Commentary

Mismatched Sox wearing on Bobby?

Boston manager Valentine seems to be encountering problems from all directions

Updated: July 13, 2012, 5:17 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Halfway through Bobby Valentine's first season as manager of the Boston Red Sox, signs of disconnects are everywhere, regardless of how much he and others try to downplay them publicly.

Valentine has voiced frustration to associates over his lack of communication with members of his coaching staff, especially pitching coach Bob McClure, but also bullpen coach Gary Tuck and bench coach Tim Bogar. McClure said Thursday such reports "are overblown," noting that he and Valentine spent considerable time before Thursday's workout discussing the team's pitching plans in the second half.

Valentine I would say it's been extremely challenging. I don't know if I can rate it. Major League Baseball is very challenging, and we've had some situations that have added to the mix.

-- Bobby Valentine, on Boston's first half

"There's no animosity," McClure said. "I've never felt slighted. He's never said anything to me that would make me think he feels that way."

McClure was gone for three weeks dealing with a family situation involving an infant son and acknowledges that he had no contact with Valentine during that time. "But that was because 24/7 we were dealing with an emergency situation," McClure said.

Still, it's hard to ignore the signs:

• Tuck keeps his communication with Valentine to a minimum. He is known to walk past the manager without so much as a hello.

• Cleanup hitter Adrian Gonzalez had to come out after the second inning of Sunday's game against the New York Yankees because he was ill. He had said something to Bogar in the dugout, but the manager said he was surprised to find out only afterward that Gonzalez was feeling ill enough to require medication.

"It took me by total surprise," Valentine said in his postgame media session. "If he's going to say anything, it must be something to notice. I saw he and Bogie talking about it, then I didn't hear anything about it. All of a sudden, [Gonzalez] told me."

• David Ortiz publicly stated his support recently for the manager, but another respected player on the team said privately that it was all for show. That same player has gone weeks without speaking to Valentine and said that the manager does not have the support of "anyone" in the clubhouse. That is likely an exaggeration -- another veteran told a friend he has come around on the manager after initially being shocked at his hire -- but Valentine told associates that he knows he is being bad-mouthed in the clubhouse and is at a loss to understand why.

[+] EnlargeJosh Beckett
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty ImagesPitching coach Bob McClure, left, denies any rift with manager Bobby Valentine, who came to the defense of Josh Beckett, right, earlier this year.

• Valentine went out to the mound in Chicago for a visit with his pitcher, and all the infielders joined him for the conference except star second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who remained at his position.

• The team traded away Kevin Youkilis, one of the pillars of a team that won the World Series, a veteran who made no pretense of his deep dislike for the manager after the manager publicly questioned his commitment. Youkilis went to the Chicago White Sox and immediately began performing at the highest level, while teammates left behind privately grumble about his treatment.

• McClure goes to the mound to visit only certain pitchers, while Valentine usually has taken it upon himself to visit the younger pitchers. Valentine has told associates that, at times, McClure tells him little of what was said at the mound; McClure acknowledged that was true, but anytime there was something of significance to report, he always did.

"I'm not exactly a chatty Cathy," he said.

Valentine thought maybe the presence of assistant pitching coach Randy Niemann, who was with him with the New York Mets, might be the source of a problem with McClure, but he told associates that McClure insists that's not the case, which the pitching coach reiterated Thursday. "I think it's all overblown," he said.

McClure was added to the organization before Valentine was hired. Valentine also inherited Bogar and Tuck, both of whom were favorites of predecessor Terry Francona.

• Starting pitcher Clay Buchholz wound up in the hospital with esophagitis, and the manager told associates he found out only belatedly that the condition could have been caused by the use of Toradol, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication. According to a source, the pitcher is one of at least three pitchers on the staff who are regularly injected with Toradol on the days they start, a legal (if injected by a physician), not-uncommon practice in baseball.

• Valentine frequently appears ill-informed about the team's injuries and rehabbing players, in part because it probably shouldn't be the manager's job to impart that information publicly (in Minnesota, Twins GM Terry Ryan tells reporters to come to him with injury-related questions), and partly because there is some friction in the organization, according to sources both inside and outside the team, regarding the amount of authority head physical therapist Mike Reinold exercises. Even though he ostensibly was demoted from head trainer, Reinold appears to have won a power struggle last year with the team's former medical director, Dr. Thomas Gill, who is no longer involved with the ballclub, and there is some feeling within the organization that there is insufficient urgency to get rehabbing players back in action.

• One report says that players are taking their complaints directly to general manager Ben Cherington. Meanwhile, CEO Larry Lucchino, who orchestrated Valentine's hiring, says that the manager is doing an outstanding job.

"I would say it's been extremely challenging,'' Valentine said last weekend. "I don't know if I can rate it. Major League Baseball is very challenging, and we've had some situations that have added to the mix."

It should surprise no one that Valentine would be viewed as a polarizing figure as a Sox manager. Even before he was hired, at least one Sox veteran was assured by a front-office staffer that the team would not be hiring "a Bobby Valentine."

It seems, however, to have confounded Valentine, even though his history has been marked by contentious relationships with players, front office and ownership -- even in Japan, where he initially was hugely popular before having a falling-out with ownership.

Beyond his early-season putdown of Youkilis, for which he was admonished publicly by Cherington, Valentine has steered clear of public spats with anyone wearing the same uniform, his most spirited comments directed at Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon following a bench-clearing incident in Fenway Park. (The teams resume hostilities Friday night in St. Petersburg.) If anything, Valentine has often taken the lead in defending players caught up in public controversy, as when Josh Beckett was skewered publicly for playing golf when he was missing a start because of a back-muscle injury. Whether Beckett believes Valentine did, that's another story.

[+] EnlargeBobby Valentine
AP Photo/Charles KrupaBobby Valentine hasn't had an easy go of it in his first season.

Valentine abandoned Francona's practice of informing players the night before as to whether they would be in the next day's lineup. And he has regularly juggled lineups -- out of necessity, mostly, because of the 23 times the team has used the disabled list for 20 players, but also with apparent disregard to whether some star players would prefer to hit in the same spot in the lineup.

He has, for example, used seven different players in the cleanup spot and has used Mike Aviles, who began the season as the team's leadoff man, in six different positions. Gonzalez, who regularly hit third for the Sox in 2011, has been used in every spot from third to sixth this season.

Players have not publicly griped about the constant shuffling, but in general, it has been evident how rarely a player invokes Valentine's name in any context. That is in marked contrast to Francona, who was noticeably more engaged with the players than Valentine is, though it's no small irony that one of the reasons the Sox privately gave for jettisoning Francona is that his interaction with the players seemed to drop off last season, except for Pedroia.

Valentine tends to keep more distance from the players, preferring to give his coaches more autonomy.

The big question, of course, is how much the team's communication issues and apparent lack of solidarity impact the team's performance.

"You have to establish relationships," explained another manager, who has heard some of the reports of disharmony in the Sox clubhouse. "Then you have to establish trust. Only then can you start to criticize. If you skip a test, they tune you out. And yes, it can affect how your team plays."

Cherington was asked Thursday if he thought the clubhouse dynamic was conducive to a winning atmosphere.

"We've played winning baseball for about two months," he said. "It wasn't like every day in those two months was perfect. We played winning baseball for two months and had a tough week, so we just got to get back to playing winning baseball.

"It's the classic chicken-and-egg thing. When things are going well and you're winning, it feels like a much better atmosphere. When you're not, it doesn't feel as good an atmosphere. I believe we have a group of guys -- everyone in uniform -- who's working hard and talented enough for us to pull together in the second half and win a lot of games. If we do that, the atmosphere will seem pretty good."

In a season of so many injuries, disappointing performances and constant change, it would seem the Sox are still in position to salvage their season. This could turn into a case of a team uniting in its dislike of a manager and turning that into a positive.

Valentine, meanwhile, through his skilled handling of the bullpen, particularly, and his ability to keep the Sox generating offense despite major slumps by Gonzalez and Pedroia (who also has been hurt), has shown the baseball acumen that Lucchino, for one, found so appealing. That might be enough to have the Sox playing in October.

The other possibility, of course, is that this team could suffer a breakdown that would make last September's look like a mere dress rehearsal for calamity.

Information from ESPNBoston.com's Joe McDonald was used in this report.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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