Bobby Valentine stood in the middle of the clubhouse at Shea Stadium on Aug. 26, 1996, his first day as manager of the New York Mets, and assured the players he had an open mind about each of them. Then he asked them to keep an open mind about him.
For Valentine came to the Mets bearing quite a reputation: arrogant and conceited, a big mouth, an equal opportunity antagonist of opponents, umpires, anybody who strayed within range of his healthy lungs.
When Dallas Green, his bitter predecessor, suggested this spring that Valentine is generally disliked in baseball circles, he was not exaggerating.
But Valentine’s new players gave him the benefit of the doubt, and they have seen what the majority of his former players with the Texas Rangers saw: positive thinking, tireless labor, diligent preparation.
With essentially the same cast that went 71-91 a year ago, the Mets have been revitalized, and their strong play in last week’s subway series against the New York Yankees reflected his influence. Valentine, said veteran catcher Todd Hundley, “has been tremendous.”
Experience has naturally eroded the roughest edges of the 47-year-old Valentine’s personality. But then, he had to change. Even detractors acknowledge his exceptional understanding of the game and ability to teach it, and yet more than four years passed from the day the Rangers fired him to that day he got his next managerial job in the majors, with the Mets.
His reputation placed him at risk of never managing again in the majors - his consuming passion, after a terrible leg injury wrecked his career as a player.
Valentine no longer sees a need to initiate every battle possible, and to finish every fight - a marked alteration in his personality. A former member of the debate team at Rippowan High School in Stamford, Conn., Valentine thrives on confrontation. There was the time when, as manager of the Rangers, he taunted Kansas City pitcher Joe Beckwith from the dugout so badly that Beckwith uncorked a series of wild pitches.
The Royals’ manager, the late Dick Howser, was incensed, and granted permission to his pitchers to throw beanballs. At Valentine. In the Texas dugout. (No Kansas City pitcher took advantage of the carte blanche.)
There was the night, in 1983, when Valentine grew tired of all the prostitutes parading outside one of his Stamford restaurants, and loudly demanded an audience with their pimp. He was charged with disorderly conduct and spent a night in jail, but the prostitutes found another place of business.
There were all the ejections, 17 in his first four years as manager in Texas. “By 17 different umpires,” Valentine added.
There is his smile, which is what really bugs people, a smile so large it is as if someone tacked the corners of his mouth to where his wisdom teeth should be. His smile can be totally sincere and joyous. If he smiles a little wider, he conveys incredulity, and with his biggest smile, when he shows the most teeth, his mind is considering streams of sarcasm. Mary, his wife, was first attracted by Valentine’s smile. Opponents despise him for it.
Sparky Anderson, former manager of the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers, mused over the Valentine lore last week. “Now hold on,” he said. “Before you talk about Bobby, you have to go way back and look at where he’s coming from.”
Valentine is the son of a Stamford carpenter, who worked extraordinarily long hours. And Bobby, who later in life would never pass up an argument, never argued with his father. That was not done, Valentine explained, because Joe Valentine’s only motivation was to do well for Grace, his wife, and his two boys. “How could I argue with that?” Valentine asks.
Stamford had developed a strong tradition in youth baseball, winning the Little League World Series in 1951. The game, Valentine said, “was taken to another level,” under a series of coaches devoted to teaching.
Growing up, Valentine constantly competed for superlatives. The youngest player among his baseball peers. The fastest. The best hitter. A champion ballroom dancer. President of the student council. The smartest. The loudest. The biggest smile. He was the best athlete ever from Stamford, the best in Connecticut. He starred in football and track, and in baseball, and when the Los Angeles Dodgers selected him in the first round of the 1968 draft, with the fifth pick overall, he was disappointed - Valentine could not understand why the Mets had not taken him with the first pick.
Before his 19th birthday, Valentine was promoted to Class AAA in Spokane, where he played alongside Steve Garvey, Bill Buckner and others who would be the nucleus of the great Los Angeles teams for the next decade. The manager at Spokane was Tommy Lasorda, who immediately liked Valentine’s enthusiasm and talent, believing Valentine had more potential than any of his teammates.
“He had that one quality that was a little bit different,” Lasorda once said. “He had more drive to accomplish something than anybody else.”
Valentine batted .340 for Spokane in 1970, scoring 122 runs and hitting 39 doubles, 16 triples and 14 home runs, and to Lasorda, he was insufferable in a good way, always asking questions, his enthusiasm almost implausible. He would stand in center field and yell, “Let’s go Dodgers!” And of course, that annoyed some of his teammates.
He played most of the next two seasons for the Dodgers, and, Valentine acknowledges, veteran manager Walt Alston did not like him. Unlike Lasorda, Alston disliked the challenging questions, the brashness, and in spite of Valentine’s potential, the Dodgers traded him to California for Andy Messersmith, a star pitcher, who won 20 games in 1971.
Valentine was hitting .302 for the Angels when, four days beyond his 23rd birthday, on May 17, 1973, Oakland second baseman Dick Green smashed a ball toward the outfield fence. On the warning track, Valentine leaped, sticking his right leg out to brace himself against the fence. When he fell to the ground, Valentine looked down and saw his right foot folded against the side of his calf. His spikes had caught on the wall, and his leg was shattered.
He was sure, with hard work, he would be a great player again, and ran steps at Arizona State to strengthen his legs. But Valentine hit only .261 in 1974, and he asked to play winter ball in the Dominican Republic for Lasorda. The two friends agreed that Lasorda would assess his skills. Drinking beer in a cafe in Santo Domingo, Lasorda, tears in his eyes, told Valentine his injury had robbed him of his speed; he could never be a star.
Valentine would watch Garvey, Davey Lopes and Ron Cey play in the World Series in the decade to come, believing - knowing - he could have been as good as and possibly better than any of them. There had to be a reason why he did not get the chance, Valentine figured: fate. There were other plans for him, but what? “That’s the quest,” Valentine said. “That’s the push. That’s the reason for the motivation.”
Valentine played as a utilityman for four teams, including the Mets, the next five seasons before retiring at 29. He later coached for the Mets, under Davey Johnson, and was hired to manage Texas in May 1985. Ignored by Dallas fans more interested in the Cowboys and college football, the Rangers were referred to as the Strangers. Valentine sometimes made 20 appearances a week to promote the team.
The Rangers’ spring training facilities in Florida were among the worst in baseball, lacking proper batting cages. One morning Tom Grieve, the Texas general manager, was stunned to discover that overnight, Valentine had bought fishing net and built a homemade batting cage. When vandals destroyed the cage two days later, Grieve said, “It was as if someone burned down his house.”
Texas improved its winning percentage more than a hundred points in 1986, Valentine’s first full year with the team. The Rangers developed a reputation for being cocky, their players pumping their fists after hitting home runs.
Opponents bestowed the Texas manager with a nickname: Top Step, because he stood on the top step of the dugout, chin forward, ready for any confrontation. Rafael Palmeiro, then with Texas and now with Baltimore, said: “He comes across the wrong way when you’re the opponent. He’s got that arrogant look.”
Scott Fletcher, a former Rangers second baseman and now a minor league manager, said Valentine “was behind his players.”
“When you see that as a player, his confidence, you’re thinking, ‘We can do it,”’ Fletcher said.
The Rangers stagnated, however, always lacking pitching. Several players criticized Valentine after they left.
Pete Incaviglia, now with the Orioles, was the most vocal, suggesting Valentine’s communication with his players had diminished.
“He was almost like a father to me,” Incaviglia said. “He was always very positive with me. He got me really motivated every day. He was really good at that. He’s prepared, he studies the game, he’s almost obsessed by it. We really had no problem, then for whatever reason - I don’t know what they were, maybe the pressure of the job - he started to change as a manager.”
Valentine was fired in 1992, and, stung, he did not go quietly, heavily criticizing the Rangers’ scouting and farm directors, saying they did not prepare minor leaguers properly. There had to be a reason for that terrible injury he had suffered; to be fired by the Rangers wasn’t it.
Nearly three years later, Valentine accepted a job as manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan. He had the same instincts, to push and prod, but they were curbed by circumstances. Japanese custom prevented him from immediately altering the traditional methods of playing baseball, and the language barrier prevented him from verbally challenging anyone.
He would run onto the field to argue with an umpire, and by the time a translator delivered his message and the umpire answered - again, through the translator - Valentine had lost his steam and the whole thing seemed sort of silly.
“I had to fit in in Japan,” Valentine said. “That’s where I had to stop and take an overview. But I couldn’t have done that when I was 35.
“I am a little arrogant, there’s no doubt about that. I do get short when people try to tell me about things that I know about, and they’re totally incorrect. I get insulted by that. But, yeah, maybe I’ve tried to temper it. I just got tired of fighting the battle.”
Valentine is still at work at 6 a.m. many days. Mary Valentine, who after falling in love with his smile and confidence has been his wife for 20 years, jokes with him that he’s Type A+.
But he handles players, reporters, umpires differently. He rarely argues with umpires; most of his challenges occur when he thinks he can get the call reversed. If a reporter asks a stupid question, his smile reaches its zenith - and, most of the time, he refrains from belittling.
The Mets’ early success, said Incaviglia, isn’t surprising: “Bobby is prepared for every situation in the game of baseball. He’s almost like psychotic about the game of baseball. Those guys are playing for him. If it comes down to a manager winning or losing a ball game, he’s not going to be unarmed.”
His was the largest presence in the first regular-season series between the Yankees and Mets. Yankees manager Joe Torre sat back, his hat low and nearly hiding his eyes, occasionally uttering low words to his pitching coach, Mel Stottlemyre. Valentine stood, pacing from one end of the dugout to the other, smiling broadly, occasionally making his players laugh with asides.
Dave Mlicki pitched his first complete game and shutout in the opener, and thanked Valentine and pitching coach Bob Apodaca for showing increased confidence in him.
Then, in the third game, Valentine went to home plate umpire John Shulock and asked him to monitor the delivery of Yankees pitcher David Cone for balks.
Four innings later, with a runner dancing and feinting off third - another Valentine incarnation - Cone balked, Shulock called it, and the Mets scored on sheer pestilence.
The Mets players have come to respect Valentine. “He might’ve done some things when he was younger,” Franco said. “But life is a learning process. He’s been great.”
Having recited Valentine’s history, Sparky Anderson paused.
“Put yourself in his position - an injury keeps you from being the player you want to be, and you become a manager at age 35. You just take off, like a wild bull in a china shop. That was the growing period. All I can say is, you grow up, and that doesn’t mean in age. You grow up with experience. You change.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: INDIANS FANS CHEERED VALENTINE ON WAY UP In a little more than two seasons with the Spokane Indians (1969-71), Bobby Valentine showed the competitive fire he’s now instilling in the New York Mets as their manager. Valentine, who arrived as a center fielder but was quickly converted to a shortstop by manager Tom Lasorda, was one of the most talented and popular Indians during the city’s days in the Pacific Coast League. His finest season was 1970, when he led Spokane to the PCL title. He led the league in 10 categories, including winning the batting title with a .340 average, and was the league’s Player of the Year. Early in the 1971 season, he was called up by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Four years ago, Baseball America named the ‘70 Indians the best minor league team of the previous 50 years.