STEPPING IT UP
Bobby Valentine came to be known as Top Step in Texas, where he managed the Rangers for 7 1/2 seasons. If he helped produce vast improvement for a sorry franchise in that span, critics might say his legacy was one of the longest managerial stints without a championship in major league history.
Then, too, there was that label.
Top Step? No compliment.
A reference to his dugout vantage point, easier to be seen and heard, riding opponents, second-guessing umpires.
A portrait, many around the American League believed, of arrogance and conceit.
“Live and learn,” Valentine says. “Experience has always been the best teacher.
“I was 35 [and baseball’s youngest manager when hired by Texas in 1985]. I had never managed except for a month when I filled in for Roy Hartsfield at [triple-A] Hawaii. I knew the titles of all the books but I hadn’t read them.”
He is sitting behind his desk in the manager’s office at Shea Stadium. He has lived, learned, read the books. He has changed some, which is not to say there has been a total make-over.
After all, he is still a Type A personality, according to his wife, Mary, and is still often found on the top step.
He has learned, however, that some battles aren’t worth fighting and the volume, he insists, is better controlled now.
Much of that lingering obsession with preparation, the workaholic energy, he says, is channeled through his coaches now.
Top Step, in fact, seems to be emerging more as a top banana with the New York Mets, his influence enhanced by the firing last week of General Manager Joe McIlvaine and appointment of assistant GM Steve Phillips to replace him--a restructuring some linked to Valentine’s Machiavellian instincts.
Valentine acknowledged that his hands may be bloodied in the public perception but denied having anything to do with McIlvaine’s ouster. He will soon receive a multiyear contract as measure of his status with Met owners, however, and as reward for a surprising season in which the Mets, 71-91 under Dallas Green last year, begin a series at Dodger Stadium tonight with a 56-42 record, a wild-card contender if not more.
Redemption for the Texas years? Valentine said there is nothing to redeem, that he is proud of the improvement the Rangers made while he was there. Any change in style and approach, he said, is the result of experience, particularly a year managing in Japan.
At 47, there is a hint of gray in his hair, but he retains the boyish good looks of his once golden playing days with the Dodgers and Angels, and he is still often characterized as a Tom Lasorda clone, a label he rejects.
Like Top Step. Like arrogant. “Things get thrown at you,” he said. “I think people know I’m confident. I’m not perfect. I’m not afraid. Sometimes people don’t like that.
“As far as outward aggressiveness, I’ve learned to control the volume. I used to be heard by everyone. I thought it was necessary early on to get the players’ attention. It was part and parcel of what I was.
“I’m Italian. I’m emotional and impulsive, but you deal with the same players and same umpires, and after a few years it becomes excess baggage. It’s not necessary. The volume becomes a distraction. I’ve been ejected once this year. I don’t see the benefit in it any more.”
He was ejected 17 times in his first four years with the Rangers--by 17 different umpires.
He once taunted Kansas City pitcher Joe Beckwith so incessantly from the top step that Beckwith unloaded a series of wild pitches. An enraged Dick Howser, the late Royal manager, gave his pitchers permission to throw beanballs--at Valentine.
There was the night in 1983 when Valentine grew tired of prostitutes parading in front of his Stamford, Conn., restaurant and demanded to see their pimp.
He spent a night in jail for disorderly conduct, but the prostitutes found a new place of business.
“Bobby has never been afraid to stick his nose in a tough situation,” said former Texas general manager Tom Grieve, a former teammate and roommate of Valentine’s with the Mets. “He’s uninhibited. When you have the kind of aggressiveness and confidence he has, why not display it?
“If he’s guilty of one thing, it’s that he wants to win more than anyone I know and he tends to lose patience if the people around him--players, coaches and front office--don’t share that fire.
“He didn’t hide his emotions when confronted by what he considered ineptitude, even if it was in his dealing with reporters, and believe me they made him pay for it.”
Valentine began an annual practice of reading the rule book when he was 13. Baseball was an obsession.
Grieve considers him the most knowledgeable baseball man he has ever met. He said as much once and wished he hadn’t “because I created some tension for Bobby he had nothing to do with. I said he was the best talent evaluator I knew, and some of our scouts were insulted. I said he teaches and instructs better than anyone I knew, and some of our coaches were insulted.
“The bottom line is that he was the principal reason we went from a laughingstock to the championship franchise that Texas is now.
“It may be a little unusual for a manager to last seven or eight years and not win anything, but could any manager have won our division with those same teams? The answer is no.”
Valentine attempted to do it all in Texas: instruct, evaluate, ride the opposition, manage the Rangers, repair batting cages and make 20 speeches a week in an attempt to build community support for a team that was 53-76 in his first year, 87-75 in his second and 581-605 overall--always undermanned compared to the dynastic Oakland A’s of that period.
“I was always involved in more things than most managers so maybe there were more things for people to decide they didn’t like,” Valentine said in reflection, having ultimately gone out with guns blazing.
He accused the farm and scouting directors of telling young players to play poorly when they reached the Rangers so he would get fired.
Coupled with his top step demeanor and reputation, it was the kind of statement that didn’t serve Valentine well in baseball circles.
Looking back, however, he said his only regret was that the Rangers didn’t finish the job by winning a championship, “but I’m proud of how far we came. Early on, respect was a word that wasn’t even broached in connection with the Rangers.
“I mean, there wasn’t even recognition, let alone respect, but I think people would acknowledge that by the time I left, the organization was receiving a lot of respect. I also know that if I’d had that same record in New York, I’d probably have been fired after my third year.”
Valentine still lives in Arlington, Texas, and still owns one of his three restaurants there. He was fired by the Rangers in mid-season of ‘92, spent ’93 as a scout and coach with the Cincinnati Reds, managed the Mets’ triple-A team in Norfolk, Va., in ‘94, went to Japan as manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines in ‘95, returned to manage Norfolk in ’96 and replaced Green on Aug. 26.
He had hoped to spend three years in Japan, helping bridge his sport’s internationalization, as he put it, but said there were problems with a general manager envious of Valentine’s popularity as Chiba vaulted from last to second in the Pacific League.
Valentine said he was disappointed by the sudden and premature termination, but that Japan still represented a baseball renaissance for him. He was forced to review every thought and approach because every answer and action was under a spotlight and he had to have responses that went beyond, “this is the way it’s done because this is the way it’s always been done.”
In addition, he said, the language differences forced him to slow down, to allot more time to each task rather than hurrying to the next, and he realized all that yelling was meaningless.
“No one there understood what I was yelling about anyway,” he said.
“The same effort it took to yell I still put in the job but I channel it through my coaches and I try to lead by example,” he said.
“I’m here at noon [for a night game], watch videos [of the previous game] and make my notes. I come early and stay late. When I ask [the players] to be prepared, it’s do as I do, not as I say.”
In his opening address, he assured the players he would have an open mind about them and asked them to keep an open mind about him.
“Give me a chance and I’ll show you how to get there,” he said.
No one expected it to happen this year, particularly when opening-day starter Pete Harnisch and center fielder Lance Johnson, who led the league in hits last year, joined the vaunted core of the young and touted pitching staff--Paul Wilson, Jason Isringhausen and Bill Pulsipher--on the disabled list.
Wilson, Isringhausen and Pulsipher haven’t thrown a pitch for the Mets this year and probably won’t. Harnisch, out for three months, should be back in early August. The development of Bobby Jones and Rick Reed has eased the pain, Valentine said, of the pitching losses. The development of outfielder Carl Everett and third baseman Edgar Alfonzo, along with the comebacks of John Olerud and Carlos Baerga, have compensated for the loss of Johnson and the first-half slump of Bernard Gilkey.
The Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins, Valentine said, “have a lot of guys with stripes on their shoulders. If they play to their capability, we’ll be tested, but our guys have shown a lot of resiliency. They play from the first pitch to the last. It’s been a real group effort.”
Said veteran closer John Franco: “Some of the things [Valentine] does, some of his lineups, make you scratch your head, but it all seems to work, so you go with the flow. He’s kept everyone involved and everything positive. We have a great attitude, and you have to give Bobby credit for that.”
No one has ever questioned his esprit. He was all-everything at the University of Connecticut, from student body president to 60-yard dash champion to all-state in football and baseball.
He rejected a chance to replace O.J. Simpson as the USC tailback under John McKay to sign with the Dodgers as their No. 1 draft choice in 1968.
It was the summer in which, at 18, he first encountered Lasorda, his rookie league manager, and Lasorda first detected “the drive to succeed” that separated Valentine from most of his other young players and the quest for baseball knowledge that “was almost insufferable--but in a good way,” Lasorda said.
Two accidents changed the course of his career. He blew out a knee playing intramural football while attending classes at Arizona State after having played 101 games with the Dodgers in 1971, an injury that cut into his shortstop’s speed.
Valentine was Lasorda’s boy, but Lasorda was still managing in the minors, and Walter Alston, never a Lasorda admirer, was still managing the Dodgers. Valentine batted .274 in 119 games with the Dodgers in ’72 and was traded to the Angels along with Frank Robinson, Bill Grabarkewitz, Bill Singer and Mike Strahler for Andy Messersmith and Ken McMullen after that season.
It was in Anaheim in 1973, playing only his second major league game in center field, that he collided with the then-unpadded outfield fence chasing a Dick Green home run and broke his right leg in two places. The injury never healed properly, and Valentine now says, “that may have been the start of my managerial career. People may have said, ‘If this guy is stupid enough to try and run through a fence, maybe we ought to make him a manager.’ ”
Valentine retired at 29.
Grieve, remembering his roommate’s and benchmate’s managerial passion when they were with the Mets--”he was the only guy on the team who never missed a pitch,” Grieve said--gave him his chance with the Rangers at 35.
The volume has been lowered, the exuberance controlled. The way he is now, Valentine said, could not have been the way he was then.
Some also believe that experience has sharpened his political instincts. The New York Post credited him for orchestrating the McIlvaine firing with a headline that read: “Valentine’s Day Massacre.” The evidence is sketchy. McIlvaine has said he had no indication that Valentine attempted to undermine him. Valentine has said he had an improving relationship with McIlvaine, that McIlvaine seemed “to take seriously every request that I made to him.”
Perhaps, but McIlvaine was often off scouting the farm clubs. Phillips, much like Valentine in his detail and work orientation, will be there for every phone call from the manager and owners--one of whom, Fred Wilpon, said the GM demands have changed, that McIlvaine seemed to prefer working at the minor league level and wasn’t going to be given a new contact, and that, with the Mets close, it was time to restructure.
It was also time, he said, to begin talks with Valentine on a new contract, Valentine’s agent, Tony Attanasio, having let it be known that his client was receiving feelers elsewhere--presumably from Japan and Tampa Bay.
An opportunistic page out of the Lasorda playbook?
“People who say I’m a Lasorda clone don’t know me and don’t know him,” Valentine said. “I’m not just like Tommy, but I’m proud to be associated with him. I like him and love him, and if 50 years from now people want to say we were two of a kind, that won’t bother me. Of course, I also tell him that people hate me because of him, that the same people who hate him hate me.”
Hate? Maybe when Top Step had the volume turned up, but you live and learn.
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