BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Bobby Valentine stands behind dozens of fans at a recent Sacred Heart baseball game. He’s not hiding, as in 1999 when he was manager of the Mets and got ejected from a game but sneaked back into the dugout wearing sunglasses and a fake mustache. But he definitely is keeping a low profile.
“I don’t want to be a distraction,” says Valentine, who has been Sacred Heart’s director of athletics since 2013.
Today is a tough day for the energetic 70-year-old. The women’s volleyball Northeast Conference championship match was canceled because of a positive COVID test. Sacred Heart was unbeaten in conference play.
“I’m a little sick to my stomach,” he says.
Valentine still cares, after a more than a half-century as a player, manager, restaurateur, baseball analyst, and AD. At Sacred Heart, he has expanded programs, won championships, and raised money for the state-of-the-art $21.8 million Bobby Valentine Health & Recreation Center. Last month, ground was broken for a $70 million hockey arena.
“It’s been a great, joyful experience,” he says. “I’ve done everything that I wanted to do here.”
Being an AD is a lot different than being a big-league manager. Instead of a 40-man roster, he has 800-900 Division 1 student-athletes to oversee.
“We’ve got young, energetic people and about 80 coaches that I get to coach,” he says. “It’s just cool.”
But today the Stamford, Conn., native is concerned that there are water problems in the women’s restroom at Veteran’s Park, and that foul balls hit into the woods are slow to be retrieved.
“They are $8.50 apiece,” he says.
Valentine disagrees with those who consider being athletic director of Sacred Heart a step down from his previous job: manager of the Boston Red Sox.
“I would think that [after] the experience that a lot of people have had being a manager of the Red Sox, this would be a step up,” he says with a chuckle.
He was fired a day after the 2012 season ended, his one-year stint ending with a last-place finish in a controversial season.
“I shouldn’t have taken that job to begin with,” he says. “I should have stayed at ESPN, where I was making $2.5 million and didn’t have a care in the world, instead of working my ass off and not being appreciated for seven months of my life.”
Tumultuous times in 2012
Valentine succeeded Terry Francona after the disastrous chicken-and-beer 2011 season, with a management mandate to provide discipline. That meant a no-beer-in-the-clubhouse policy.
“They insisted on that coming from me,” says Valentine.
It didn’t go over well.
“I know a lot of guys didn’t like it, and they blamed it on me,” he says. “And I said, ‘What the [expletive]? I’m going to have a cooler in my office. You want to come in? Come on in.’ ”
He also did not choose his own coaches and felt that some were undermining him.
“It’s real hard to have disciples who are loyal to you when they don’t think that you’re responsible for them being where they are,” he says.
Valentine said he asked Kevin Youkilis for advice before spring training.
“You have to stress fundamentals,” he says Youkilis told him. “We’re terrible at fundamentals.”
Valentine introduced some highly regimented drills he learned while managing in Japan. Players didn’t like it.
“God forbid that it’s not the same as they did it before,” he says.
He also made pitchers take batting practice.
“The pitchers didn’t like hitting,” he says. “We were going to play interleague games and I couldn’t understand why they didn’t like the idea.”
In a mid-April interview with Channel 7, Valentine was asked why Youkilis was not playing like his usual self, striking out and not walking.
“I don’t think he’s as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past, for some reason,” Valentine told Joe Amorosino.
The comment created a firestorm.
“I don’t regret saying that,” says Valentine. “I was one of the only people that was Youk’s friend. I was the one trying to protect him.
“He wanted to do anything but be a Red Sox, and his back bothered him. He didn’t want to stay here. So everyone — the front office, the agent, and Youk — seized an opportunity to get him out of town, and it made my life miserable.”
He says the media “baited” Dustin Pedroia, who had not seen the interview.
“One of those brain-dead writers said, ‘What do you think about your manager criticizing Youk?’ ” says Valentine. “And he said, ‘Well, that’s not the way we do things around here.’ ”
All hell broke loose in Red Sox Nation.
“It was stupid,” says Valentine. “Stupid.”
Years later, David Ortiz wrote in his autobiography that his former manager was “arrogant.” He also called him “clueless” and “aggravating as hell.”
“I am arrogant,” Valentine says, laughing. “I think he wrote that when he was trying to sell books.
“David hurt his Achilles’ and he didn’t have a contract for next year. And I said, ‘You’ve got to make sure you’re healthy before you get back on the field. Don’t worry about the team. Worry about yourself.’ ”
Valentine says Ortiz worked hard and returned Aug. 24, getting two hits. But he reinjured his Achilles’ tendon running the bases and went back on the disabled list.
The next day, the Red Sox traded Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford to the Dodgers.
“David talked to the owners and the owners said, ‘We’re not trying to win anymore,’ ” says Valentine. “And David said, ‘Good, then I’m not going to play and risk getting an injury.’ ”
But Ortiz was furious when Valentine said in a postseason TV interview that the slugger “decided not to play anymore” because the Red Sox had given up on the season.
“What was written in the papers was that I said David quit playing. I never used the word ‘quit,’ ” says Valentine.
Beset by injuries and discord, the Sox finished 69-93, their worst record in 47 years.
“It wasn’t even a good Triple A roster,” says Valentine.
It’s been quite a journey
Still, Valentine says he enjoyed life in Boston.
“The people of Boston are spectacular,” he says. “I never got a boo at the ballpark. I mean, we should have, because it was a terrible, terrible, terrible team.”
Valentine’s life journey has been eclectic.
“My most famous thing is that I invented the wrap,” says the 40-year restaurateur, who put the ingredients of a club sandwich into a tortilla when his cheap toaster broke.
He has sung “My Girl” with the Temptations, carpooled to Shea Stadium with Tom Seaver, and watched a 5-year-old Patrick Mahomes — son of his best reliever with the Mets at the time — shag flies.
As a teenager, Valentine was a champion ballroom dancer and perhaps the greatest all-around high school athlete in Connecticut history. He was recruited by former Southern Cal football coach John McKay, who told him he would replace O.J. Simpson in the Trojans backfield.
While Valentine was at Southern Cal, a Dodger scout named Tommy Lasorda surreptitiously recruited him.
His roommate in college, in the minors, and with the Dodgers was Bill Buckner. Valentine calls it “tragic and unfair” how Buckner was forever haunted by his error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.
Valentine’s own playing career was diminished by injuries. On May 15, 1973, he was playing center field instead of his usual shortstop position for the California Angels when Nolan Ryan tossed his first no-hitter.
Angels manager Bobby Winkles was superstitious and didn’t want to change anything, so he kept Valentine playing center field. Two days later, Valentine grotesquely fractured his leg crashing into a fence.
He was just 23 years old, hitting .300, and batting third in front of future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. But he would never be the same again. He became a utility player who wound up retiring at age 29. The last guy on the bench, he says.
“I have a crooked leg and I limp,” he says, the smile fading behind the mask. “So maybe I think about it all the time.”
But mostly he counts his blessings.
Valentine became the first American manager to win a title in the Japan leagues in 2005. He was so popular as manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines that there was a beer, a hamburger, and a street named after him.
He is writing an autobiography, and the production company he co-founded is producing Peter Farrelly’s next film, “The Greatest Beer Run Ever.” It’s about a guy who brought a case of beer to his buddies during the Vietnam War.
Valentine is also teaming up with Joe Torre as executive producers on a Turner Sports documentary about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
When Valentine told the late Lasorda he was thinking about running for mayor of Stamford, his longtime mentor said, “Why not?”
He is still undecided.
“Yeah, I might. I’m considering it,” he says. “It’s a real tough road to hoe because I don’t have the ground game, but I’m figuring it out. I wouldn’t do it unless I really thought I could win.”
Winning a championship in Japan ranks as one of the coolest things he’s ever done. The team scoops up the manager and tosses him skyward three times and catches him.
“It symbolizes what it takes to be a champion, and that is you need to have trust in teamwork,” says Valentine.
“The problem with the 2012 team was they didn’t trust me. Obviously. That was my problem and theirs.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.