoff berth is in the cards. I am simply saying you are in for a buffet of awesomeness. And if nothing else, imagine what kind of conniptions this man could cause for Dan Shaughnessy.