I’m in Orlando with the wife and kids this week, riding the Everest and Aerosmith coasters at Disney, enjoying myself mightily, and meantime glancing down to Fort Myers – spring training home of the Boston Red Sox – and preparing for what promises to be the wildest ride of all. That would be, as I am a diehard Red Sox fan, a full season (maybe more? maybe less?) under Bobby Valentine.
On the record: I was happy with the hire. Valentine is the antithesis of a small-market manager in much the same way the Sox, who open the season in Detroit on April 5, are the antithesis of a small-market team (despite John Henry’s recent tendency to convert solid United States of America dollars that might pay for frontline pitching into volatile Euros to support his latest fab franchise in Liverpool). But to the big-market point: The Sox, or at least their fans, are famously loyal, opinionated, vociferous, anxious, always-watching, always-ready-to-pounce, often unreasonable, regularly crazy, sometimes crazy-smart, prone to come up short but capable of boosting their team to do the most astonishing things in the W column. So is Bobby. Big market behavior, both cases.
A match made in pro-sports heaven?
Or will it be hell?
We cannot know, we cannot tell.
This Bobby V has already had . . . shall we say, energetic conversations with his rookie general manager. This Bobby V will employ a shift this year—he’ll employ it on occasion, we dearly hope it’s only on occasion—in which he brings our very good third baseman Kevin Youklis not just closer to the shortstop position, but all the way across the diamond to second, and then mixes and matches the rest of the infielders, each of them getting a brand new piece of real estate. He has explained his thinking on this matter in Fort Myers: “In our case in particular, because if Youk’s on the dirt, it’s a very similar ground ball that he caught at first base.” (Youk, as we know, has indeed been Deftness Personified at both first and third in recent years, but to continue with Bobby’s rationale, and with apologies grammatical for putting a colon within a parenthesis:) “He’s not around second base to turn a double play. My shortstop’s in a position that he covers the most ground on pop-ups. The DP combination is the DP combination that works together all year. Just for all the reasons. I don’t see any disadvantage to it.”
So why do all of the other teams in the major leagues do it differently? This, Mr. Valentine was very reasonably asked by The Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham. Valentine’s answer: “You kind of saw the body language of Youk yesterday. That’s why you don’t do it. You’ve got to run all the way over there and all the way back. So some managers will say, ‘Jeez, I guess he doesn’t like to do that.’ ”
Jeez indeed. And this too we expected of Valentine’s arrival: that whether or not the players on our congenitally comfortable crew don’t like to “do that,” they just might be forced to. Bobby Valentine isn’t, today, and never has been, “some managers.”
We longtime and formerly long-suffering Sox fans of course revere Terry Francona, and will do so forevermore. He will live on in our lore and legend. He won us the impossible one, plus a spare. And we lament his having been so mistreated by his team and then his ownership.
But the New England puritans among us always wondered at one thing: His protection of clearly lazy, misbehaving, malcontent players. He would obfuscate on their behalf, and regularly try to turn the press into the problem. (Ha! And now he’s commentating on ESPN!) He certainly was Manny’s enabler for years, and perhaps in the 2011 season he was the enabler of the suds-chugging, chicken-chomping starting rotation that went south in September faster and even more clamorously than had Jefferson Davis, back in the day. Terry said, on his way out of the dugout, Boston “wears on you.” Was he alluding to the media again, or to the fans, or to the Red Sox who deserted him? All of the above, probably—all of whom Bobby will now wrestle with in a vigorous tag-team match.
Anyway, we will always love Tito, and perhaps in fact we won those titles due to, and not in spite of, his tendency to enable: This could be the way of big-time sports in the new millennium. Could coddling and hosanna-ing be the new “discipline”? Time will tell. Maybe it will tell this season with the Miami Heat.
But this is a tangent. I was talking about Bobby Valentine.
He will usher Youklis to the right side of the infield on occasion, probably eliciting a guffaw from Tito on that evening’s “Baseball Tonight,” and he will also, if the evidence we’re now getting from spring training is to be believed, tick off his opposition managers by having his Red Sox infielders rush in after a pitch has been thrown, and not just on obvious bunt plays. Here they come: Charge!! It is, as the Globe’s estimable and insightful Abraham points out, quite like “a defensive linemen stunting in football, a last-second maneuver designed to confuse the offense.” Absolutely. It is also, in baseball, considered bush. Will Bobby get punched out this year? Possibly, or he’ll punch the other guy out, because he’s always been a tough guy. Will it be fun to watch? Sure. Without question. As was the wig in the recesses of Mets’ dugout.
Once, he was their wiggy guy, and now he is ours. I’ve got a weird hope that certainly is less than a prediction: That we, our particular team and market, are getting Bobby Valentine as he comes into his prime, and into a perfect situation.
Here’s the thinking: He was an athletic god growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, (New England, you see, and yes I know it’s close to New York, but . . . ) and now arrives in Boston. We, who are of Massachusetts, are nonetheless affectionate about Connecticut (kinda sorta)—it’s a member of the club. So Bobby’s almost a hometown boy. He’s become better known to us all through ESPN, and we now realize he’s darned smart. We of Boston really like smart. We also, politically and philosophically, like the fact that he went to Japan, stayed, learned the culture, learned a bit of the language.
We also like the fact (or at least I do) that he has arrived at a point in his life and career where perhaps—and the evidence from Fort Myers implies it—his attitude will be: I’m going to be fair, forthright, funny, and we’ll do it my way, and if it doesn’t work out, then fire me, and if you don’t like it in the meantime, take a hike. Lots of AARPers arrive at such a point in their careers, or such an event in their lives—it could be a medical report—and, believe me, for all the pink-hat Sox fans in the bars along Lansdowne Street, there remain lots of AARPers in the Bosox fandom.
We know Bobby got injured, never made the big splash predicted of him while persevering in pain between the lines. We know he gives tons to charity, runs a sports bar in his hometown where he is eternally beloved, and is coming to Boston with an overload of energy and perhaps a last-battle, do-or-die mentality. The time could be right. We’re rooting for him.
Well, we’re rooting for us.
Robert Sullivan, Managing Editor of LIFE Books, is the author of, among other books, the memoir Our Red Sox: A Story of Family, Friends and Fenway.