Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 1, 2011

The Bobby V Show Comes To Fenway

The Red Sox finally ended their unusually lengthy search for a new manager; and the news that Bobby Valentine is coming to Boston brought a tidal wave of reaction. In chat rooms, posted comments to assorted blogs, and on sports talk radio, fans have been having their say. It’s seems like no one is neutral when it comes to Valentine. Supporters hail him as a brilliant and innovative student of the game who will bring needed discipline to the Red Sox clubhouse. Detractors dismiss him as a self-aggrandizing blowhard with a reputation for antagonizing both players and management, “the president and CEO” of his own fan club, as one put it. In the case of the complex Valentine, a 61-year old man who still goes by “Bobby,” both sides are correct.

Valentine became the youngest manager in the majors when the Texas Rangers lured him away from his job as third base coach for the Mets one month into the 1985 season. His best year in Texas was 1986, when the Rangers finished second in the AL West, twelve games over .500. While he was unable to top that mark in his remaining five-plus seasons in Arlington, he managed to keep the Rangers competitive in every year except 1988. That was no small feat given the resources at his disposal. Fans responded as attendance more than doubled from the year before Valentine was hired. For his troubles he was fired midway through the 1992 campaign despite having a winning record of 45-41 at the time. After his departure, the Rangers promptly sank below .500 and into fourth place.

In 1995 Valentine made his first foray to Japan, managing the Chiba Lotte Marines. Perennial doormats of the Japanese Pacific League, the Marines responded to Valentine by soaring to a second place finish. Despite that success, conflict with the team’s general manager led to Valentine’s two-year contract being terminated after just one season.

He returned stateside and became the manager of the Mets Triple-A affiliate. With a month to go in the 1996 season, Valentine got the call to take over at Shea Stadium when Dallas Green was dismissed. It was as the Mets manager through the end of the 1992 season that Valentine built both sides of his reputation. Losers of 91 games in 1996, the Mets improved by a remarkable 17 games in Valentine’s first full season on the bench. Helped mightily by the acquisition of catcher Mike Piazza early in the 1998 campaign, New York matched its 88 win total from 1997 and missed a Wild Card berth by just one game.

In both of the next two seasons Valentine took his team to the playoffs, both times as the NL Wild Card. In 1999 the Mets lost the NLCS to Atlanta, but one year later they made it all the way to the World Series. There they ran into their cross-town rivals from the Bronx, who were in the midst of cementing Joe Torre’s reputation as a Hall of Fame manager. The Mets were cast in the role of spectators as the Yankees rolled to their fourth championship in five years. Still, for resurrecting a team that had gone through six successive losing seasons, and doing so in the media spotlight of Gotham, Valentine was hailed by many as a managerial genius.

But while he had his team winning on the field, Valentine was also showing his dark side. After being ejected from a game in 1999, he donned a Groucho mustache and attempted to return to the dugout in the feeble disguise; a stunt that earned him a $5,000 fine. He was quick to publicly castigate players who he felt were not performing, and also engaged in an increasingly acrimonious relationship with general manager Steve Phillips. By the end of the 2002 season, management had had enough, and Valentine was fired.

He returned to Japan for six successful seasons again at the helm of the Chiba Lotte Marines. In 2005 the Marines won their first Pacific League pennant in 31 years; and went on to sweep the Hanshin Tigers in the Japan Series, as well as defeat the Samsung Lions of the Korea Baseball Organization in the first-ever Asia Series. But despite his steady success and enormous popularity with the team’s fans, Valentine once again found himself at odds with management. He was let go after the 2009 season, despite a fan petition that gathered more than 112,000 signatures.

So now, after a stint as a loquacious ESPN analyst, Valentine returns to a major league dugout for the first time in nearly a decade. He does so in Boston, where the media scrutiny and the demands and expectations of the fans are all second only to New York. He supporters will point to his record of turning around teams, often ones without great talent. They will argue that after the revelations of the in-game fried chicken and beer parties in the Red Sox clubhouse during the club’s September slide, Valentine’s firm hand is just what’s needed. His detractors will remind anyone who will listen that no Valentine-led team has ever won a division title, and that he’s only been to the post-season twice. He certainly won’t lack for talent at Fenway Park. While the Red Sox have a few holes to fill, Valentine should be able to improve on his lifetime .510 winning percentage by doing nothing more than showing up every day and filling out the same lineup card.

But one can’t help but wonder if Valentine is fully prepared for the ways in which the game has changed since he last managed in the majors. Salaries have increased by almost 50%, and that increased wealth has resulted in an increased sense of entitlement on the part of many players. In 1997 Todd Hundley did not take kindly to press reports that Valentine had criticized the Mets’ catcher for late nights out and a lack of effort. The first Red Sox star who finds a Valentine barb splashed across the back page of the Boston Herald will likely make Hundley’s reaction look tame. And then there is the matter of just how long Boston’s strong-willed and opinionated ownership team can co-exist with the strong-willed and opinionated Valentine, when the day inevitably comes that those wills and opinions differ.

The Boston Globe website was inviting fans to participate in two decidedly unscientific surveys on the day Bobby Valentine was introduced as the replacement for the most successful manager in Red Sox history. One asked if Valentine was the right choice, and by mid-afternoon 60% of respondents were saying yes. The second asked how long Valentine would stay, and nearly as high a percentage of fans were voting for just one or at most two years. In both cases, that sounds about right.

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Responses

  1. i felt a lot better about him after watching the presser today. it’s certainly not going to be boring.
    maybe he’s changed since 1997…


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