Commentary

Lesson learned

How a speech to 100 college kids got Bobby Valentine in hot water

Updated: November 29, 2011, 1:39 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- He grew up in Newton, went to day school in Brookline, and took the Green Line whenever he could to sit in the Fenway Park bleachers with his buddies. "The Red Sox were the closest thing I had to religion," he said.

So as a Boston Red Sox fan, when the manager of the New York Mets, Bobby Valentine, came to his university to speak, he skipped it. Midterms were coming up, and as executive editor of the University of Pennsylvania student newspaper, Binyamin Appelbaum was otherwise occupied.

[+] EnlargeBobby Valentine
AP Photo/ Ed BetzBobby Valentine's critical comments at Penn in 2000 created a firestorm in New York and on campus.

A rookie reporter on her first assignment was dispatched to the event, at the Wharton Wide World of Sports Club, where Valentine had been invited to speak on the business of baseball. A story was filed, a headline was slapped on, and the story was buried deep on an inside page. Pretty boring stuff, Appelbaum recalled.

"I didn't think anything about it," he said. "A couple of days later, it exploded."

Appelbaum is now a reporter in the Washington bureau of the New York Times, but on Monday, he paused to remember one of the more incendiary events in Valentine's tenure as manager of the Mets, one that dominated the back pages of the New York City tabloids for a few days in 2000, prompted Mets general manager Steve Phillips to make an unscheduled trip to confront his manager, and had big-city reporters fanning across the Penn campus.

All because of Bobby Valentine's speech to a group of about 100 college kids.

What happened? In the aftermath of the speech, a Penn student had gone to a Mets' fan website and posted that Valentine had ripped Mets management and some of his players.

"I came to my office," Appelbaum said, "and there was a note from a reporter from the New York Daily News, I think, who said he was on campus. I had a voice mail from the New York Times, and then one of the reporters walked into my office.

"All of a sudden I was in a media circus, struggling to figure out what it was all about. I don't normally read New York Met fans' websites."

Soon enough, Appelbaum discovered what the fuss was all about. What already was a hot topic in New York -- the strained relationship between Phillips and Valentine -- had just been turned up to blast-furnace temperatures.

"Just like a match on dry tinder," Appelbaum said. "This was a case where things blew up when they were primed to blow up. And it didn't take much."

And a college newspaper was in the middle of it, no one more so than the fledgling reporter, who answered her phone and found Valentine on the line with a request, Appelbaum said.

Knowing that she had taped his speech, Valentine asked her not to publish the transcript.

Her reaction? "She locked her door and wouldn't come out of her room with the tape," Appelbaum said. "She was so terrified."

Appelbaum and his fellow editors spent hours discussing what they should do. In the end, they knew they had to publish the speech, or at least the part of it the reporter had taped before her recorder crapped out. Complicating matters was that this had all come to light at the end of the week, and the paper didn't publish on weekends.

The big-city dailies weren't inclined to wait. They pressured Appelbaum to release the transcript. When you're an aspiring journalist, it's not easy to say no to people who you hope might one day hire you, but the school paper held onto its exclusive.

The controversy lost some of its steam when the blogger confessed to fabricating some of his comments.

"Believe me, I never had the intention of creating such a stir," the student said, as reported by the Daily Pennsylvanian. "I just wanted to share some of my interpretations with some lunatics on a baseball board. This has just gotten way out of hand, and every party involved has certainly been adversely affected."

But Valentine was not entirely innocent, as the student paper reported that Monday when it published excerpts of the speech. Valentine may not have been as inflammatory as the blogger had said, but he did take his share of shots.

Valentine criticized Phillips' failure to sign Japanese reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki the previous winter. "I was a proponent during the offseason to say, 'Let's boost our bullpen,'" Valentine said. "I thought that if we can sign this kid Sasaki, who's a free agent, it would have cost us no talent, just a little money, and we would have one heck of a baseball team right now. But the group who makes the decisions decides that wasn't a good idea."

The manager also appeared to be taking a shot at Derek Bell, who appeared to be the $5 million player Valentine was referring to when talking about another player, Benny Agbayani.

"Benny's in that situation where some would say if he was given 600 at-bats, he would have a lot more production than someone else that's making $5 million and getting 600 at-bats," Valentine said.

After meeting with Phillips in Pittsburgh, Valentine weathered the storm. The Mets went to the World Series that season, and it wasn't until two years later that Valentine was fired.

Things worked out OK for Appelbaum too. He was hired out of school by the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, went to the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, where he was a finalist for a Pulitzer, then worked briefly for his hometown Boston Globe before winding up at the Times. It was a formative experience, he said, to be on the "other end of the lens. It taught me empathy."

He remains a Red Sox fan, of course. His thoughts on Valentine potentially becoming manager of his favorite team?

"The way things played out at the end of the season was a real shock to me, '' he said. "Obviously things fell apart in a really bad way, but I didn't see the need for a change.

"I don't know, [Valentine] was quite a head case when he was in charge of the Mets. It jarred me, surprised me to see he was under consideration. I guess we'll see how he handles the Red Sox."

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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