Bobby Valentine’s Misery

The thing about Bobby Valentine: he has never finished first.

“I gave my heart, I gave my soul, and I gave every waking hour I had to the Texas Rangers organization and family… If anybody wants anything more than that, I just don’t have it to give.” — Associated Press, 7/9/1992

He’s been a manager for 23 years, 16 in the majors, two in the minors, and seven in Japan, managing five teams in total: the Texas Rangers, the Norfolk Tides, the Chiba Lotte Marines, the New York Mets, and now the Boston Red Sox. In those 23 years, he has a career record of 1817-1729-23 (there are tie ballgames in Japan). His teams have finished in second place seven times, and have gone to the playoffs four times. He took the Mets to the World Series NLCS in 1999 and the NLCS World Series in 2000, the only back-to-back playoff appearances in franchise history. He has won a championship, the 2005 Japan Series. But he has never finished first.

“It’s killing me. It’s killing my folks, it’s killing my family, it’s killing my dogs. It’s terrible.” — New York Daily News, 8/2/2002

His first managerial job was as a midseason replacement with the Texas Rangers in 1985. To put it mildly, it wasn’t just a bad team, it was a bad franchise. The team finished in last place in 1984 and 1985, and before he was hired, the team was 79 games under .500 for the decade. He managed the team for parts of eight seasons, with a single second-place finish in 1986; overall, under his tenure, the team was 24 games under .500. Better, but not by enough. When Rangers owner George W. Bush fired Valentine midseason in 1992, he explained that it was because the team was “six-and-a-half games back and not playing very well in a season we thought we ought to be in contention.”

“As I review it, and ponder it, and take advice from others who experienced it… maybe I’ll be better the next time when they’re not hitting or fielding or making the play… If I had to do anything over again, I would have smiled more, to get it lighter.” — New York Times, 10/3/2002

Bobby Valentine has been around the game forever. He’s Ralph Branca’s son-in-law. As a player, he played for Walter Alston, Whitey Herzog, Dick Williams, and Joe Torre. But his playing career was a disappointment: he was a hotshot shortstop prospect from Stamford, Connecticut who was taken fifth overall in the 1968 draft, but could never stay healthy, and never developed much plate discipline or power. He’s spent a great deal of his professional career in New York and Boston — the two cities that matter, if you’re growing up in Stamford — and both cities wound up hating him.

“Sometimes, I wish I had the ‘no comment’ in me… It’s probably a character flaw. My teachers and friends will tell you I like to contribute. I don’t have ‘no comment’ in me often. That’s a problem. Sometimes that becomes a know-it-all situation. And maybe I am a bit of a know-it-all when it comes to those conversations.” — New York Times, 2/15/1999

Perhaps, as with Billy Beane, Valentine’s managerial strategy developed from his own experience as a player, which taught him that players can disappoint and therefore are fungible. Valentine has always distinguished himself by his in-game moves, constantly tinkering with the lineup, which had the effect of drawing attention to himself. “He positively adored displays of in-game strategy,” writes Chris Jaffe in the book Evaluating Baseball’s Managers. “While managing he gave the impression that he thought he was smarter than everyone else.” But he is also thin-skinned, easily wounded, easy to offend.

“Someone had the audacity to say that I’m trying to get fired from this job, or that I want to quit – the job that I hold the highest place in any job in the country, in the world, the thing that I live and breathe and die for every second of my life… If it’s ever said again and I find the person who says it, I will get – I will not say what I will get.” — New York Daily News, 8/25/2002

Yesterday, Valentine made minor news by using the word “miserable” to describe this Red Sox season on a Boston radio station, and took great offense at the suggestion that he was “late” for a game because he had gotten caught in traffic on his way to pick up his son at the airport to see the team. Well, it is a miserable season. And that’s not entirely his fault. In the best of times, the Boston media fishbowl is claustrophobic: in the worst of times, it’s utterly unendurable. Believe me, I live here. The negativity in this town sucks.

Everyone thinks that misery is something that people run away from. I think you learn from misery, you learn from challenges, you learn from failures as well as you learn from success. So, this is what I chose to do. I think it’s been miserable, but I also think it’s been part of my life’s journey.” — WEEI, 9/5/2012

As a manager, Bobby Valentine has won more games than he has lost, and according to Jaffe’s work, which tracked his major league record from 1985-2002, he was worth +356 runs to the 15 teams he managed: in other words, something like two to three wins a year. He also has been hailed as a sabermetrically inclined manager, one who acknowledged the influence of Bill James relatively early. As Marc Normandin of SB Nation and Over the Monster wrote last offseason, “Valentine sounds like a progressive manager willing to learn in order to succeed… And he’s a baseball lifer known for ruling the clubhouse.”

“I think there’s times with Fred [Wilpon] that he really, really likes me. And I think there’s times that I really (tick) him off… I think the latter is more the exception, but Fred’s honesty with me is such that he’s told me that personally, too, which I think makes it a wonderful relationship.” — New York Daily News, 5/19/2000

On the other hand, he may be above average, but he’s also a know-it-all who’s incapable of shutting up for his own good, who has a knack for fighting fires with gasoline instead of water. His flaws are obvious, and it’s hard to argue that he does not deserve to be fired — the clubhouse discontent was so fierce this year that the team was essentially forced to trade Kevin Youkilis for pennies on the dollar. Bobby Valentine was fired in 1992. He was fired in 2002. And it looks an awful lot like he’ll be fired in 2012. Perhaps Bobby Valentine is miserable because he realizes that he deserves it.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.

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9 years ago

The Mets made the Series in 2000, not 1999.