(Editor’s note: Today begins our “10 Questions in 10 Days” series leading into Red Sox spring training, which officially kicks off Feb. 19, when pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report.)
A year ago at this time, Bobby Valentine was directing traffic in a blizzard, in his role as public safety director for his hometown of Stamford, Conn. Now as new manager of the Red Sox, Valentine finds himself charged with navigating past another storm, the Great Collapse of 2011, which swallowed up a Red Sox season, took down a manager, splattered the general manager on his way out of town and shredded a few other reputations along the way.
At first blush, Valentine is not the obvious candidate to restore order -- in his previous incarnation as a big-league manager, with the New York Mets, the normally understated Sporting News ran a cover story asking, WHY DOES EVERYONE HATE BOBBY V? He was battler, bluster, Barnum and baseball savant all compressed into one tightly wrapped package, ready to bare his teeth and put up skinned knuckles to any challenger, be it his players, his bosses, the opposing dugout or the paid scribblers who took sides in chronicling his every move.
He took the Mets to the playoffs, and then a World Series, and yet his departure after the 2002 season was met more with relief than regret. He had to go to the other side of the world to rehabilitate his image, and in Japan won the adulation he craved but never fully realized here, taking an also-ran to its first Japan Series title in 31 years. Given near-total control of the Chiba Lotte Marines, Valentine brought passion, persistence and brilliance that was rewarded with success on the field, not to mention a fattened bank account.
While in Japan, Valentine says, he had opportunities to come back and manage in the big leagues, the Rays, Marlins and Dodgers all showing varying degrees of interest, but when he did return stateside, it was as an ESPN broadcaster. He came late to the Red Sox managerial search -- at least the one conducted publicly by new GM Ben Cherington -- but embraced the opportunity first proffered him by Sox CEO Larry Lucchino. At 62, he said, Valentine saw the Red Sox position as a dream job, and a chance to realize his greatest unfulfilled ambition, winning a World Series.
In his first two months on the job, Valentine has displayed the boundless energy for which he is known, recasting the coaching staff, reaching out to his players, regaling fans on the banquet circuit and reiterating at every opportunity his respect for, and appreciation of, Cherington, who has responded positively in kind.
The true hard work lies ahead. Valentine’s predecessor, Terry Francona, left with two World Series rings and a strong argument that he was the best manager the team has ever had. Chances are this team, as Francona has acknowledged, is ready for a new voice, but will the players be prepared, after the laid-back Francona, for the in-your-face style of Valentine who, in past incarnations at least, pulled no punches?
In what he surely views as his last, best chance, perhaps Valentine will more deftly exercise diplomacy when it’s called for, deflect the spotlight away when it shines too brightly on him at the expense of the team, and remain loyal to the idea of close collaboration over open confrontation with the front office. There is little doubt that he will have few peers in extracting every bit of talent out of his roster.
The Red Sox, in the reign of John Henry, have avoided the pursuit of a powerful presence in the dugout. They have one now. Will the “V” in Bobby V stand for victory, as the Red Sox believe, or vanity, as Valentine’s many critics claim? The great experiment is about to begin.
Coming Wednesday: Who will play shortstop?