Taking the measure of a man, not the job

September, 11, 2012
9/11/12
1:05
AM ET
BOSTON -- In the course of his notorious WEEI interview last week, Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said he was not worried about whether he would be fired after the season.

“This is not who I am,’’ Valentine said of the job. “This is just what I am.

“I am concerned with who I am.”

[+] EnlargeValentine
Howard Earl Simmons/Getty ImagesAs manager of the Mets, Bobby Valentine played a big supporting role in New York City in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Because of the chaotic nature of a season that listed badly from the start and now has disintegrated, Valentine has been mostly viewed in Boston through a very narrow lens, one whose vision seldom glimpsed anything more than the man in the uniform. That image is clouded, controversial and contradictory, the radiant confidence of last December dissolving into the weary disappointment of September.

We know he loved riding his bike. We know he spoke to plenty of groups and visited sick kids in hospitals, liked a good book and bouquet of wine. But the “who I am’’ part of the picture, he’ll probably be gone before we even begin to know.

So perhaps on this day, when Major League Baseball plans observances at ballparks in memory of 9/11, it is worth remembering what Bobby Valentine showed himself to be 11 years ago.

Valentine was manager of the Mets then, in a city upon which unspeakable terror was visited. For days, even weeks, New York lived in fear of another attack. Valentine, like his fellow New Yorkers, had been touched personally by the tragedy. Friends and acquaintances had worked in the Twin Towers.

He was shaken, saddened, angered -- and resolute.

“We need to show that we are stronger,’’ Valentine said.

There were no games in Shea Stadium in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, baseball having shut down and uncertain of when it would resume.

Shea’s vast parking lots, however, hummed with activity. They had become a staging area for relief supplies flooding into the city. In HBO’s deeply affecting documentary, “Nine Innings from Ground Zero,’’ which can be seen on demand, there are scenes of Valentine helping to load boxes of supplies into trucks, directing others, coordinating, managing. He pitched in on a Saturday, stayed until 3 a.m., and was back five hours later.

The rest of the team took a charter flight to Pittsburgh, where play was about to resume. Valentine elected to fly commercial, still a fearful proposition for many people, the next day.

The Mets as a team, 34 players strong at the time, voted to donate a day’s pay to the New York Police & Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund established years earlier by Rusty Staub, the ex-Met and broadcaster who owned a couple of thriving restaurants in town. Valentine and his entire coaching staff elected to do the same. Staub had established the fund in 1985; after 2001, it raised in excess of $100 million.

On Sept. 17, 2001, six days after the planes flew into the towers, the Mets prepared to play the Pirates in Pittsburgh. They planned to dispense with their usual caps and wear the hats of New York’s fire department, police department and emergency service workers. A couple of hours before the game, they were told that MLB would not allow them to do so.

Valentine passed them out anyway, handing one to each player as he passed down the runway to the dugout. He wore one, too. The hats became a moving symbol of the team’s support. The Mets scored three in the ninth to beat the Pirates, 4-1.

The Mets, not the Yankees, played the first game in New York after 9/11. It was a Friday night, Sept. 21. Valentine had wondered before the game whether fans would stay away because of the uncertainty that gripped the city.

Instead, 41,235 fans packed the place, and Mike Piazza hit a game-winning home run in the eighth, a cathartic moment for a city given a brief respite from its grief.

"I've never been more proud of wearing a baseball uniform than I was then,’’ Valentine said in an interview last year on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. “I was never more proud of being an American than I was during that time."

Valentine’s commitment did not end there. The story has been told, here and elsewhere, of the enduring bond he formed with two kids, a brother and sister, whose dad died in one of the towers. Matty and Jamie Conroy both are now at Northeastern, where Jamie stars on the women’s basketball team. Valentine could not be prouder of both of them.

“This is not who I am,’’ the manager said last week. “This is just what I am.

“I am concerned,’’ the man said last week, “with who I am.”

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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