On the final day of the 1985 season, a young writer covering the Texas Rangers was raving about the ability of the team's rookie center fielder, Oddibe McDowell, predicting great things for him. Bobby Valentine, the Rangers manager, shook his head and said privately and without pretense, "He will never be better than this. This will be his best year.''
And Valentine was right. McDowell never had a better year, and was essentially done as a big leaguer at age 28. Valentine had seen something about him -- he never said what it was -- because he sees what others don't. He never misses a thing -- and no one, but no one, is going to fool Bobby Valentine. That's why he's the right choice to be the manager of the Red Sox, especially since the team is in turmoil after its infamous September collapse.
I say this while acknowledging that I'm hopelessly biased about Bobby Valentine. I covered his first season as a major league manager, and I watched him take a terrible team and a terrible organization and turn it all around in less than a year. Change the culture? He changed everything, especially the win total from 62 to 87.
For three years, I sat next to him on the set of "Baseball Tonight," and in meeting rooms with 15 games on TV, and I can tell you that no one knows the game better than Bobby V.
He can be smug and he can be arrogant, but he has a right to be. Bobby Valentine has thrived at most things he has done in his life. He was a great football player; he once scored six touchdowns in the first half of a game at Stamford (Conn.) High School. He was heading to USC to replace O.J. Simpson at tailback, but he chose baseball over football after then-Dodgers general manager Al Campanis asked him, "What would you rather do, play against the best football players in the Pac-10 or against the best baseball players in the world?''
When I asked him what thrill was the greatest for him, making a great play to his right at shortstop, hitting a home run or running 75 yards for a touchdown, Valentine took the play in the hole, but not before asking, "You're not including dancing?'' There have been few ballroom dancers better than Bobby Valentine, just another facet that separates him from the average baseball guy. He had his shirts dry-cleaned when he was 16. And he was the king of the high school science fair. So when he explains the maximum break on a curveball, and explains the physics of bat speed, it's because he knows all about that stuff.
He knows about a lot of stuff. He is a successful restaurateur, and says, half-jokingly, that he invented the wrap sandwich. He has done charity auctions in which he not only visits homes of people he has never met, but he goes to their home and cooks a gourmet meal. He is the Director of Public Safety and Public Health in his hometown of Stamford, Conn., and has gone to other states just to see how others are handling public safety and health.
After 9/11, Valentine, then the manager of the Mets, took charge of his team's effort to help in the aftermath, leading fundraisers and helping families who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks. At the 2010 World Series in Texas, a young man stood on the ESPN set for the games: It was a fallen firefighter's son whom Valentine had invited to the World Series as his guest -- and not just for three games, but for all sorts of events over the past 10 years.
Valentine managed seven years in Japan. He won a championship, but he did much more. In some ways, he changed the way they played baseball in Japan. He changed the way players approached the game and he humanized the players, which wasn't easy given the structured nature of Japanese baseball. His stories from Japan are priceless, including the time he stood at the plate (a tradition in Japan) for the first ball ceremony featuring Nolan Ryan. Ryan accidentally threw a pitch at Valentine's head, and he hit the deck, narrowly escaping.
Humanitarian? Ballroom dancer? Science fair guy? Gourmet chef? Restaurateur? Director of Public Health? Valentine is all of these things. How? Where does he find the time? He told me 25 years ago, "Sleep is overrated,'' and it must be, because I don't know when he sleeps. Yet he fell asleep at the wheel late one night, nearly got killed, and, if possible, doesn't drive alone late anymore; sometimes he'll have someone drive him.
And he has a terrible sense of direction. At ESPN, at least initially, he had to be walked from the newsroom to the studio because he couldn't find the way. When he steps off an elevator, he says, "I have never turned the right way. I always turn the wrong way. Always.''
Yet for all his interests in so many things, baseball is what he knows best and loves most. He is fascinated by it: what players think, what makes them better. What's the best way to make a tag? How do you shield the ball from the sun? He is as observant as anyone you will ever meet, constantly looking for ways to get the most from players.
"Ichiro is a mathematical genius,'' he told me. "Because of that, he can read the angles of the field better than everyone else. When he runs to a spot in right field to make a catch, and the ball is there, waiting for him, it's because he can see the angles better than anyone. I was in an elevator with him once. It was about a 40-floor hotel. He looked at the right side of the elevator, the even numbers, and added them up in his head in, like, two seconds.''
He has no patience for some of the clichéd teaching techniques today, and the common misconceptions about the game. Tell him about the "squish the bug'' technique that youth hitting coaches teach, and he will squash that theory. No one "swings down on the ball,'' he says, and he says there is no black on home plate, so the pitch can't be "on the black.'' He says that pitchers don't get "on top of the ball.'' That's impossible; their hand is on the side of the ball. And don't start him on the "checked swing rule,'' or the "check swing rule,'' because he says, "there is no rule in the rule book for a checked swing. People don't even know what it is. They don't even know how to pronounce it. So how can you call it?''
Valentine knows all this because he has experienced almost everything in the game. He played in the big leagues for 10 years, for five teams. He was the No. 1 pick of the Dodgers in 1968, taken ahead of Bill Buckner, Davey Lopes, Ron Cey and Steve Garvey.
Valentine won a batting championship in the minor leagues. He also got hit by a pitch in the head, caving in one side of his face. Playing for the Angels in 1973, he broke his leg after his spike got caught in the outfield wall. The leg improperly healed inside the cast, and the hideous lump on his shin is the size of a baseball, an injury that perhaps kept him from being a very good player (he can't run anymore, which kills him given how fast he used to run after a baseball and with a football, but he rides his bike relentlessly).
He got to the big leagues briefly at age 19 in 1969 and then returned two years later. Valentine can laugh now about Dodgers manager Walter Alston announcing him as "Billy Valentine'' at the team's "Welcome Home" luncheon, and a year later, he said, "I introduced Walt to my parents. We were in an elevator. He called me 'Billy' again, right there in front of my parents.''
Valentine's best friend and former roommate is Buckner. "[Pitcher] Lloyd Allen got drafted ahead of Buck [by the Angels],'' Valentine said. "Buck didn't like him. We were facing Allen in the minor leagues. Buck told me in the on-deck circle, 'I'm going to hit him in the head with a line drive.' First pitch, he hit him right in the head with a line drive.''
Valentine remains best friends with Buckner. Valentine's wife, Mary, is the daughter of Ralph Branca, who gave up the famous home run to Bobby Thomson in the 1951 playoff game. So Valentine is, according to Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, the perfect choice to manage the Red Sox. But he is the perfect choice for lots of other reasons.
Valentine is 61 now. He has matured greatly. He's not as smug and as arrogant as he used to be, but not much else has changed. No one sells a team, and the game, better than Valentine. When he takes on a project, "I have to do the whole thing,'' he said.
Valentine will not allow Josh Beckett to not work in between starts. Valentine will find out how three of Carl Crawford's five tools disappeared last year, and he will make sure he finds them in 2012. He will not allow anyone from Red Sox management, be it John Henry or Tom Werner or Larry Lucchino, to walk into his office and tell him about how the game is played. And no manager in the game will outfox Valentine on any strategic move. In the one year I covered his team, and for the 30 years I have known him, not once have I asked him a question about a move he made in a game for which he didn't have a legitimate answer.
Red Sox Nation, you have one of a kind in Bobby Valentine. I have never met anyone quite like him in baseball. He will make your team better right away. And he'll never be boring.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.
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