Bobby Valentine slumped into a chair in the interview room following a night game early in spring training. Everybody in the room, the manager included, had to be up early the next day for a game in Sarasota, 90 miles away from Fort Myers, Fla.
After five minutes of perfunctory questions and answers, Red Sox media relations director Pam Ganley offered a hopeful, ‘’Anything else?’’ trying to bring an end to the proceedings.
A reporter from Japan asked Valentine about Junichi Tazawa, a young reliever who had thrown an inning that night.
Valentine sat up straight, his eyes bright and his restless hands moving so quickly that he knocked the microphone over.
‘’I’m not a believer in Tazawa pitching out of the windup, first off,’’ he said. ‘’I don’t get it. He needs to, I guess, get that windup down a little better and keep that ball down.
‘’I’m not a believer in the windup, period. I don’t get it. You throw your most important pitches of the game out of the stretch, so you have to be more effective out of the stretch.
‘’Men are on base when you’re pitching out of the stretch. So if that’s where you can throw your best pitches, why are you teaching yourself to throw twice, two different ways?
‘’It’s just a crazy thought, but I think if we were just starting the game right now, we wouldn’t teach anybody a windup.’’
Valentine, in full baseball evangelist mode, went on to explain that it is easier for a pitcher to break a hitter’s rhythm out of the stretch. He also pointed out that successful Japanese pitchers Hideo Nomo and Yu Darvish generally eschew the windup.
‘’Take a guy like Daniel Bard who throws 100 miles an hour out of the stretch,’’ Valentine said. ‘’You think he’s going to throw 106 out of the windup? Probably not, right?
‘’But I know it’s not going to happen. Another lifetime, it will all come to pass. It’s just one of those things, just another stupid statement late at night. Somebody will say, ‘Can you believe that idiot said that?’’’
Red Sox pitching coach Bob McClure didn’t use that language. But he did wave off Valentine’s comments a few days later.
‘’He wasn’t a pitcher,’’ said McClure, who most assuredly was.
Valentine thinks he invented baseball; that’s the inevitable comment made when he launches into late-night dissertations about windups or why rosters should be expanded in April and not September. His detractors hate it when he stands on the top step of the dugout, smiling as though he’s in on a joke that nobody else gets.
But what the Red Sox learned during spring training is not that their new manager thinks he invented the game. He just wants to perfect it to the degree that he is able.
‘’This,’’ said third baseman Kevin Youkilis, ‘’is going to be a very interesting season.’’
Playing it one-on-one
During his 19-year career, lefthander Al Leiter played for Billy Martin, Lou Piniella, Cito Gaston, Jim Leyland, Jack McKeon, and Joe Torre. Those managers account for 11 World Series titles.
But the most Leiter learned about baseball came during the five years he spent with Valentine, who has never won a Series.
‘’I went through I don’t know how many spring trainings and we always did all the usual drills, the same old bull, and nobody explained why we did it; they just told us to do it,’’ said Leiter, a lefthanded pitcher who now works for YES and the MLB Network. ‘’But when I played for Bobby with the Mets, he explained it and added to it.
‘’I found it interesting, I really did.
‘’Is he going to get on your nerves? Absolutely he will. If you’re sensitive, you’ll have some issues. But I had some of the best years of my career when I played for him and it was because I was prepared to pitch. He made sure of that.
‘’My advice to the Red Sox players is to listen to what he tells you and don’t worry about what he says to the media. If you listen to him, you’ll be a better player.’’
One Red Sox veteran said he spoke more to Valentine individually in this spring training than he did to Terry Francona in the previous three years.
‘’At first I was like, ‘Where is this guy coming from?’’’ said the player. ‘’Tito would let the coaches talk to you or just expect you to get better. Bobby tells you what he thinks to your face.’’
General manager Ben Cherington has taken notice of that dynamic.
‘’Tito and Bobby, the end game is the same,’’ said Cherington. ‘’They both want badly to win. They both live and breathe and sleep baseball. They just go about it differently, their personalities are different.
‘’Where I’ve seen Bobby have the most impact is one-on-one with a player. That’s the biggest intangible benefit, the one-on-one interaction with the player and the information he’s getting across to help them become better. You see the adjustments being made on the field.’’
Pure love of the game
But that degree of individualized attention comes with a price. Although Francona never uttered a word of criticism in public when a player performed poorly, Valentine will use the media to try to further his point.
When relief pitcher Mark Melancon allowed three runs in a spring training game, Valentine joked at his postgame news conference that the righthander did a good job of backing up the bases after giving up so many hits.
On a day when it appeared that Daniel Bard had pitched well, Valentine took the opportunity to point out he had thrown only one changeup, a pitch he needed to be working on.
When he sent designated hitter David Ortiz out to play first base early in spring training, Valentine wondered aloud why that was newsworthy.
‘’He has a glove, right?’’ asked the manager, jabbing slightly at a player who was immune from criticism from Francona, even when he burst into a news conference last season and started cursing.
‘’That’s life,’’ said Valentine. ‘’When you meet a person you don’t know before, you have to try and understand who they are and what they’re saying. That’s what life is.
‘’If this was easy, then everybody would have an easy time of it. But nothing is easy.
‘’To be honest, I think I’m adapting more to them than they’re adapting to me.’’
Valentine doesn’t need the Red Sox. He took a pay cut to leave ESPN, where he spent two seasons as an analyst. He also owns a successful restaurant in his hometown of Stamford, Conn.
At 61, he could lead whatever kind of life he wants. He has friends in all walks of life and interests in activities ranging from downhill skiing to raising collies.
But Valentine can’t resist baseball. He never could.
‘’Half the time, I question why I came back,’’ Valentine said. ‘’It’s my love of the game. I can’t think of any one reason other than I really love the game. I like to continue to do things that I love.’’
Since he was old enough to pick up a bat, Valentine has been in uniform for all but three years of his life. But even then, he stayed around the game. He joined ESPN in 2003 after being fired by the Mets and again in 2009 after leaving the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan after six seasons as their manager.
One popular theory is that Valentine sees the Red Sox as his best chance to finally win the World Series and validate his career.
‘’That’s not it,’’ he said. ‘’Winning a World Series, if that made me something different than I am today, then shame on everybody in the world, including myself.
‘’But I am with a team that has a terrific group of players and there’s no reason we should not be in it to win it. That’s why I’m here.’’
Dustin Pedroia, whom Francona treated like his second son, has come to realize that.
‘’You hear a lot of things about Bobby,’’ he said. ‘’But the guy loves the game and he wants to win. What else matters?’’
Challenging the perceptions
Valentine has been a managerial defibrillator in his career, shocking squalid teams back to life with his energy.
The Texas Rangers went from 62 victories to 87 in their first full season under Valentine in 1986. The Mets improved by 17 victories once they spent an entire season under Valentine.
In 2004, Valentine took over the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan’s Pacific League. A team that had not been to the Japan Series since 1974 won the title in his second year and also took the Asia Series.
Valentine challenged the 2005 major league World Series champion Chicago White Sox to play a ‘’real’’ World Series. They passed, of course.
‘’Bobby changed the way we played and made us better,’’ said Tsuyoshi Nishioka, a Chiba Lotte infielder in 2005 and now a member of the Minnesota Twins. ‘’For the players, it was a great experience.’’
Now Valentine is back in the majors, having pursued the Red Sox job after dalliances with the Marlins, Blue Jays, and other teams in recent years. So eager was he to return to managing that he agreed to a two-year contract with two team options.
If Valentine can do for the Red Sox what he did for the Rangers, Mets, and Marines, playoff baseball will return to Fenway Park for the first time since 2009. All he has to do now is convince his players that he’s here for them and not for the greater glory of Bobby Valentine.
‘’I know the perception,’’ he said. ‘’Someone will hear something or think something that confuses what is really happening.
‘’The only thing that I desire, and I’ve always desired, is for every player to have his best season ever and for every team to look like the team is playing together as a group.
‘’What takes a long time is for people to understand, and for the players to understand, is that, more than likely, exactly what I want is what they want. They always think it has to be something different.
‘’Reputation is what other people think about you. Character is what you are. It takes a little longer to figure out a person’s character. It’s really easy to read about his reputation or have somebody else tell you.’’
‘He’ll stir it up’
Valentine called for a suicide squeeze in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Yankees March 22. It tied the game, ostensibly sending it to extra innings.
But Yankees manager Joe Girardi sent his team to the clubhouse, saying he was out of pitchers. Valentine complained, pointing out that the Yankees actually had several left on their roster.
‘’I didn’t think that that was very courteous,’’ Valentine said.
The mini-controversy made headlines.
‘’I laughed when I saw that,’’ said Tom Grieve, who hired Valentine when he was the general manager of the Rangers. ‘’That’s Bobby. He can’t help himself. People in Boston will love when he takes those digs at the Yankees. He’ll stir it up.
‘’He’s going to demand a lot of those players and maybe you’ll find some who don’t like that. But they need to give him a chance. He cares about them, I promise you that.’’
Grieve said that in 1986, when the Rangers held spring training at decrepit Pompano Beach Municipal Stadium in Florida, Valentine took it upon himself to solve the shortage of batting cages by buying fish nets from a local bait shop and building a cage himself.
‘’He was so proud of that cage,’’ Grieve said. ‘’Then that night some vandals stole the nets after we used it one day. But he wasn’t mad. He was still proud of himself for building it.
‘’He used to go out on the field with boots on and rake up the mud so the players could have a decent surface. He cares about his guys.’’
Grieve, who now broadcasts Rangers games, lauded Cherington for hiring Valentine.
‘’You have to be strong-minded about Bobby because people out there will bad-mouth him. They’ll say he’s a cocky [expletive] and all that,’’ Grieve said. ‘’But his single-minded purpose is to build a team that wins and a team that the organization and fans can be proud of.’’
Ask Valentine if he is having fun as manager of the Red Sox and you get a surprising answer.
‘’No,’’ he said. ‘’It’s been enjoyable, I guess, in that it’s been fulfilling. I go to sleep at night feeling very satisfied and can’t wait to wake up the next morning.
‘’But I think it’s been so much work it hasn’t been fun. I can’t consider it fun.
‘’Fun is that thing that you’re prepared for something and what you prepared for came to fruition and you saw it happen. That’s fun because it wasn’t time wasted. I don’t know how much other fun I need in life.’’
So check back in October?
‘’Oh yeah,’’ Valentine said. ‘’I think we’re going to have some fun.’’