Though a playoff breakthrough is now a distinct possibility, a net-ready-to-gloat Bobby Valentine really hasn’t changed, His baseball acumen remains second to none–and so does his proclivity to annoy.
This being his best chance at a finest hour–maybe his last chance, at least with the Mets–you just know Bobby Valentine wants to pounce on the opportunity to stick up for himself. To get the proper care. You know that as the Mets make this final push over the next 10 days to win the N.L. East championship or the wildcard playoff berth, a post-season push that looks as if it will be successful, Valentine has the urge to crow a little, even thumb his nose at a critic or two. Or more.
Plenty of those critics would like nothing so much as to see Valentine take the fall for another Mets collapse, another season-ending losing streak like the five-game free fall that cost the team the playoffs a year ago. Valentine, foiled again, took the heat, heard the whispers, saw the knowing nods. And had nothing with which to fight back.
Now, he does. Now, this September, on the verge of the breakthrough, you’d think maybe he’d fire a few volleys, champion his cause. But he doesn’t. He won’t say a word in his behalf. Not yet, at least.
Right now, he has ground rules against that sort of thing. The rules are as much for himself as for those of us who chronicle the life and this particular time of a man now in third place on one of those hopelessly esoteric all-time baseball lists: games managed without making the playoffs. The two men ahead of Valentine (nearly 1,700 games) are Jimmie Dykes (2,962) and Paul Richards (1,837).
So he makes certain the ground rules are understood. As we travel with the Mets through a trip to Phoenix and Houston and into the September pennant stretch, we’ll talk about the team. We won’t talk about Valentine. We won’t do anything that might distract even one single player from the task at hand, even for a moment. That way, Valentine can keep himself from being the distraction. He won’t talk about October. He won’t talk about the players and coaches who hate him, and he won’t talk about the media members who belittle him. He won’t talk about the managers and general managers who disrespect him, and he won’t talk about his job security.
His insistence on staying away from all of those subjects is an indication of how much this September means to him, how much pressure he feels. But you can’t know that for certain. He won’t talk about it.
This is how adamant he is. A conversation begins, “I’d like to give you a chance to defend …” and before it continues he interrupts with a “no,” assuming that we’re headed for the troubled waters in which he swims. But the sentence finishes: “… your starting pitching, since that seems to be what people point to as the Mets’ weak link right now.”
On baseball matters–on the Mets’ starting pitching, for instance, in the very next moment–Bobby V is expansive and engaging, fascinating.
Bobby Valentine’s baseball acumen is second to none in the game today. That’s a quality his friends extol constantly as they weigh in on the Human Enigma who is the Mets’ manager. Even his enemies don’t begrudge him his on-the-field savvy. So his defense of the Mets’ starting pitchers (Al Leiter, Kenny Rogers, Masato Yoshii, Rick Reed, Orel Hershiser, Bobby Jones and rookie Octavio Dotel, a group of seven that somehow will have to be culled to three, four at most, for October’s battles, assuming the Mets are around to fight them) is worth hearing, because those starters apparently aren’t going to keep New York out of this particular postseason. Valentine is managing them to success.
“Yes,” he says, “there are individuals on other staffs who have better statistics than our guys. And, yes, there are definitely guys who have more endurance per start than our guys. But it’s a competition of nine innings. And when you play nine innings, my rested bullpen can make up some of the innings my starters don’t have in their arms. The idea is to have a quality pitcher in every inning of the game, isn’t it? So we have just as quality a game pitched as the other teams do.”
If New York makes the postseason and advances beyond the divisional playoff round, then Valentine’s game management ought to be hailed as one very big reason. He is, after all, competing against those better starting arms in other National League outposts–in Houston, in Atlanta, in Arizona. The Mets are where they are today in part because he is a master of the little things that go into wins; a slave, some would say, to detail. That, of course, doesn’t necessarily set him apart from other managers. What does, perhaps, is the excess to which he takes it.
In the seventh inning of a game in Houston, for instance, Valentine knew to expect a squeeze bunt and made an educated guess at the count on which it might come, a conclusion he reached because he’d researched the Astros thoroughly enough to know that four of their seven previous squeeze attempts this season had come on 1-1 counts. (This time, they waited for a 2-1 count, so Valentine wasted a pitchout.) Little things like that.
And this: He engineered a pickoff against the Orioles because he detected Delino DeShields on videotape shifting his right foot toward third base when he was preparing to steal second. He noticed that the shadows in Wrigley Field could give his hitters a clue about where the Cubs catcher was setting up. He saw that the positioning of a National League shortstop tipped off a changeup from a lefthanded pitcher.
Says Mets bench coach Bruce Benedict: “I tell you, my first year with him, in 1996 (at Class AAA Norfolk), I learned more baseball from him than maybe I’d learned in all my previous years in baseball.”
Whether Valentine is given credit for the Mets’ success this season, though, remains to be seen. His detractors will claim that their dead grandmothers could have managed a team as talented as these $70 million Mets into the playoffs. In that sense, Valentine, now 49, will lose a little even if he finally puts to rest the slam that he’s the only major league manager who has failed to win on two continents–a reference to his second-place finish in the Pacific Division of the Japanese League in 1995.
His Japanese club, we should note, had never finished that high before. But, like the Mets a year ago and the Texas Rangers in their 7 1/2 seasons with Valentine as manager (1985-92), the team didn’t win. For those in baseball whom Valentine has alienated, that’s his comeuppance.
“You judge a manager on how he wins, and the talent he has to win,” says Tom McCraw, the Astros’ hitting coach. “So the question in my mind is, `Has he won?’ He has not. And he’s had talent. But to me, it’s not even about the ballgame. You don’t manage a ballgame. You manage people. If you want to be a successful manager, that’s the key. So I don’t see a successful manager who doesn’t handle people very well. And I think Bobby Valentine is very short there.”
Count McCraw among the alienated. He was the hitting coach for the Mets under Dallas Green, the manager Valentine replaced in New York on August 26, 1996. When that season ended, McCraw was fired, whether by Valentine or by then-general manager Joe McIlvaine isn’t clear. But McCraw’s problem with Valentine isn’t that he was fired. It’s the word he heard later–word that Valentine had accused him of drinking during a game.
According to McCraw, some of the Mets’ coaches and players had been swapping drinking stories in an off-the-field bull session. McCraw, who lives in rural Virginia, mentioned that he hooks up with some moonshiners during his offseason there. At the urging of some Mets, he brought some of the moonshine into the clubhouse after a game near the end of the season and poured samples into tiny cups for those wanting a taste. There was never any drinking during a game, McCraw says.
“But he tried to get a writer to write that story,” he says. “The writer wouldn’t do it. Now, if you say I’m a horse– hitting instructor, that’s fine. I respect that, because that’s your opinion. But when you say I’m drinking on the job, now you’re messing with my livelihood. When you do things like that, I just don’t have any respect for you. It’s deceitful. And to this day, I don’t know why he did it…. I just know it’s a horse– way to go about life.”
The writer to whom McCraw referred asks to remain anonymous, but he confirms that Valentine told him during an off-the-record lunch conversation that McCraw had been drinking on the job. The writer, no longer on the Mets beat, mentioned it to McCraw the following year, after McCraw had been hired by the Astros. He never wrote the story.
“While Valentine didn’t tell me to write it, you know how some guys just dump stories in your lap,” the writer says. “They wouldn’t mind if they were out. You know what I mean? I just mentioned it to Mac the next time I saw him because I cared about him.”
Valentine, aware that THE SPORTING NEWS had spoken with McCraw, wouldn’t address the issue further, standing on his current ground rules. But the next afternoon in the Mets’ dugout, he says, “Did McCraw tell you that he staged a scene in my office with the writer right outside the door?”
The writer says he was in the Mets’ clubhouse when McCraw went to see Valentine, but not with McCraw and not fight outside the manager’s office. Shortly after McCraw and Valentine exchanged words, the writer says Valentine angrily confronted him for betraying an off-the-record confidence, and “it kind of got ugly.”
Where exactly the truth lies is impossible to tell, especially since Valentine won’t detail his version. But the incident is indicative of the polarity of opinion about the man. Tom House, Valentine’s former pitching coach with the Rangers, calls him “a creature of extremes.”
To be fair, for every Tom McCraw, for every Todd Hundley or Bobby Bonilla who blasts the manager publicly, there is a Valentine champion with a story to tell about his kindness and charisma.
They include former American League umpire Steve Palermo, who was shot and paralyzed in 1991 in Dallas as he attempted to break up a robbery late in the evening after he’d worked a Rangers game. Valentine, who was managing Texas at the time, and then-Oakland manager Tony La Russa organized a memorabilia collectors show to raise money for Palermo’s medical expenses.
“And Bobby and I had fought like cats and dogs on the field,” says Palermo, now a special assistant to the commissioner. “We butted heads more than a few times…. I was very pleasantly surprised (by the fund-raising gesture). You know, you saw something there that was good. You understood that there was something good about Bobby, and it came to the surface.”
In spring training with the Rangers one year, Valentine devoted a part of every day to tutoring a batboy in algebra. In Houston last month, Astros bench coach Matt Galante spent an hour hitting ground balls to one of his sons. The man taking the boy’s throws at first base? Valentine, who, despite his occasional skirmishes with the media, was honored in 1998 with a “Good Guy Award” by the New York Press Photographers Association and also received an honor from New Jersey sportswriters. He is not a scoundrel, at least not on a full-time basis.
Still, Valentine’s Type-A personality forces more than a fair share of baseball people with whom he has regular contact to choose a side. In the world Valentine creates for himself, it’s difficult to keep footing on anything like a middle ground. The list of his own players who have been public about their displeasure with him over the years is startlingly long. It includes but isn’t limited to Hundley, Lance Johnson, Bonilla (who suggested earlier this year that perhaps he and Valentine might settle their differences man to man), Pete Harnisch, Allen Watson, Bernard Gilkey, Brian McRae, Tim Bogar and Mark Clark with the Mets, as well as Rich Gossage, Buddy Bell, Pete Incaviglia and Larry Parrish, among others, when he managed the Rangers.