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December 8, 2011

On the Beat

Bobby's Back

by John Perrotto

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DALLAS—The outrageousness will have to wait for another day. Or maybe the outrageousness will just happen occasionally.

After all, Bobby Valentine is 61 years old and nine years removed from his last major-league manager's job. So, there is at least a chance that Valentine will no longer do goofy things like return to the dugout wearing a disguise after being ejected from a game or carrying on a running battle in the media with his general manager, two of the most memorable events of his seven-year stint with the Mets from 1996-2002.

Valentine was surrounded by a media horde during his availability at the Winter Meetings on Wednesday and did nothing to generate controversial headlines or force the Twittersphere to explode.

About the most controversial thing the new manager of the Red Sox had to say is that he does have disdain for the archrival Yankees whom he grew up rooting for in Connecticut. He said that, though, with a grin on his face.

"No, I hate the Yankees," Valentine said when asked if he would discuss the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. "I don't want to waste this valuable time talking about the Yankees. This is too valuable. I told (Yankees manager) Joe Girardi I used to love them, but now I hate them."

Valentine also wouldn't delve deeply into the issues that plagued the Red Sox during their epic final-month collapse last season in which they blew a nine-game lead in the American League wild card race, losing out to the Rays on the last night of the regular season. The Red Sox became the first team to hold a lead that large in September and fail to qualify for the postseason. The fold cost manager Terry Francona his job and opened the door for Valentine to leave the ESPN broadcast booth to take one of the most high-pressure jobs in baseball.

The most sensational story to come from the Red Sox's collapse was that starting pitchers Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Josh Beckett, and Jon Lester could be found eating fried chicken and drinking beer in the clubhouse during games in which they were not pitching. Red Sox sources, even the anti-Francona ones, downplay the whole chicken-and-beer thing. However, team officials were concerned that many players had gotten out of top physical condition during the month of September.

The old Valentine might have gone on a rant about how he was going to make spring training much tougher in order to ensure that his players would be in better shape for 2012. Instead, he pretty much brushed off the whole conditioning thing.

"I've taken a lot of my knowledge from other sources, so it's not firsthand knowledge, but I've met with trainers and all the front office staff," Valentine said "I've read everything I think (the media has) had to write about the Red Sox, because I've been able to do that on planes. It seems like some of the guys let it get away. I think they understand that. I'm not going to have to have them do extra sprints in spring training. I think that these are great athletes, world-class athletes, mature adults who get it and understand. After talking to some of them on the phone and leaving other messages, I'm sure that if they didn't agree with the message or didn't agree with the conversation, they would say, 'Everything was perfect and we're just going to do it again the same thing.' I don't think anyone thinks that's the way it's going to happen."

Francona's greatest strength during an eight-year tenure that produced two World Series championships was that he had a steady hand and was able to communicate well with the players, at least until last season, when even he admitted that his team started to tune him out. The brash Valentine didn't always get along with his players while with the Mets, and some of the feuds turned epic in the New York tabloids. However, Valentine has made it a point to reach out to as many players as possible during his first two weeks on the job, including flying to the Dominican Republic in a successful attempt to persuade designated hitter David Ortiz to re-sign.

Valentine, who also managed the Rangers from 1985-92 and has a 1,117-1,082 career record, said the most awkward conversation was with right-hander Josh Beckett, a staunch supporter of Francona.

"(Beckett) didn't want me to say anything, so I'm not going to say anything other than after he got through telling me how pissed off he was, we had a really good conversation," Valentine said with a smile. "I'm not going to say anything about it."

Valentine also hasn't connected with left fielder Carl Crawford, who had a highly disappointing first season with the Red Sox after signing a seven-year, $142-millon contract as a free agent a year ago. He had a .255/.289/.405 triple-slash line with 11 home runs, 18 stolen bases, a .252 True Average, and 1.4 WARP.

"I want to meet him if he wants to meet me before spring training," Valentine said. "We could just do a little face-to-face."

Francona never was able to find a permanent spot for Crawford in the batting order. Crawford started at least 10 games in four different spots, the most being 47 at No. 6. While some analysts, particularly those with a certificate in amateur psychology, blamed all the shifting for Crawford's subpar season, Valentine doesn't sound ready to adjust his lineup.

"You know, when I talked to (first baseman) Adrian (Gonzalez), he mentioned how hitting in one spot in the order wasn't important to him, and so different guys have different strokes," Valentine said. "But I can tell you that in the thousands of games that I've managed, I never made out a lineup card thinking about one guy. It's always about the group and how you fit in kind of together for the whole lineup. Hell's bells, I'd love to have one lineup and use it for 162 games but it's more than likely I'll use 162 lineups than one lineup. So there's going to be lots of moving parts. I'll talk to Carl about that. I remember when Mike Piazza came to the Mets, and he said, I can't hit unless I'm batting third, and he batted fourth and had some of the greatest years of his life. Sometimes they get over it."

More than anything, Valentine is hoping his team will get over the great collapse of 2012 by the time the Red Sox reconvene at their new spring training facility in Fort Myers, Florida in February. Valentine figures that by then he will have his bearings after a crazy couple of weeks where he went from not even being on the Red Sox's list of candidates to becoming their manager.

"I feel like in the last two weeks, my life has been in such a whirlwind, wonderful pace that I count my blessings," Valentine said. "I'm saying, 'I can't believe I just did that.' It's been really neat. The press conference in Boston was indelible, but I could tell you right now, I'm fuzzy."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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