Transition game

BEFORE BOBBY VALENTINE'S first game in his first spring with the Boston Red Sox, a reporter asked him about his lineup. Specifically, the reporter asked Valentine why he had Dustin Pedroia batting leadoff and Jacoby Ellsbury batting second. At first, Valentine seemed surprised by the question. The palm trees swayed beyond the rightfield fence at JetBlue Park at Fenway South; dark clouds were giving way to patches of blue Florida sky. His Red Sox life was just getting started. Was he really being questioned about his lineup?

Then it dawned on him: "Oh, last year it was the reverse?" Yes, he was told. Last year it was the reverse: first Ellsbury, then Pedroia. That's how Terry Francona would have done it. "It's a new year," Valentine said, more forcefully than he said anything else that morning.

Transition isn't always easy, especially not in a game as glacial as baseball, especially not in a city as volatile as Boston. The transition of power is
maybe the most complicated transition of all. There will be books written about this year's Red Sox -- not sports books, political books -- because outside of a certain November election, there might be no better current study of American power and its use. And at the heart of that story will be Bobby Valentine. I've been reading a lot about Lyndon Johnson lately, and in a strange way, it's hard not to see the parallels in Valentine, the latest surprise successor in a period of crisis and chaos. The only difference -- apart from the small fact that we're talking about a baseball team's fate rather than the free world's -- is that Valentine is following a two-term president.

He's not the only man entering this summer in a long shadow, of course. The baseball season can be read as an endless play for dominance -- not just between teams but within them too. At some level, that becomes the real game; it's the backroom stuff that really determines who wins and who loses. The front offices in Los Angeles and Flushing have already witnessed political maneuvering that makes the United States Senate seem tame. With the arrival of Albert Pujols, Anaheim's own power dynamics -- where Mike Scioscia was the center of gravity -- are set for a massive overhaul. Theo Epstein's own reshaping of the Cubs, the potential vacuum left by Mariano Rivera, Jeffrey Loria's very public gamble in Miami ... There is plenty of internal drama to go around.

But nobody does hard-boiled better than Boston, where last year's Game 162, a coin toss, somehow became a lit fuse instead. Almost inevitably, Valentine's hiring sparked its fair share of palace intrigue -- did all-powerful team president Larry Lucchino overrule Ben Cherington, his new general manager? -- which might have made a less confident manager tentative. Instead, from that first game of the spring, Valentine was demonstrating his willingness, even his need, to assert his control. That's why it was Pedroia first, Ellsbury second. Even if Valentine never made that switch again, he was sending a clear enough message by making it once: It's a new year.

Like Lyndon Johnson, like all inheritors, Valentine knows that he must be respectful of the old regime, but he knows too that he has to make the office his own. It's a delicate balance. Johnson succeeded mostly by pulling the right levers at the right time, and so far, Valentine has mirrored his strategy, even if by accident. Johnson knew how important it was to keep President Kennedy's cabinet; three of Valentine's coaches are Francona loyalists. Johnson wanted an early piece of legislation that would set the tone for his tenure, and he pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through a fractured Congress. Valentine ... well, Valentine banned beer in a fractured clubhouse.

Now, though, now that the Red Sox, his Red Sox, are finally taking the field, we'll see how Valentine uses the most blunt instrument of his authority: his lineup card. A team's batting order is its truest power index. "One of the manager's jobs is to make those who are uncomfortable comfortable," Valentine said under those blue skies. "And the other job is to make those who are too comfortable uncomfortable." His job, the second part of it, will be easier given this winter's old-guard purge. But there remains a firmly rooted establishment at Fenway, men who will say that's not how it has been done, and it's in those collisions that we'll really see who runs this team: the man in charge or the ghost of the man who used to be.

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