FORT MYERS, Fla. - He inherited an underachieving team that currently lacks a shortstop, a right fielder, and two starting pitchers. There are holes in the bullpen, a lack of legitimate prospects on the roster, and perhaps an attitude problem in the clubhouse.
Oh, and the competition throughout the league is getting better.
But when Bobby Valentine took a seat and addressed the many questions surrounding the 2012 Red Sox, there couldn’t have been a happier man in all of baseball.
Back in the major leagues after a nine-year hiatus, Valentine talked for 28 minutes about his hopes for this team and how best to blot the stain left from last season’s collapse. It left him sounding almost poetic.
“I grew up waiting for the grass to get green and the tulips to come up and the weather to get warm and the snow to melt,’’ he said. “It’s the greatest part of the year for me. It was more than Christmas. It was more than birthdays for me. I think a lot of people in our region empathize with that and understand it’s a new beginning. That’s what spring is; it’s a new beginning. It’s a time for excitement.’’
Pitchers and catchers reported yesterday and the full squad will gather later in the week. When Valentine addresses the team, he does not plan to lecture the players about last season.
He’s the manager because of what happened. His job is to look ahead.
“I hate to paint all of them with the same brush,’’ Valentine said. “Many of them weren’t here. Many of them have no reason to feel they need to erase anything of their past. This is 2012, this is the year that could be the most special year of their life. That is definitely a message I want them to understand regardless of what happened last year whether they were in Korea, Boston, or the National League West. I want them to think that this is a special year.’’
Valentine was surprised by how many pitchers arrived in camp early and ready to take the mound. He is impressed with the attitude shown by bad-behavior poster boys Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, buoyed by the return to health of Clay Buchholz, and intrigued by the potential of Daniel Bard as a starter.
Valentine also can’t wait to see what kid shortstop Jose Iglesias can do and thinks young lefthander Felix Doubront looks terrific.
Asked whether this is the most talented roster he has managed, Valentine didn’t hesitate.
“Yeah,’’ he said. “That’s easy. Easy.’’
Valentine soon will introduce the Red Sox to his style of spring training, one of constant motion and attention to detail. There will be no pitchers shagging flies during batting practice. Those balls will be picked up later. Every minute will be a productive one.
“Spring training for me is simply a foundation that you’re going to build as you move forward,’’ he said. “Players need confidence. Coaches need confidence. Managers need confidence. The way you build confidence, I think, is through repetition.
“When you play before 50,000 people and you’re on national TV and the bases are loaded and you’re on the mound or at the plate or there’s a line drive in the gap, you have to have the courage to do what you think you need to do. Right here is where that courage begins.’’
Valentine is not consumed with setting the roster or making out a lineup. He said American League teams used an average of 101 lineups last season, so trying to settle on one combination is not necessary.
And his experience is that Opening Day stars often end up back in the minors a month later.
“It’s an imperfect science, this picking of a team in spring training,’’ Valentine said.
Valentine was a wildly successful manager in Japan after being fired by the Mets following the 2002 season. He then spent two years at ESPN. He does not see returning to the majors as a hurdle.
“I hope I make it out of spring training and if I do I’ll take it one day at a time,’’ he said, laughing. “Your biggest challenge is your next challenge. This is my next challenge. There’s no discounting the fact that this is what it is. I’m not going to downplay it.’’
That will be his message.
“I believe reality is one of the things that determines your future and your results,’’ he said. “In dealing with reality, the reality is that we’re being challenged this year.
“We’re going to be challenged internally, we’re going to be challenged externally by the teams we’re going to have to play against. Sometimes it’s the great challenge that brings out the best in people, and I hope that the best can be brought out of this group.’’