Sunday, October 7, 2012

Valentine, Like Queeg, Convicted Himself

By Jeff Kallman

This is not to suggest that any known or alleged president of Red Sox Nation should proclaim, "Our long national nightmare is over." But it is to suggest that the Red Sox and their minions can go to sleep tonight not having to wonder whom Bobby Valentine threw under the proverbial bus this time, if not shooting himself in the proverbial foot yet again over some actual or alleged slight or accusation.

It is also to suggest general manager Ben Cherington, who did not want Valentine after Terry Francona essentially resigned before he could be fired last offseason, has been as gracious as a man can be in assessing what was or wasn't until Valentine cashed his own check. You can only speculate what truly coursed Cherington's mind as he composed the statement by which Valentine's execution was announced Thursday:

"Our 2012 season was disappointing for many reasons. No single issue is the reason, and no single individual is to blame. We've been making personnel changes since August, and we will continue to do so as we build a contending club. With an historic number of injuries, Bobby was dealt a difficult hand. He did the best he could under seriously adverse circumstances, and I am thankful to him."

Numerous managers over numerous seasons have been dealt comparable hands. Most of them manage to resist the temptation to quell such fires with gasoline.

The absolute best Valentine could have done was to figure out a way to harness his tongue to the point where it coordinated with his mind before letting it wave, and to learn the lessons his failure to learn cost him clubhouses in Texas and New York in earlier generations. But he walked into a clubhouse fragile enough, barely recovering from that surrealistic pennant race collapse, and detonated a depth charge.

He walked into a fragile enough clubhouse, barely recovering from a surrealistic pennant race collapse, and detonated a depth charge. And it is fair to a certain extent to say that in one sense the Red Sox never saw it coming. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe isolates the point:

"Valentine often couldn't contain his emotions and said things he shouldn't have said. But that should not have been a surprise, because he has always been that way. He never deviated from who he was, as much as the Red Sox tried to suppress him.

"How could the Red Sox not have done their homework on Valentine? He has always ruffled feathers, always put his foot in his mouth, yet they seemed surprised."

Cafardo may not be quite right when he goes on to suggest the players preferred someone "more supportive and never critical — the way Francona was for eight seasons." Francona simply saw no point to airing out a player in public. He had reasons often enough to criticize a player but, if you didn't count Manny Ramirez's impossible-to-ignore public act, Francona inclined more toward approaching a player and speaking to him man to man.

It wasn't Francona's style to push a plunger on the air or in the press. It certainly wasn't Francona's style to pick unfounded feuds with any players, never mind particularly popular players. If Francona were to have noticed Kevin Youkilis's physical struggles early in the season, he would never have questioned Youkilis's heart. Not privately and certainly not publicly.

That isn't political correctness at play, as Cafardo might describe it. That's just plain sense.

Yes, there were instances in which you could say Valentine himself was undermined. He wasn't Cherington's choice no matter what team president Larry Lucchino propagated upon his hiring last winter. But there were instances enough before the season began that Valentine undermined himself. He wasn't happy about the coaching staff holdover, and the holdover coaches weren't happy with him, but he didn't seem to work all that arduously in bringing them aboard whatever his train might have been.

Then he had the audacity to suggest the coaching staff undermined him, the afternoon before the Red Sox put paid to this trainwreck of a season by letting the New York Yankees bury them alive Wednesday night, showing barely any semblance of pride enough to think at least about forcing the Empire Emeritus into a potential tiebreaker game. Or, if not that, considering the engaging Baltimore Orioles ended up on the wrong side against Tampa Bay, at least going home on the heels of just a plain old win.

"That figures," was all bullpen coach Gary Tuck would say when told of Valentine's the coaches-undermined-me remarks. Small wonder: Valentine, remember, took a nasty poke at pitching coach Bob McClure, when McClure needed to miss three weeks in a family emergency: "Bob McClure was on his two-week vacation — I'm sorry, not vacation, his two weeks away from the team," Valentine said on WEEI.

This is the same man, managing the New York Mets over a decade and a half ago, who took comparable cheap shots at pitcher Pete Harnisch, suffering clinical depression in the aftermath of quitting smokeless tobacco. The same manager who questioned Hideo Nomo's guts, when the struggling Nomo declined a starting assignment in a critical stretch drive game because he believed his record to that point didn't justify handing him the honour of such an important start.

How indeed could the Red Sox not have done their homework?

When they found a trading partner in Los Angeles and unloaded Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Nick Punto for James Loney and prime prospects, there were those who saw it as removing not just a nuclear payroll weight but some of Valentine's actual or alleged most vocal critics. There were others who saw it as a signal that a major housecleaning to include Valentine — precisely when, who knew — had just begun.

Perhaps the one thing above all that you can say undermined Valentine fairly was the disabled list. Twenty-seven Red Sox went on it this season. When owner John Henry spoke in August, on a trip to Seattle in which enough thought he might be traveling to hand Valentine his head on a plate, Henry did say, "A lot has been written about injuries to key players this year. The impact of that on the Sox this year should not be discounted."

Fair enough. But the Yankees were bedeviled by injuries enough — and they won the American League East.

The Oakland Athletics were bedeviled by a few injuries, none more shocking than the line drive pitcher Brandon McCarthy took in the head — and they stole the American League West right out from under the Texas Rangers.

The Orioles, who looked at one point as though they'd steal the East right out from under the Yankees, had plenty of injury issues — and they still managed to pocket the number one wild card in the bargain while enjoying their first winning season since 1997.

The Atlanta Braves, whose own devastating September 2011 collapse could be dwarfed only by that of the Red Sox, sent 18 players to the disabled list this year — and they pocketed the number one National League wild card.

On none of those teams could you think of any player, any coach, with cause to believe, never mind to say aloud, that their manager had walked into a testy situation and detonated a bomb in the middle of it.

Of course the 2011 Braves didn't start to tunnel their way back out of their September cave-in by giving their manager what amounted to a choice between burying himself or being buried. Fredi Gonzalez not only lived to play another season but, as of this writing, he's got at least the chance to take a little revenge against the St. Louis Cardinals, who snuck into the National League's only wild card slot at the Braves' expense last year.

Valentine is an intelligent man. Even his most severe critics know that. But he left a huge opening the moment he was hired when he blurted out, unprompted, "I'm not the genius that I've heard people refer to me as." When he questioned Josh Beckett's game pacing — it sure didn't seem to be a problem when Beckett led a World Series-winning staff in 2007 — and then didn't seem to know when Beckett, coming back from an injury, would throw a bullpen session, and when he left Jon Lester in to take an eleven-run beating on a day Lester clearly didn't have his best stuff, his introductory press conference remark blasted back in blinding neon.

Before Wednesday's game, Valentine made a point of walking around the field during practice to talk to each player, handshakes and hugs included, and the players simply had to know it was goodbye. "It may have been his best moment with the Red Sox," ESPN's Buster Olney writes, "and it's unfortunate that it came at the very end, long after his future as manager had been decided."

As the old song hit said, "Too much, too little, too late." Valentine had in common with Captain Queeg a crew not intrinsically allied to him, an inability to forge the alliances he needed, and what proved a talent for convicting himself with his own testimony. Unlike Queeg, who collapsed during his first and only command, Valentine had a command record to which to refer, and those responsible for assigning him the one he's now lost didn't review the record carefully enough.

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