Bobby Valentine hits ground running with Red Sox
FORT MYERS, Fla. – Not even a day into camp and Bobby Valentine had earned himself a reputation among his Boston Red Sox players. Valentine brought plenty with him to his first Red Sox camp: knowledge, experience, baggage and a self-assuredness that familiarizes itself through a cocksure walk and big talk. What they didn’t expect were his paranormal powers.
Just watch, they said before the first official workout of the spring, and they emphasized the watch part. Because out of everything, those who arrived early noticed, they least expected the 61-year-old Valentine to move around with such vigor. Bobby V? ADD. Or Jolt Cola. Maybe 55-Hour Energy.
“He goes so fast he’s like a ghost,” shortstop Mike Aviles said.
Throughout the hour-plus-long workout, Valentine indeed conducted a manic and maniacal mystery tour among the four fields at the gleaming JetBlue Park complex. He flashed in and out of fields, snuck up on unassuming players, dispensed wisdom in chunks and even played catch with a pitcher who never before had thrown with a manager.
After nine years away from the major leagues, Bobby V was back. And he made sure everybody knew.
Lap 2, Leg 3
Split: 1 minute, 14.1 seconds
Field Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 6 surround a central hub, like petals on a Gerbera daisy. Fans mill about and discuss last year and this year and Bah-bee and anything and everything. The complex was Lee County’s $78 million gift to the Red Sox to ensure they spent six weeks each spring here. The Red Sox sell hamburgers and Fenway Franks and watch the cash register churn like it does everywhere in their empire.
Each field housed a station for pitchers Tuesday. One was for pickoff moves and the other three for fielding a ball and throwing it to first base, second base and home plate. Rare was the time Valentine spent more than two minutes at any individual station.
For months, he had prepared for this day. His first posture was statue still, hands in the pockets of a light pullover, observing, gleaning, sponging. If Rodin ever made a baseball version of The Thinker, this would’ve been it. Valentine had asked the Red Sox’s video staff to put together clips of pitchers making successful fielding plays to run on a loop in the clubhouse before, during and after the workout. He wanted to emphasize visual and mental reinforcement and plans to do the same with relays and rundowns when the position players arrive.
“I like to see it and feel it,” Valentine said.
Once he broke his pose, Valentine resigned himself to chasing the action like a dog its tail. ‘Round and ‘round he went, the man with whom the Red Sox plan on building their brand and future, his legs unwitting companions to his brain’s hyperactivity.
Valentine zoomed from one edge of Field 3 to another, complete with a pit stop to walk a circle around that group of pitchers and take in that scene, in less than 1:15. Valentine walked into the adjacent bullpen. He pulled out a Flip cam and recorded a few seconds of minor-league free agent Doug Mathis and moved on.
“Just like he wants to learn us, we’re all trying to learn him now,” outfielder Carl Crawford said. “See how he does things.”
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More than anything, the Red Sox want to answer one question, something that won’t reveal itself for weeks, maybe longer: How much of this Bobby V persona is posturing and how much is real?
Lap 4, Leg 2
Split: 1 minute, 11.2 seconds
Between field Nos. 4 and 5, fans get their closest peek at uniformed personnel. Every time Valentine came through, someone would ask for an autograph. He tried to be kind: “I really have to work,” he’d say. The key, it turned out, was rudeness. One woman assaulted Valentine’s personal space, shoved a ball into his gut like a quarterback delivering a handoff to a running back and saw him oblige, perhaps because he feared a shiv coming next.
Valentine made sure to hustle after that incident, his teaching best unencumbered by distractions.
“Now we’re talking!” he yelped. “Yes!”
“Balance, balance, balance,” he implored.
“When you shuffle, keep that back foot square,” he emphasized.
Last September, the Red Sox lost all sense of fundamental baseball. It wasn’t just the 10th Commandment: Don’t drink beer and eat fried chicken during games. It was the subpar fielding, the wild swings, the wretched pitching, the wrongheaded baserunning. Manager Terry Francona, fired after the debacle in September, didn’t only let the Red Sox’s clubhouse devolve into “Lord of the Flies,” millionaire-style; he watched as they exuded sloppiness in uniform, too.
So the hiring of Valentine, micromanager extraordinaire, was part of a concerted effort, in the words of new general manager Ben Cherington, to “increase the level of accountability in certain areas.” Rather than put the Red Sox’s best pitchers together in a group like Francona did, the new manager went along with pitching coach Bob McClure’s plan to separate Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz – for leadership reasons, Valentine said. Or perhaps so they can witness the hunger in young players who still take pitchers’ fielding practice seriously.
“He eats and sleeps and breathes baseball and spends every waking moment trying to think of ways to help players and help the team get better,” Cherington said. “So it’s not surprising to see him so active. It’s good to see. We’re getting a lot done in a short amount of time. It’ll be fun to see how his spring training evolves.”
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Not at this pace, unless Valentine craves burnout for the whole organization. They’ve got bigger goals in mind than peaking in March. After his hiring, Valentine touched base with every core Red Sox player. During one conversation, newly acquired reliever Mark Melancon said he asked Valentine how he felt to be in the organization.
Valentine’s response: “Excited to be on a World Series team.”
Lap 5, Leg 4
Split: 48.6 seconds
Valentine’s fastest leg of the day included his best line. As he jogged across Field 5, reliever Matt Albers – listed at 225 pounds, perhaps after starting the scale at minus-20 pounds – tried to toss a bunt home and flubbed the play.
Bobby V didn’t even stop to pull the trigger on his run-by shooting: “Your body will take it there, and that’s a lot of body to get it there, too.”
There were laughs. Already on that field Valentine had warned pitchers he doesn’t like when they use their glove to scoop the ball toward home plate and that when a ball is dead on the ground, it’s best to pick it up barehanded instead of swiping at it with a glove.
The line between advice and platitude is thin, especially to a team loaded with veterans. Players hone their BS detectors early in their careers. As rookies, everyone bombards them with suggestions. The best learn to winnow that list of advisors and apply such counsel judiciously. Whether Valentine resides in most players’ inner circles will determine, as much as anything, his success in Boston.
He does have a career .510 winning percentage. He made a World Series with the New York Mets. He won a championship managing in Japan. He dispensed commentary on TV – some of which angered Beckett. And just in case anyone worried he was too serious, too eat-sleep-and-breathe baseball, he got kicked out of a game and re-entered the dugout wearing a fake mustache.
If there is baseball knowledge, truth or aphorism, Valentine tucks it deep into the reservoir inside his head, from which he later can pluck it. Between his 10 seasons playing in the major leagues and 15 years managing, Valentine has soaked in enough wisdom to at least buttress his arrogance. Yes, he thinks he knows a lot. Probably because he does.
“Gaining the respect and credibility that what you’re trying to teach is actually for their benefit and not mine – sometimes that works,” Valentine said.
What he left unsaid, and what’s scary about this group of Red Sox that last year imploded, is that it might not.
Lap 6, Leg 1
Split: 3 minutes, 45.7 seconds
By the end of the morning, Valentine walked seven full laps around the fields with intermittent stops in the bullpens. The shortest he spent on one field was 48.6 seconds, the longest 3:45.7.
This particular group of pitchers was fumbling and bumbling about, and Valentine wanted to give extra encouragement. This wasn’t the hard-ass Bobby V who was going to change Boston’s culture by brute force; on Day 1, at least, he could play good cop to his eventual bad cop.
Whether it was playing catch and speaking Japanese with a rehabbing pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka or joking with Crawford as he went for an afternoon jog, Valentine, bit by bit, was endearing himself, standing by those whom he wanted to stand by him.
“You always expect the best out of [new managers],” Crawford said. “You hope they come in with a new way of doing things. I think we needed that a little.”
Of all the things they got on Bobby V’s first day, it was bunting. Never mind that Boston doesn’t play in a National League city until May 18. Valentine recalled watching the World Series and seeing Texas pitcher Colby Lewis ground a bunt into a double play thanks to St. Louis manager Tony La Russa calling the wheel play, a bunt defense that worked to perfection.
“I felt the American League lost the world championship because they didn’t have a slash play,” Valentine said.
On a slash, the pitcher fakes a bunt, pulls back and hacks at the ball with a half swing. With the corner infielders bursting toward the plate and the second baseman and shortstop covering the corner bases, it opens up almost the entire infield.
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Valentine didn’t have a job when he thought of this. He didn’t have much hope for one, either, not with his reputation, his history, his time away. But he held onto the idea anyway, because his mind doesn’t let anything go, and as he stood in batting cage D, hands in pockets, overseeing an honest-to-goodness workout, Bobby Valentine savored the moment.
And then off he went, his attention needed at the next – always the next – cage.
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