BOSTON -- And all along we thought the Red Sox manager's search was supposed to be over by Thanksgiving.
Instead, we're now led to believe that it could end on Valentine's day.
On Monday, Bobby Valentine -- Connecticut Yankee, Tommy Lasorda protégé, celebrity manager, Japanese cult hero, ESPN analyst -- is scheduled to meet Boston's fledgling general manager, Ben Cherington, about the Red Sox's managing vacancy.
Valentine is the stealth candidate, the one the Sox evidently kept in their back pockets in case the public search navigated by Cherington did not produce a satisfactory outcome. Dale Sveum was the man who came to lunch with Cherington on Wednesday in Milwaukee for what was expected to be a final inspection. Instead, the Gang of Three -- Sox owners John W. Henry, Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner -- let dessert pass without making Sveum a contract offer, and two days later, he was in Chicago being introduced as the new manager of the Cubs.
There was always the chance Sveum could have picked the Cubs over the Red Sox if he'd been given the choice, which would have left the Sox in the same position they're in now. But by deciding Sveum wasn't worthy of an offer, the Sox bosses certainly gave the appearance of undercutting the judgment of their new GM.
Perhaps Henry views the Red Sox like one of the expensive race cars he owns and didn't want to trust the driving to a guy who just got his learner's permit. There are no such concerns regarding Valentine, who has managed almost 2,200 games in the major leagues and seven seasons in Japan, where he was so popular fans collected thousands of signatures on petitions begging Chiba Lotte not to fire him. (He was bounced anyway.)
But it might have spared Cherington considerable embarrassment if the Sox had opted for experience at the outset of their search and not after every other team looking for a manager -- the Cards, Marlins, White Sox and Cubs -- found their man in a much timelier and tidier fashion than the Red Sox. No team had more incentive to present a united front than Boston after the way this past season disintegrated.
Instead, the Sox have raised new questions about who is calling the shots at 4 Yawkey Way. And interesting that Sam Kennedy, the team's chief operating officer who has generally stayed away from weighing in on baseball-related matters, made a couple of media appearances on Friday, including a spot on 98.5 The Sports Hub's "Felger and Mazz" show, in which he offered assurances that all oars in the water were pulling in the same direction and that no one had tossed Cherington overboard.
So now Valentine comes to town Monday as the apparent leading candidate, after Cherington had said before Wednesday's fateful lunch that he did not anticipate widening the search beyond the five men he had paraded through the process publicly -- Pete Mackanin, Sveum, Sandy Alomar Jr., Gene Lamont and Torey Lovullo.
Does that mean (a) the job will be his? And (b) do the Sox have other viable options?
The answer to (a) It certainly appears like it's Valentine's job to lose. Sox owners, and reportedly Cherington, already had informal talks with Valentine about the job. Since coming back from Japan, Valentine has had some highly publicized flirtations with other teams, perhaps most notably the Florida Marlins, and in the end has either been rejected or bowed out on his own. He would not take it to this stage now with the Red Sox unless he had assurances that he was a prime contender.
It is no secret to the Sox that Valentine generally is the center of whatever universe in which he is operating, and evidently they are not put off by that notion, as discomfiting as it might be for a new GM. It's hard to see where Cherington is now in a position where he can offer a better idea, since the model he proposed was rejected.
But that leads us to (b), and yes, there are other possible scenarios the Sox could embrace. One that has at least been discussed, according to one source, is the idea of hiring Lamont, the one previously known candidate who had plenty of big league experience, and twinning him with Lovullo as his bench coach with the idea of grooming Lovullo as his ultimate successor.
Cherington also could, as he has said he might, widen the search to include other candidates. Contrary to at least one published report, for example, the Red Sox could seek permission from the Dodgers to interview Tim Wallach, the former big leaguer and highly respected Triple-A manager.
And it's a long shot, but worth exploring. If there was one obvious candidate at the start of this process, it was John Farrell, whom the Sox had overpaid as a pitching coach as a trade-off for an agreement that while he was under contract, he could not interview for managing jobs anywhere else. That agreement lasted three years. Last winter, Farrell's contract expired, and he was hired as manager of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Farrell had no reason to believe a year ago that the Sox would not exercise the two-year option on Terry Francona's contract. Neither did anyone else. Does anyone seriously doubt for a moment that Farrell would leap at the chance to manage the Red Sox? The Blue Jays didn't. They changed their operational rules to say their employees couldn't interview for a lateral move. That was clearly aimed at making Farrell stay put.
Farrell comes with far fewer question marks than any other candidate still on the board. He is a proven leader, a strong voice, a commanding presence and one who had the unquestioned respect of the Sox's pitching staff. He has the look of a man who could manage the Red Sox for the next 10 years.
The Red Sox should not name a new manager until they are certain they have exhausted all appeals to Jays CEO Paul Beeston that he won't let Farrell go.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.