loves to talk. Get him going and he may not stop.
Long before he went from long-shot to being appointed manager of the Boston Red Sox, I encountered Bobby V at the Mets’ training base in St. Petersburg, Fla. He was 27 years old, an injury-plagued infielder who was trying to win the second base job with the Mets.
I was about a decade older, completing my first year as executive sports editor of the Waterbury Republican-American. As had been the case with my predecessor, Hank O’Donnell, I was covering the spring training camps in Florida for the two Waterbury newspapers. In many ways, a plum assignment.
I was aware of Valentine’s football exploits at Stamford’s Rippowam High School, where, as a swift, elusive running back, he had earned All-State honors three straight years. Floyd Little, the Waterbury-born, New Haven-raised halfback who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010, was an All-Stater just once. So, Bobby V was something special in that sport, too.
I also knew about Bobby Valentine’s rapid rise through the Los Angeles Dodgers’ farm system, and the succession of injuries that threatened to derail his baseball career.
The previous night, he’d hit a game-winning two-run home run in the ninth inning, transforming what would have been a narrow Grapefruit League loss into a 2-1 Mets victory over the Cincinnati Reds. He was, as you might guess, in an upbeat mood.
“I’ve been the player of the year wherever I’ve played…in winter ball, the minor leagues, high school,” the dark-haired Stamford native said. “I’ve done it everywhere except in the big leagues, but if I play up to my capabilities, I can do it here, too.”
Robert John Valentine, born optimist, had not hit higher than .274 in any of the three major league seasons in which he had any appreciable playing time, nor had he been permitted -- by managers or fate -- to play a full season.
“That’s why this year is so big for me,” he continued. “I’m not going to come to spring training next year and be given an opportunity to play every day. Sure, I could stay in the big leagues another six, seven years as a utility player, but that’s not really playing the game.”
Bobby V was just warning up. Joe McDonald, the club’s general manager, emerged from a doorway and headed to his car. “What’s going on? Did you do something to deserve a one-on-one interview?” McDonald cracked as he got into his vehicle. Valentine merely smiled and continued talking.
The minutes ticked by. Valentine paused in mid-sentence. “Hey, what time is it anyway?” he asked his interviewer. I looked at my watch. “One twenty-five,” I responded.
We looked at each other. The Mets’ game against the Detroit Tigers was scheduled to start in five minutes.
“Hop in,” I told him. So Bobby Valentine, attired in pinstriped uniform and cleats, glove in hand, was a passenger in my rented car for the short drive to Al Lang Stadium. He thanked me profusely and we parted.
From Player to Pennant-Winning Manager
I still chuckle when I recall that March afternoon in the warm Florida sun in 1978. Valentine never realized his potential as a player, retiring after a desultory season as a utility player with a sixth-place Seattle Mariners club in 1979. Overall, he appeared in 639 games and hit .260.
But give the man credit. Valentine persevered and remained in the game as a minor league instructor, scout and major league coach. In May of 1985, just two days after his 35th birthday, he succeeded Doug Rader as manager of the Texas Rangers.
Valentine's Ranger teams were above .500 in five of his eight seasons as the field boss -- even in 1992 when he was dismissed in July, with the club in third place.
Bobby V regrouped, spent a year as manager of Japan’s Chiba Lotte Marines and then, on Aug. 26, 1996, he returned to the big leagues as manager of the Mets, replacing the fired Dallas Green.
In New York, Valentine was alternately loved and despised during his six-plus seasons at the helm. His 1999 club assembled a 97-66 record and earned a wild card berth, defeating the Arizona Diamondbacks in four games before bowing to the Atlanta Braves, four games to two, in the National League Championship Series.
There would be a second straight wild card berth in 2000 -- plus a three-games-to-one triumph over the San Francisco Giants in the league divisional series and a four-games-to-one victory over the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League pennant. The Mets would lose the World Series to their cross-town rivals, the Yankees, in five games.
When he left the Mets following the 2002 season, the Valentine managerial ledger read: 15 seasons, 1,117 wins, 1,072 losses, one National League title, a messy trail of controversies.
The Japanese were delighted to get him back in 2003, when he returned to the Marines as manager, and he proceeded to lead the club to its first pennant in 31 years. He reportedly earned in excess of $2 million per season in the Land of the Rising Sun.
After clashes with Chiba Lotte’s president, he was fired following the 2009 season, and spent the past two years as an ESPN baseball analyst, overseeing his Stamford sports bar and being appointed Stamford’s Director of Public Safety and Public Health. During this period he was rumored to be a candidate for managerial positions in Baltimore, Florida and elsewhere, but nothing materialized.
In late November, people were stunned to learn that Bobby V had become one of the top two choices -- with Gene Lamont -- to succeed Terry Francona as Red Sox manager. On the first day of December, there he was in Boston being introduced as the franchise’s 45th manager.
How will he fare? If history repeats itself, he’ll do splendidly for a while, and then become engulfed in controversy. But, heck, a soon-to-be-62 Valentine may be more mature and better equipped to deal with overpaid players, the club’s rabid following and a show-no-mercy Boston media.
We shall see.
Don Harrison, a longtime Fairfield resident, is the author of a new book, “Hoops in Connecticut: The Nutmeg State’s Passion for Basketball.”