Wednesday’s painful radio appearance may have been the day when Bobby Valentine’s petty-controversy-a-week season in Boston stopped being a source of Schadenfreude outside of New England. It revealed too much raw emotion to be lightly amusing to rubberneckers -- though it is still fascinating.
Managers of a baseball team have rough gigs. Not coal-miner rough, obviously, but not cushy. They are held responsible for the performance of employees they usually did not hire, and who make many times their salary. The hours and travel are brutal, their every mistake is scrutinized. And with only a handful of exceptions, even the absolute best among them will be fired, no matter how good a job they have done, usually more than once. For all that, it’s not at all clear exactly how much difference the world’s greatest manager could make for a bad team.
Still, since coming to the Red Sox, Bobby Valentine has set more fires than he has put out. How did things go so wrong at this particular stop? Is Boston really so different from other cities, so much harder? Did Valentine just misstep so awkwardly that he couldn’t catch himself?
I thought Valentine was a smart hire for the Red Sox. In fact, I took pains to reassure my Boston friends that he would be a good fit (friends who have now mostly stopped asking for my opinion on baseball or, indeed, anything). Like a lot of New Yorkers, I’ve been fond of Valentine since his stint as Mets manager. He squeezed a lot of juice out of the 1999 and 2000 Mets, he gave sharp and entertaining interviews, he claimed to have invented the wrap -- he was a good time. He handled a demanding fan base and media well. And it’s not just Mets fans who liked the guy: He finished second in the Manager of the Year voting with the Rangers in 1986, and was by all accounts beloved in Japan. As manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines, he led the team to a Japan Series victory, offered pre-game ballroom dancing lessons to fans and appeared in a music video. When he was fired, fans protested and delivered a petition with more than 100,000 signatures to the team.
It’s hard to reconcile the hopelessly unhappy Valentine of this week with the guy who so famously donned Groucho Marx glasses and a fake mustache to sneak back into the Mets dugout after being ejected. That incident may have become overblown over the years, but it’s emblematic of a kind of un-self-serious, Bill Veeck-ian flair that I find a welcome relief in the majors (even if it did incur a two-game suspension and a fine for “the violation of rule 5.1”). No one around the Red Sox seems to be enjoying themselves right now, except possibly sports radio hosts, which is always a bad sign.
To be clear, the Red Sox’s record is not primarily Valentine’s fault -- a baseball team’s record is almost never primarily the manager’s fault. Red Sox management recognizes that, and has repeated it again and again this summer. If the team’s pitchers had performed better, no one would be discussing players texting complaints to ownership, a saga that does not exactly evoke “Field of Dreams.” How much does any manager actually affect a team’s record? It seems clear that unless their in-game moves are insanely poor, most managers will swing a team’s record by only a handful of games; even the worst possible lineup construction, for example, will result in only a few extra losses. Those games might be critical, the difference between a playoff berth and going home in October, which is why managers do, in fact, matter -- and possibly quite a bit.
But the greatest in-game maneuvers of all time would not have turned the current Red Sox roster into a contender, nor would the worst be enough to turn these Texas Rangers into bottom-dwellers (though some Rangers fans might argue that Ron Washington seems determined to put this to the test). Buck Showalter deserves extra credit for his Orioles having won so many one-run games -- 24 at last count -- in which those managerial moves can make all the difference. But on the whole, what a manager can accomplish on the field is massively dependent on the quality of his personnel.
What’s less clear are areas of psychology, personality and morale. There is obviously no way to measure this -- no hard evidence, no numbers, nothing to prove the impact of an unhappy clubhouse. Still, many of us have had bosses who inspired us to do our best work, and others who were so disliked that the entire office became distracted and dysfunctional. It’s unknowable how many losses, if any, unhappiness and clubhouse conflict contribute. That number might be zero … but it might not be. It’s not unreasonable for teams to want a pleasant working environment for their employees. And the public relations and personnel management of the Boston job could hardly have gone worse.
The headline from Wednesday’s interview was Valentine saying, when asked if he had “checked out”: “If I were there right now, I’d punch you right in the mouth. Ha, ha. How’s that sound? Is that like I checked out?” He was kidding, albeit angrily and inappropriately (that “Ha, ha” was a bitter bark, not an actual laugh). The interview has been described as “unhinged,” but that’s overdramatic. Mostly, it was dispirited and unhappy. “I think it’s been miserable,” he said of his time with the Red Sox, “but it’s also been part of my life’s journey. You learn from misery.” These are words that might be applied to a serious medical condition.
And, asked if he wanted to come back next year: “Of course, if that's what I'm asked to do, that's what I'm going to get paid to do.” Go team.
These comments came after a week of “Who cares?” and “What difference does it make?” and batting Scott Podsednik third, then saying that it was an accident (and maybe he was kidding or, the way he’d been talking, maybe he figured that the earth would crash into the sun eventually anyway, so what does it matter?). Too much was made of Valentine being late to the ballpark after picking up his son at the airport, a nothing story, but Valentine had been talking with all the joy and optimism of a T.S. Eliot poem, and you could see why people would wonder whether his heart was really in it anymore.
According to Casey Stengel, “The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided." (Of course, even Stengel got the boot eventually.) Remember Todd Hundley, the catcher who seemed to rub Valentine the wrong way from the start of his New York tenure and who, years later, would pop up in the Mitchell Report? In 1997, in a classic example of what we would now call concern trolling, Valentine speculated to reporters that Hundley “doesn’t sleep enough. He’s a nocturnal person and he needs to get more rest.” Later he stuck Hundley in the outfield for the first time in his career, which went about as well as you’d expect. Finally the catcher was shipped off to the Dodgers for Roger Cedeno.
This was among the first things I thought of when Valentine similarly singled out Kevin Youkilis this spring. (To wit: “I don’t think he’s as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason.” Maybe Youk just needed to get more rest!) But this time it backfired. Players publicly questioned Valentine, the media wondered what he thought he was doing, and the fans didn’t buy it. It seems hard to believe that such a relatively small thing could be the turning point for a manager’s whole season. But Valentine never regained his bearings. By the time three of the team’s highest-paid players were sent to, again, the Dodgers, it was too late for Stengel’s tactics.
Beleaguered Red Sox GM Ben Cherington apparently had a brief chat with Valentine after his radio interview, the content of which was not disclosed, but presumably went something like “please don’t threaten to punch members of the media in the nose.” It seems hard to believe at this point that Valentine will be back next season, but if he is, it will be interesting to see what, if anything, he “learns from misery” -- and whether he’ll ever get another shot to recapture the fun of his earlier managing jobs. Here’s hoping he does.