The first major firestorm between manager Bobby Valentine and a Red Sox player came to a head Monday morning when Kevin Youkilis responded to criticism from Valentine on WHDH’s “Sports Xtra’’ Sunday night.
But after a 1-0 loss to the Rays Monday, all the parties involved believed the situation had been resolved.
The controversy began Sunday night when Valentine was asked about Youkilis not being “Youk-like’’ to start the season. Youkilis is hitting only .200 with eight strikeouts, no homers, and only three RBIs in his first 30 at-bats. He didn’t play Monday because of a sore groin.
Valentine said, “I don’t think he’s as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason. But [Saturday] it seemed, you know, he’s seeing the ball well, got those two walks, got his on-base percentage up higher than his batting average, which is always a good thing, and he’ll move on from there.’’
Monday Valentine apologized to Youkilis for upsetting him, and said he had two conversations with the third baseman during Monday’s game and thought things were fine.
The situation surprised Valentine, who said when he saw Youkilis walk into his office early Monday, “I thought it was about his groin. I thought he was going to tell me how his groin was, and I said, ‘Hey, how’s the groin?’ and he said, ‘Well, all right, but what’s going on?’
“When he told me that people called him and told him that I said things that he didn’t like, I totally apologized,’’ Valentine said. “I said the last thing in the world I want you to think is that I’m doing anything to criticize you. I was giving an answer to a question and I should’ve been more specific and said your physical was about your swing and your emotional was not being happy when you don’t hit a ball off the wall.
“I don’t know if he accepted my apology, but it was very sincere,’’ Valentine said. “I didn’t want him to think that this was anything but an answer to a question that seemed to be jabbing at him. I was just trying to smooth it over and I guess that I didn’t.’’
Youkilis said after the game that he had spoken to Valentine and said, “We’re fine.’’
Earlier Monday, Youkilis said, “I’m more confused than anything because everyone knows I go out and play the game as hard as I can. It’s just my style of play. I was never blessed with the raw tools.’’
Youkilis said he didn’t hear the comments himself, he said they were relayed to him by his agent, Joe Bick.
“That’s not what I see,’’ Youkilis said. “I go out every day and play as hard as I can - take every ground ball in the morning, take every at-bat like it’s my last. I don’t think my game has changed at all. I still get upset with myself. I still get mad.’’
Second baseman Dustin Pedroia early Monday had responded with comments defending Youkilis and criticizing his new manager, but he also said he later met with Valentine and indicated all was well.
“[Pedroia] said we’re cool,’’ said Valentine.
Pedroia had been asked if Valentine was trying to motivate Youkilis. “Maybe [that works] in Japan or something, but over here in the US we’ve got a three-game winning streak and we want to feel good and keep it rolling,’’ he said. “We feel we have a good team and we’ve just got to get each other’s backs and play together. If you don’t do that, I don’t care what sport you’re playing, you’re not going to win.
“We’ve got Youk’s back. He’s played his ass off for us for a long time. I don’t know what Bobby’s trying to do, but that’s not the way we do things here.’’
Pedroia seemed to backtrack from those comments after the meeting with Valentine. “Everything’s fine,’’ Pedroia said. “We talked about it. We’re good.’’
General manager Ben Cherington wound up mediating the dispute.
“I think, as with many things in baseball and life, the more you get a chance to talk about it and understand what people’s [meanings] were and how they perceived something, that’s what allows you to get past it,’’ Cherington said. “Kevin and Bobby spoke. I spoke to Bobby, I spoke to Kevin. What needed to be said has been said and we’ll move forward.’’
The GM said repeatedly after speaking to Valentine he felt the manager’s quote didn’t reflect what he was trying to say.
“I was surprised to see the quote,’’ Cherington said. “I was surprised, because that’s not something Bobby had expressed to me. And we’ve all seen Kevin play for a long time and never wondered why he wasn’t into the game. He plays hard every day. That’s why it’s important to talk about it. I understood better what happened and we were able to talk through it.’’
Asked what he thought Valentine was trying to say, Cherington said, “Bobby hadn’t seen the same player on the field we’ve all seen in the past and he acknowledged that, but the way he expressed that was not the best way of expressing it. He told the same thing to Kevin and apologized. He had a chance to explain what he meant. I think we’ll all learn from it and handle it differently next time.’’
Cherington added, “I think Bobby wishes he had expressed that sentiment to Kevin first. That’s normally the best policy,’’ but he doesn’t believe there should be a blanket policy when a manager criticizes a player publicly.
Valentine’s predecessors - Terry Francona, Grady Little, and Jimy Williams - didn’t criticize players in public.
Asked if Valentine has learned from the situation, Pedroia said, “I’m not sure, you’ll have to ask him, I can’t speak for Bobby.’’
He would not elaborate about what was said at the meeting.
This is Valentine’s 16th season as a major league manager; Monday’s game was his 2,199th. He had been away from the major leagues for 10 years, managing in Japan for six seasons and also working as an analyst for ESPN.
Will this hurt the trust between Valentine and the players?
“I think trust evolves,’’ Cherington said. “I don’t know what impact it will have. The more you talk and the more you understand each other’s position, you’ll have trust. There was a lot of talking between players, Bobby, and me. We used that opportunity to build trust.’’
Valentine said he understands his reputation for being frank about players.
“There’s a perception that I’m going to criticize players in the paper or the press,’’ he said. “So as soon as I say something that’s construed as criticism, it’s going to be misinterpreted.’’
Asked if it was a fear before taking the job, he said, “It wasn’t a fear, it was an understanding. It’s what it is and until people want to understand what it really is instead of making it up, what they want it to be, there’ll be confusion. I think everyone will eventually understand what it really is.’’
About Youkilis, Valentine said, “We’re big boys and I’m sure he’s going to get it and if not I’ll talk to him a lot more and figure out what it takes, but I’d be surprised if Kevin doesn’t know that I’m totally behind him in good times and in bad.’’Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.