Bobby Valentine—Sympathetic Figure?

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The Red Sox have done the impossible. They’ve made Bobby Valentine, one of the most polarizing people in baseball this side of Barry Bonds, into a sympathetic figure.

Valentine has not done a great job with the Red Sox this season, but, in an appropriate analogy, he walked in to the clubhouse trussed like a chicken about to be placed on the spit ready for the rotisserie. And rotisserie them they have.

As soon as he was hired it started with players complaining about him without even knowing him or considering that he might have mellowed from his time as Mets’ manager. It was never entertained that the players themselves were the ones who forced the club into dumping the laissez-faire Terry Francona and set the foundation for the hiring of Valentine.

Has Valentine mellowed? We don’t know because he was on the defensive immediately and instead of preparing to run the team, was spending much of his time negotiating the landmine-strewn clubhouse and having anything and everything he said and did turned into “evidence” that Valentine was still Valentine and the baggage he carts around like an unwanted appendage would sabotage his tenure before it began. If anything, he was being marinated for the roasting he’s experiencing now.

It does appear that the 10 years away from MLB and the 20 years away from managing in the American League have negatively affected his well-known (and self-pronounced) strategic wizardry. The game’s changed from the time Valentine last managed. With his reputation as a paranoid micromanager and cold, callous, vindictive personality combining with a spoiled clubhouse of enabled stars who feel entitled (Josh Beckett) or just want to be left alone (Adrian Gonzalez) among other self-involved people from the top of the Red Sox structure to the bottom, this arranged and forced marriage was doomed from the start. The excuses and lukewarm defenses aside, no one wants to hear Larry Lucchino blaming the “jaded and cynical media” for the club’s poor performance and unprofessional behaviors on and off the field.

What we’ve learned is that you can’t just pull in the reins and expect the new rules to be taken at face value without resistance from certain quarters. The players were allowed to do what they wanted as long as they won and if that meant the starting pitchers not pitching that day sat in the clubhouse eating and drinking beer, so be it. That type of activity isn’t isolated. Starting pitchers not pitching that day are pretty much left to their own devices (within reason) everywhere; Steve Carlton used to go in the clubhouse and sleep, for example. The Red Sox lost and Francona was blamed, so it became a “reason” when it really wasn’t. It didn’t matter when they won, so why should it matter when they lost?

The lack of discipline under Francona was actually an attractive aspect of the club as they were left to its own devices. “This guy will leave you alone and let you do your job.” When that was the case, it was a positive. When they began losing and Francona’s way was seen as a detriment, the players were essentially told, “You can’t behave when we treat you like adults, okay then, deal with Valentine.” But you can’t discipline the undisciplinable. Much like the strength and conditioning coaches—since dismissed in a purge—couldn’t force the likes of Beckett and John Lackey to adhere to a physical fitness program, what precisely was Valentine (or Lucchino or owner John Henry) supposed to do to stop the freefall that began long before Valentine arrived?

Injuries? Injuries happen when players are older and are no longer able to use *special means* to stay on the field; when they’re unwilling to take the extra steps to make sure they’re in shape to play every single day. Beckett and Jon Lester have pitched poorly and if they’d pitched as they have in the past, the Red Sox would be close to first place? You can look at any team that’s underachieving and find a reasons such as that. Or you can look at a team that’s playing well and wonder where they’d be if X player was doing Y. It’s a loser’s lament.

Joel Sherman, adhering to his daily template of baseball ignorant idiocy, suggests the Red Sox consider hiring Jason Varitek as the new manager in the event that Valentine is dismissed. The basis of this is that first time managers such as Robin Ventura, Mike Matheny and Don Mattingly have done well in their rookie managing seasons and that Varitek knows the terrain in Boston and is “respected” in the clubhouse. It’s a logical fallacy to think that because the new managers are doing well in the standings, then it would also work for the Red Sox. It’s also ignorant of the Red Sox issues as they stand now. Since they didn’t listen to Varitek in his waning days as a player and captain of the team (and was out-of-shape himself), it’s foolish to assume that they’re going to listen to him as manager.

The Red Sox want John Farrell? Is he going to fix things? The Blue Jays are again underachieving under Farrell and haven’t overcome similar injuries to those that have befallen the Red Sox. Even if Farrell is respected by the players and media, his strategic calls as Blue Jays’ manager haven’t been particularly impressive and it’s possible that the Blue Jays will be willing to part with him—if that’s the case, then buyer beware. My first question if the Blue Jays are open to letting him go (to a division rival no less!) would be to ask why.

Both Varitek and Farrell are examples of clinging to the past, placating the tantrum-throwing players and media, and haphazardly plastering over fundamental problems that have to be repaired correctly in order to move forward. They’re chasing championships as they did when they were legitimate contenders, but now they’re only speeding their descent and postponing the inevitable.

Buster Olney implies that the turmoil surrounding the Red Sox will prevent free agents from wanting to enter the cauldron. This is why it’s nonsensical to look at teams that are having issues and call them a permanent wasteland where players won’t want to go. It was only a year and a half ago when players wanted to go to the Red Sox because they paid well and the team had a chance to win. They were controversial and a target of media scrutiny, but it wasn’t as perceptively negative as it is now. Of course players aren’t going to want to go there when they have options.

It’s not about Valentine. This is going to get progressively worse unless the Red Sox make substantial changes to the clubhouse and I don’t mean in the manager’s office. It’s the players. Not the manager. And if anyone from Francona to Farrell to Varitek to Whitey Herzog, Dick Williams, John McGraw or Walter Alston were managing this group, they wouldn’t be any better than they are now.

If I were Valentine, I’d be keeping a diary of this season for a book because, barring a miracle, he’s not going to be back in 2013 to fulfill the second year of his contract and he can make a significant amount of money telling the world exactly what’s going on in that clubhouse and disintegrating organization. He can call it “Fifty Shades of Red” and refer to the players’ eyes from crying; the fans’ faces at their anger; the media’s fire stoking; the front office’s embarrassment; and the bloodletting that’s most assuredly on its way.

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What To Expect From the New Dodgers’ Ownership

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Dodgers’ owner Frank McCourt selected a group led by former Los Angeles Lakers star and NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson and former Braves, Nationals and Atlanta Hawks team president Stan Kasten as the winning bidder to purchase his team—NY Times Story.

It’s a good choice to return the Dodgers to glory on and off the field and reclaim their place as one of the most star-studded, glamourous and stable franchises in baseball.

Here’s why:

Star power and ruthlessness.

Magic Johnson wasn’t just one of the greatest basketball players in history. He was glitzy; he was clutch; he was fearless; and he was ruthless. That has extended into his post-athletic career as he dealt with HIV and became a brilliant and successful businessman.

Magic isn’t simply a smiling face who knows everyone in L.A. and can gladhand at parties as a prize showhorse. It was Magic who, in 1982, orchestrated the ouster of coach Paul Westhead in favor of Pat Riley. He was a brutal competitor and transferred that into his battle against a dreaded disease that many thought would kill him within five years and into the business world.

Competence.

Kasten has helmed and helped turn around moribund franchises three times and the Dodgers are going to be the fourth.

He installs quality people and lets them do their jobs while allowing them the freedom to spend money on the big league product and build through the draft.

With Magic and Kasten, the speculation will be that they’re going to want a “name” GM to run the team. Current Dodgers’ GM Ned Colletti has an out in his contract following this season if there’s an ownership change.

One thing I don’t want to hear is the inevitable mentioning of the name Billy Beane to run the Dodgers.

The only people who want Beane are the media members and the Hollywood types who either don’t know or don’t want to know the true scope of Beane’s work with the Athletics—that he’s a propped up character whose true resume bears no resemblance to the falsehoods and contradictions in Moneyball.

They’d be better off hiring Brad Pitt.

Old school flavors and swagger.

The easy storyline will be that the Dodgers are going to find some young, impressively educated “genius” to take over the franchise and rebuild it from top-to-bottom.

The only name I would pursue toward that end would be Andrew Friedman.

Johnson won’t want to deal with some young kid walking in and whispering sweet nothings in his ear about how much cheaper and better the Dodgers are going to be. Johnson will want someone who’s competent in being the front man for the club with swagger and charm while simultaneously running the organization correctly and not to generate headlines as the new “genius”.

Kasten worked with older GMs Bobby Cox, John Schuerholz and Mike Rizzo and, barring Friedman (who I think is a viable possibility), they’ll hire a veteran baseball guy with automatic name recognition and a track record.

Bolstering the foundation; stability and recognizability in the manager’s office.

Going back to their initial years in Los Angeles, the “Dodgers Way” was to have stability in the manager’s office with Walter Alston and Tommy Lasorda; a group of players that they could build around; and smart free agent signings.

With Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers already have top-level stars on both sides of the ball. Once you have that, two giant pieces of the puzzle are in place.

Given the circumstances, Don Mattingly has done an admirable job as the manager and will deserve another chance elsewhere, but I would expect Magic will have a historical Dodger in mind to take over the team on the field. Lasorda has forever pushed one of his favorite players as a potential manager and, in spite of my general belief that pitchers aren’t my first choice as managers and inexperience is a definite negative, I’d make an exception in one case: Orel Hershiser.

Hershiser carried the Dodgers to the World Series in 1988—something Magic saw first hand—with 59 straight scoreless innings and post-season dominance in upsetting the Mets and A’s; he’d be a perfect choice on and off the field.

A rapid return to prominence.

The McCourt tenure was embarrassing for the revelations that the team was used as a virtual cash machine to fund a lavish lifestyle for the owners; the Bryan Stow beating was a horrible example of ignorance to ancillary factors—safety—that make an organization fan friendly and sound.

On the field, the product was actually quite good. McCourt’s Dodgers made the playoffs in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2009 and with a little luck could’ve won a championship or two.

But he’s leaving.

Magic and Kasten are going to learn from the Dodgers’ history—the good and bad—and follow the historical blueprint that made them this valuable in the first place. They’ll return to what made the Dodgers what they were and it’s going to happen as early as 2013.

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I’ll be a guest with Mike Silva of New York Baseball Digest tonight at 8 PM EST talking about my book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide.

Click here to check it out.

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