Out of Ben Cherington's hands?
Red Sox's turn away from Sveum and toward Valentine seems against new GM's wishes
MILWAUKEE -- Mighty sporting of the Red Sox to pick up the tab for Dale Sveum's plane ticket from Phoenix and his hotel accommodations here, just so he could become manager of the Chicago Cubs.
Maybe they'll just add that to the bill they've already presented to the Cubs for spiriting away their general manager, Theo Epstein.
Shortly before noon Thursday, Epstein, the Cubs' new president of baseball operations, and his trusty sidekick, new Cubs GM Jed Hoyer, arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel, where Sveum was staying, and headed up to Sveum's room.
An hour later, they emerged, Sveum in tow, and hopped into a black Chevy Suburban, having put the final touches on a three-year contract that brought Boston's pursuit of their former third-base coach to an abrupt end, one that sends all the wrong signals about new Red Sox GM Ben Cherington.
The failure of the Red Sox to extend an offer to Sveum will be perceived as a stunning rebuke to Cherington and his baseball operations staff, who thought they had their man in Sveum. They presented him as such to the Sox ownership troika -- John W. Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino -- when they assembled here for the owners' meetings. And Sveum told close associates he anticipated receiving an offer.
But lunch together Wednesday did not produce said offer, even as word emerged that the Cubs had shown no such hesitation to make one. And now we know why. The Sox owners apparently had their own candidate: 61-year-old Bobby Valentine, whose considerable experience includes managing in three major leagues: the American, the National and the Japanese Pacific.
All signs now seem to point to Valentine, who took the New York Mets to the 2000 World Series and won the Japan Series with Chiba Lotte in 2005, as a leading candidate. According to an industry source, Valentine will meet with Sox officials by the "end of the week," which, if true, would underscore how the decision is not Cherington's to make, since he left for the Dominican Republic on Thursday to scout Cuban phenom Yeonis Cespedes and shake up his international staff.
The former manager of the Texas Rangers and Mets who became a cult hero in Japan before returning to the States, where he now works as an analyst on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball," already has been in informal discussions with Sox ownership. Just where and when -- and with whom -- those talks took place is still to be discovered, but this much is known: Two weeks ago, Lucchino, who in the past had referred to Valentine as a longtime friend, and Valentine appeared together as part of a panel discussion in Hartford.
Is it possible Cherington has known all along about Valentine's candidacy? Sure, but then you'd have to believe he has been deliberately misleading in his public comments, in which he has maintained -- until Wednesday night -- that his five publicly announced candidates were the only names under consideration. It doesn't add up that Cherington would begin his tenure with such a drastic misdirection play, especially when the rest of the process was so transparent.
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"We just want to make sure we get the right person," Lucchino told reporters Thursday. "We have to consider all the possibilities. This is not a process where everybody is walking in lock-step."
The last time the Sox had a managerial opening, Lucchino talked to Valentine about the job, with Valentine maintaining that his failure to criticize Grady Little for leaving in Pedro Martinez in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees may have cost him a job that went to Terry Francona.
"I could have said all the right things and probably continued to interview for the Boston job," Valentine told New York reporters later in Tokyo. "I didn't want to say the right things. I talked to Larry Lucchino and I said, 'You know what, I'm not so sure [Little] did the wrong thing.' He wanted me to say the manager did the wrong thing. I didn't talk to that pitcher. I knew the feeling [Little] had in his stomach about his bullpen. I know what it is like to take out the guy that your team thinks is the best pitcher right now and bring in somebody else out of the bullpen. I wasn't going to say that."
Lucchino disputed that Game 7 was the focus of his conversation with Valentine, and maintained it was just a "casual" call. Valentine never interviewed for the Sox job in '03.
"Yes, I had a conversation with Bobby Valentine when his agent called us after the season," Lucchino said at the time. "Bobby and I have known each other a long time and I would even go so far as to call him a friend. But it was a short and casual call, and it is wrong and indeed ridiculous to say I kept the focus on Grady's decision.''
Valentine had come highly recommended to the Sox in 2003 by Tom Lasorda, the former Dodger manager who had Valentine as a player. Lasorda and Henry had become friends during Henry's term as owner of the Florida Marlins.
"In terms of the strategy of the game, I don't think there's anyone as well prepared as Bobby," Lasorda said then. "With all the Italians up in Boston, he'd be an instant hit up there. He's a Connecticut boy who understands the passion of the fans up there.
"He's a fiery guy, and that's what you need. You need a guy who can come in there and show them who's boss. You need a guy, who before every game puts on a face of enthusiasm that can be contagious to the team. You've got to have some life as a manager. You can't just sit there."
The day did come when Valentine and the Sox had a working relationship. In 2007, after the Red Sox signed Japanese star Daisuke Matsuzaka and Lucchino toured Japan while drumming up marketing opportunities, the Sox entered a three-year working agreement with the Chiba Lotte Marines, the team that Valentine had managed to the Japan Series title in 2005.
That relationship ultimately did not flourish the way both sides envisioned, and Valentine finally returned stateside in 2009 and was hired by ESPN as an analyst. This season he became part of the "Sunday Night Baseball" team, and on the air has rarely shied from expressing an opinion, including sharp criticism of the way the Sox handled Matsuzaka, claiming by Americanizing him they had diminished his effectiveness.
Valentine also interviewed for several managerial jobs, the most recent being last winter with the Milwaukee Brewers, whose hitting coach was a guy named Dale Sveum. Friends always assumed that if the right job came along, Valentine would return to the dugout. A chance to win with the Red Sox would appear to be an ideal fit, at least from his perspective.
"He didn't want a fixer-upper,'' one friend said Thursday.
Look over the roster of past Sox managers, and it's difficult to name another who compares to Valentine in color, charisma, and some would say, ego. If hired, he will bring a commanding presence to the Sox clubhouse, and may well be the right man to clean up the mess left in the wake of last season's collapse.
But it will be impossible for the Red Sox to sell him as Ben Cherington's man.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
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