Nobody hires Bobby Valentine expecting peace and quiet.
That’s not the way he did business in the past, and as his latest run-in with struggling slugger Kevin Youkilis demonstrated, Bobby V. is not about to turn over a new leaf now.
Whether it meant needling opponents, umpires, his players or even his boss – Valentine rarely lets an opportunity pass without reminding everyone who is the smartest guy in the room. That explains why he was so welcome in TV studios and broadcast booths, but perhaps also why Valentine hadn’t managed in the big leagues for 10 years until the Red Sox gave him an office last winter. So if nothing else, a culture clash was inevitable.
Boston was coming off an historic collapse in the final month of last season, the last few days of which have been portrayed as a baseball production of “Animal House.” Terry Francona, who preceded Valentine in the job and won two World Series titles in his eight seasons there, conceded he’d left it to the players to police the clubhouse themselves and that by the end, a few devoted more time studying takeout menus than lineup cards. Even after leaving, Francona was reluctant to name names. That won’t happen with Valentine, who calls things as he sees `em the moment he sees `em.
So those who think he went hard after Youkilis just a few games into the season should remember when Valentine was managing the Mets and Todd Hundley, arguably his best bat, went into a slump in late August 1997. Instead of extra batting practice for Hundley – or as in Youkilis’ case, a show of more emotion – Valentine prescribed an entire lifestyle makeover.
“Todd needs to change his ways,” Valentine said at the time. “He doesn’t sleep enough. He’s a nocturnal person and he needs to get more rest. He has a tough time getting to sleep after games.”
That dig – especially the part about Hundley being a “nocturnal person” – might be a little more personal than the usual motivational fare managers dole out. But what makes Valentine’s critiques even more unnerving is that unlike the diamond – where he was often several moves ahead of more-celebrated rivals like Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox – even Valentine doesn’t always know where the endgame is off the field. He was fired abruptly after one very successful season with the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan following a tiff with the general manager, then got fired during a second stint there in 2009 despite winning a pennant and a popularity contest against the club’s president.
Much of Valentine’s tenure with the Mets was no picnic, either, including a stunt in which then-GM Steve Phillips fired his coaching staff and practically dared Valentine to stay on. He did, but lost that job eventually, too.
So all those teammates who stood up for Youkilis, saying they’ve “got his back” and “that’s not the way we go about our stuff around here” would be wise to watch their own backs. Because that’s exactly the way Valentine goes about his “stuff.”
He might have singled out Youkilis to get his teammates rallying behind him, or planting the seeds for a trade. Either way, once his comment about Youkilis – “I don’t think he’s as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason” – produced exactly the kind of manufactured controversy he specializes in, Valentine said he was simply answering a question. He then denied trying to motivate his third baseman, apologizing in one breath and then hinting he might not be done in the next.
“I’d be surprised if Kevin didn’t know I was totally behind him,” Valentine said. “We’re big boys. I think he’ll get it. If not, I’ll talk to him a lot more.”
No doubt. At this rate, unless Boston gets better in a hurry, Valentine will have talked to – or about – every one of Youkilis’ teammates by the All-Star break, apparently with the blessing of his higher-ups in the organization.
Not that it matters much. When he took the Red Sox deal, rather than focusing on why it took him so long to get back to the majors, Valentine said he was never “consumed with what I’m not doing. When I had a job, I wasn’t thinking about another job.”
What’s going to make this more interesting going forward is that the Red Sox, even coming off disappointing back-to-back seasons, are probably the most-talented team Valentine has ever been handed. They’ve made the playoffs six of the last nine seasons. If they fail to do so again, thinking about another job on a big-league bench is an option he won’t have to worry about.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.or and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.