The Real Questions with Bobby V and Ben Cherington

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Repeatedly we’re seeing the debate as to whether new Red Sox GM Ben Cherington wanted Bobby Valentine as the Red Sox manager.

Some say yes, he’s on board and is sincere about it.

Some say yes, but are shrugging and rolling their eyes as they say it.

Some say no. Larry Lucchino and John Henry wanted someone who was the polar opposite of Terry Francona; that they wouldn’t tolerate the nonsense that played a part in the club’s collapse in September and began the ball rolling sending Francona and Theo Epstein out of town and opened the door to the shocking hire of Valentine.

The truth is probably closer to the middle.

Did Cherington want Valentine?

No.

But Lucchino wasted no time after the departure of Epstein to step right back into the breach amidst the chaos and fill the vacuum. When the Red Sox won their 2004 championship, Lucchino’s position had been usurped and his influence marginalized by his former protege and eventual nemesis as Epstein won the subsequent power struggle.

With the collapse, the dismissal of Francona and the Epstein departure, the opening was there for Lucchino and he took it.

Is Cherington comfortable with Valentine?

I’m sure he’s rationalized it.

Valentine has a 2-year contract with 2 option years; he’s a qualified and experienced manager who is well-versed in statistics and truly knows the game from both a numerical and scouting point-of-view; he’ll nip any behavioral issues in the bud; if things go wrong, Cherington won’t get the blame as the puppetmaster in the Moneyball tradition of telling the “middle-manager” what to do.

Whereas Epstein would’ve been allowed to hire the man he wanted to hire to replace Francona, Lucchino and ownership stuck to the Red Sox recent historical script of doing the Yankees thing and importing a recognizable name.

It’s been this way for years.

When Epstein was hired and the Red Sox set about altering the culture and strategy, it wasn’t to sign the big name free agents or championship-winning managers for show in a keeping up with the Steinbrenners competition—that’s what got them and other teams in trouble in the first place—but it was done to import players and staff who fit into what they wanted to build logically and intelligently.

Now that they have immobile contracts; a greedy fan base; and an apathetic, comfortable and encroaching core of veterans who took advantage of Francona’s hands-off style. Valentine was the one name who’d drop a bomb in the clubhouse and put a stop to the off-field negativity that harmed their playoff run.

Valentine’s not going to storm in and get in the faces of Josh Beckett and Kevin Youkilis. He’ll try a conciliatory “let’s work together” approach, talk to them like men and then handle it if they step out of line.

You can make the argument for a younger, less stringent manager with a personality that wasn’t going to ruffle the delicacy of the clubhouse hierarchy, but the front office is paying the players to be in shape and behave appropriately as a matter of course; they hired Valentine to implement that desire.

If they hired someone inexperienced who fit into the middle-managing profile and it didn’t work, the Red Sox were staring in the face of a full-blown housecleaning which would’ve relegated them to possibly 3-5 years of missed playoffs and repercussions in revenue, fan response and media vitriol.

It’s easier and cheaper to bring in Valentine and see if he can tweak what’s there than it is to make wholesale roster changes and take someone else’s headaches in exchange for their own. Catering to the whims of the players would’ve made the 2011 problems worse.

Hiring Valentine is not so different from the Moneyball style of field managers except that this middle-manager isn’t going to be intimidated nor is he going to get fired if the players complain about him.

Here’s the big question: Had Epstein stayed, would Bobby Valentine be the Red Sox manager right now?

Universally, the answer will be the same no matter whom you ask.

That answer is no.

And despite assertions that all are in agreement, smiles and glad-handing, that pretty much tells you where Cherington truly stands on the situation as well.

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Who Cares What the Red Sox Players Think?

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Terry Francona was the proper choice at the time in 2004 because he’d work cheap; he wasn’t Grady Little; he’d do what he was told by the front office; and he was agreeable to Curt Schilling, whom they were trying to convince to accept a trade from the Diamondbacks to the Red Sox.

The “middle-manager” worked.

If you examine some of the big name, splashy hirings of established managers, their appropriateness is based on circumstances.

Lou Piniella was a failure for the Devil Rays because they didn’t have any players. The last thing a rebuilding team needs is a cranky old man who wants to win immediately.

Buck Showalter is adept at building and teaching, making him a good fit for the Orioles.

The Marlins are intent on contending and drawing interest with big personalities—hence, Ozzie Guillen.

The Red Sox current roster dynamic is static so the only thing they could do was to bring in the opposite to Francona and keep the same group together. That means Valentine.

“Sources” saying that Red Sox players are sending each other text messages with complaints about Bobby Valentine sounds like something from a teenage girl’s Facebook page complete with the frowny face. :( sad

It’s a non-story for webhits and attention.

If it’s true, who cares what Josh Beckett and the rest of them think?

They had a manager who was hands off and left them alone and they somehow found a way to blow a playoff spot and get the manager fired.

Now they have to deal with Valentine.

What are they going to do? Not play?

They made this mess and now they have to deal with the fallout.

And that fallout is Valentine.

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The Red Sox Out-of-Book Experience with Bobby Valentine

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The Red Sox made the smart and gutsy decision to shun the “middle-manager” nonsense that came en vogue after Moneyball and hired Bobby Valentine to take over as their new manager.

Here’s what to expect.

The beer and chicken parties are over.

The somewhat overblown Red Sox beer and chicken parties of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and their crew are referenced as the fatal symptoms of apathy under Terry Francona.

When Valentine’s name was mentioned as a candidate amid the “new sheriff in town” mentality, the 1999 NLCS card-playing incident is presented as an example of what went on with the Mets under Valentine.

What’s missed by those who constantly mention the Bobby BonillaRickey Henderson card game as the Mets dejectedly entered the Turner Field clubhouse after their game 6 and series loss is that Bonilla was gone after the season (at a significant cost to the Mets that they’re still paying); and Henderson was released the next May.

Those who expect Valentine to storm in and start getting in the faces of the players immediately are wrong.

He won’t tolerate any garbage, but it’s not going to be a both-guns-blazing, walking through the door of the saloon like Clint Eastwood bit.

He’ll try a more smooth approach at first, telling them what the rules are, what’s expected and demanded and what won’t be tolerated. If he’s pushed, he’ll make an example of someone and it’s going to happen fast.

This is not to say that he’s an old-school social conservative who’s going to interfere with his players’ personal business. Bobby V liked chewing his dip when he was managing the Mets; he treats his players like men; but if their off-field activities are affecting on-field production—as was the case with Todd Hundley and Pete Harnisch—they’re going to hear about it. It will be done privately at first, then publicly if it continues.

His big theme concerning the way the players behave will be “don’t make me look like an idiot”.

The stuff that went on under the watch of Francona was more embarrassing than damaging. If the players had been performing their due diligence in workouts and not been so brazen about their clubhouse time, it wouldn’t have been an issue. But because they so cavalierly loafed and lazed, seemingly not caring what was happening on the field, it snowballed and became a flashpoint to the lax discipline of Francona and festered into unnecessary problems.

Relationships with opponents, umpires and the media.

Valentine has endured public spats with many other managers and hasn’t shied from any of them, even suggesting they possibly turn physical if need be.

During his playing days, no one wanted to mess with Don Baylor. Baylor, who crowded the plate and steadfastly refused to move when a ball was heading in his direction, led the league in getting hit-by-pitches eight times. Valentine had protested a mistake the then-Cubs manager Baylor had made on his lineup card when the Mets and Cubs played the season-opening series of 2000 in Japan; Baylor made some comments about it; Valentine, who never brought the lineup card to the plate as Mets manager, did so in the first game of the Mets-Cubs series in May; Valentine asked Baylor if the two had a problem, Baylor said no and that was it.

This was indicative of the personality and gamesmanship of Valentine. Managers and players from other teams don’t like him, but he doesn’t care.

As Red Sox manager, he’s going to bait Joe Girardi; he’ll annoy Joe Maddon; he and Buck Showalter will glare at each other from across the field at who can be more nitpicky in a chess match of “I’m smarter than you”; he knows the rules better than the umpires and finds the smallest and most obscure ones to get an advantage for his team; he manipulates the media and his temper gets the better of him—he’ll say he’s not going to talk about something, then talk about if for 20 minutes; and his foghorn voice will echo across all of baseball to let everyone know the Red Sox are in town.

Francona was well-liked by everyone.

Valentine won’t be. And he doesn’t care.

Valentine can be annoying. He was a three-sport star in high school and a ballroom dancing champion, is married to his high school sweetheart and is still remarkably handsome even at age 61; he was Tommy Lasorda‘s pet in the minor leagues and his teammates loathed him—he grates on people because of his seeming superiority and perfection.

He’s not irritating people intentionally unless he thinks it will help him win a game—it’s just Bobby V being Bobby V.

The GM/manager dynamic.

Did new Red Sox GM Ben Cherington want Valentine?

There will be an across-the-board series of analysis why he did and didn’t—most will detail why he didn’t.

But does it matter?

The whole concept of Valentine being impossible to handle, undermining, subversive and Machiavellian stem from his inter-organizational battles with Steve Phillips when the duo were the GM/manager combination for the Mets.

Valentine hated Phillips and vice versa; it wasn’t simply that Valentine hated Phillips as a GM, he hated him as a human being more.

But Phillips’s personal behaviors weren’t publicly known to the degree that they are now; it’s doubtful that Cherington will be stupid enough to get caught up in the number of foibles that have befallen Phillips and sabotaged someone who was a better GM than he’s given credit for and an excellent and insightful broadcaster.

Despite the disputes and cold war, something about the Valentine-Phillips relationship worked.

As long as there’s a mutual respect between Valentine and Cherington, what’s wrong with a little passionate debate even if it’s of the screaming, yelling and throwing things variety?

It’s better than the alternative of King Lear—the lonely man seeking to salvage what’s left of his crumbling monarchy—as there is in Oakland with Billy Beane; or what we saw eventually disintegrate with Theo Epstein’s and Larry Lucchino’s Macbeth and Duncan reprise with the Red Sox.

The only difference between the managers who are installed as a matter of following the script and out of convenience—as Francona was—and Valentine is that Valentine’s not disposable as the prototypical Moneyball middle-managers are and the Red Sox have to pay him a salary far greater than they would’ve had to pay Gene Lamont or Torey Lovullo.

In the final analysis financially, it’s cheaper to hire and pay Valentine than it would be to hire a retread or an unknown and run the risk of a total explosion of the team early in 2012 and having to clean house while enduring a lost season and revenues.

Valentine can tape together what’s currently there better than the other candidates could.

There will be disagreements and if Valentine has to, he’ll go over Cherington’s head to Lucchino or use the media to get what he wants. It’s Cherington’s first GM job; he won’t want to screw it up; plus, it’s a no-lose situation for him because if things go wrong, there’s always the head shake and gesture towards Bobby V and Lucchino to explain away what went wrong and why it’s not Cherington’s fault.

Even if it is.

Strategies.

Valentine isn’t Grady Little and won’t ignore the numbers; he was one of the first stat-savvy managers  who accessed the work of Bill James when he took over the Rangers in 1985.

That’s not to say he won’t make moves against the so-called new age stats that make sense on paper, but are idiotic or unrealistic in practice. He’s not going to demand his switch-hitters bat lefty against lefty pitchers because of an obscure and out-of-context number; he’ll let his relievers know what’s expected of them in a “defined role” sense (to keep the peace); and he’s going to tweak his lineups based on the opponent.

He doles out his pitchers innings evenly and finds players who may have underappreicated talents and places them in a situation to succeed—sounds like a stat guy concept.

Players.

With the Mets, there was a notion that Valentine preferred to have a roster of interchangeable parts with non-stars; functional players he could bench without hearing the entreaties that he has to play <BLANK> because of his salary.

Valentine might prefer to have a clear path to do what’s right for a particular game without having to worry about how it’s framed or answering stupid questions after the fact, but he dealt with his star players—Mike Piazza; Mike Hampton; Al Leiter; Robin Ventura—well enough.

What Valentine is truly good at is finding the players who have been ignored or weren’t given a chance and giving them their opportunity.

Todd Pratt, Rick Reed, Benny Agbayani, Desi Relaford, Timo Perez, Melvin Mora, Masato Yoshii were all Valentine “guys” who he trusted and fought for. All contributed to the Mets during Valentine’s tenure.

If anyone can get something out of Daisuke Matsuzaka, it’s Valentine; if anyone can put Carl Crawford in the lineup spot where he’ll be most productive—irrespective of Crawford’s personal preferences—it’s Valentine; and if anyone can work Jose Iglesias into the lineup without undue pressure, it’s Valentine.

Concerns.

While he managed in Japan for several years in the interim, Valentine hasn’t managed in the big leagues since 2002. Veteran managers sometimes hit the ground running after a long break as Jim Leyland did with the Tigers; or they embody the perception that they’ve lost something off their managerial fastball—I got that impression with Davey Johnson managing the Nationals in 2011.

Valentine’s 61 and in good shape, but ten years is a long time to be away from the trenches.

There will be a honeymoon period with the media and fans, but like the Red Sox attempt to hire Beane to be the GM after 2002, how long is this honeymoon going to last if the Red Sox are 19-21 after 40 games with the expectations and payroll what they are.

It’s hard to stick to the script as the Yankees fans are laughing at them; mired in a division with three other strong teams in the Yankees, Blue Jays and Rays possibly ahead of them; and the fans and media are bellowing for something—anything—to be done.

Valentine’s Mets teams tended to fade, tighten and panic at the ends of seasons. It happened in 1998 and 1999; in 1999 they squeaked into the playoffs after a frenetic late-season run and, once they were in, relaxed to put up a good, borderline heroic showing before losing to the Braves in the NLCS.

There will be players who ridicule, mock and question him. John Franco took the opportunity to get his revenge against Valentine by helping Phillips’s case to fire him in 2002 because Valentine had taken Franco’s closer role away and given it to Armando Benitez while Franco was injured.

Will Beckett push Valentine so one of them has to go? I doubt it, but Beckett’s a bully and won’t like being told what to do.

Will Bobby Jenks‘s attitude or Kevin Youkilis‘s whining cause Valentine to call them out publicly?

Will it damage the team if there’s an early insurrection or will it embolden the front office that a stricter force was necessary?

The real issues.

It’s nice that the Red Sox have hired a proven, veteran manager; a known quantity; someone they can sell to the media and fans, but it doesn’t address the player issues that sabotaged the team as they collapsed in September.

John Lackey is out for the year with Tommy John surgery and they need starting pitching.

David Ortiz is a free agent.

They need a bat.

They have to hope that Crawford straightens out and becomes the player they paid for.

Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia have been enduring multiple injuries.

Clay Buchholz is returning from a back problem.

They don’t know who their closer is going to be.

More than anything else, the Red Sox 2012 season is going to be determined by how these holes are patched and filled.

But the manager’s office is taken care of and they’re indulging in an out-of-book experience in hiring Bobby Valentine.

And it’s a great move.

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