Commentary

Bob McClure just couldn't last

Sour relationship with Bobby Valentine backdrop to Red Sox coach's dismissal

Updated: August 21, 2012, 1:12 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- There was no humiliation in Bob McClure being fired as Boston Red Sox pitching coach Monday. He knew his days were numbered and was just hoping to make it to the end of the season.

The humiliation had come earlier, during a radio interview Aug. 1, in which manager Bobby Valentine was asked a question about visits to the mound and in the course of answering it said, "When Bob McClure was on his two-week vacation. [pause] I'm sorry, not vacation, his two weeks away from the team. …"

[+] EnlargeBob McClure
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaBob McClure, whose staff had the fourth-worst ERA in the American League, was let go because of performance, GM Ben Cherington said.

What Valentine tried to portray as a momentary slip is all that you need to know about the degree to which his relationship with McClure had deteriorated. McClure had taken an absence from the team to attend to a pressing medical emergency involving one of his toddlers. That is not the kind of circumstance that anyone would ever refer to as a "vacation." Unless, of course, Valentine's intent was to take a clear shot at a subordinate who had angered him by being incommunicado while he was away.

A clue that this was all coming to a head may have come Sunday in New York, after a weekend of stories written by reporters sympathetic to Valentine repeatedly made reference to how he had been saddled with coaches not of his own choosing. During his pregame media session, while discussing what lay ahead for rehabbing pitcher John Lackey, Valentine didn't mention McClure in passing. Valentine referred only to what "Randy and Mike" were planning -- Randy being Randy Niemann, the staff assistant who on Monday was promoted to succeed McClure as pitching coach, and Mike presumably Mike Reinold, the rehabilitation therapist coordinator.

Even if Niemann was the one spending the majority of time with Lackey, in better circumstances you would think the pitching coach's opinion would have been referenced in any discussion of when Lackey would pitch again.

But by this point in the season, McClure knew he was a short-timer, even if the team tried to make a few cosmetic changes by going out to the mound more than he had been earlier in the season. Even though Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington was so eager to have McClure on board last fall he hired him weeks before hiring a manager, and even though Valentine had signed off on McClure when he was named manager, the relationship had soured.

McClure may not have anticipated being fired with six weeks left in the season, but he knew that he was not Valentine's man.

It is unclear what caused the breach in the relationship or whether anyone attempted to mediate their differences. Trust and good communication are essential components of the relationship between pitching coach and manager, the pitching coach in many ways often "managing" the staff.

Valentine has always been more hands-on, and while McClure bears some responsibility for the breakdown, Niemann's presence made it easier to work around the 60-year-old veteran.

If Valentine returns as Red Sox manager for the second year of his contract, there's a good chance Niemann will be back too, but not as pitching coach. Bob Apodaca, who was Valentine's hand-picked pitching coach for the New York Mets, earlier this summer resigned his position with the Colorado Rockies, and there is wide speculation that Apodaca will rejoin Valentine in Boston.

Niemann, who was Valentine's bullpen coach with the Mets, could end up with the same role here, although the Red Sox feel like they have the game's best coaching instructor in current bullpen coach Gary Tuck and would hate to part with him. But Tuck barely speaks to Valentine, which makes it an open question whether he would choose to come back if Bobby V. is retained.

Dave Wallace, a longtime pitching coach who did a tour in Boston and is most recognized for the years he spent in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, served under Valentine as Mets pitching coach for two years.

"I wasn't [Valentine's] choice," Wallace, now minor-league pitching coordinator for the Atlanta Braves, said by phone Monday night. "[General manager] Steve Phillips hired me to replace Apodaca."

Hardly the ideal circumstances to begin a job, especially since Phillips and Valentine were engaged in a very open power struggle, but Wallace said he and Valentine were able to make it work, even though they had a strained personal relationship.

"We talked," said Wallace, which already put them ahead of the worst days of the McClure-Valentine relationship. "In my mind, I always wanted to put the job we had ahead of the relationship.

"I think Bobby would say it as well, we did pretty well for a couple of years. We made it to the NLCS the first year and the World Series the next. It never got to the point where we weren't talking. I thought we had a decent professional relationship."

Wallace had a couple of advantages with Valentine that McClure did not. One, he knew Valentine from his long association with the Dodgers and Tom Lasorda, Valentine's managerial mentor. And Wallace, like Valentine, is from Connecticut.

"I thought we got through it," Wallace said. "Bobby has his own set of friends and network of people. But he never insulted me. And I left of my own volition."

Wallace left the Mets to return to the Dodgers in a front-office position.

Cherington insisted Monday night that McClure's dismissal was related to the disappointing performance of the pitching staff. The Red Sox rank 11th in the American League in ERA at 4.31; their starters' ERA is a combined 4.82.

"He's a quality guy, a good coach," Cherington said. "It just didn't work out the way we'd hoped. Whenever it doesn't work out, we have to look at ourselves first and ask what, if anything, we could have done differently to make it work better. So we'll do that, but it just wasn't working out.

"We felt like we needed to make a change. We felt like the right thing to do was to give everyone a fresh start and Bob will get a fresh start, and I fully expect him to get a good opportunity somewhere else."

It begs the question, of course, that if the relationship between Valentine and McClure was so problematic why didn't the team make the change sooner. When a report first surfaced about the issues, McClure insisted they were overblown.

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

Five weeks later, McClure is out of a job. The most plausible explanation for why the Red Sox waited to make a change is that with McClure the team's third pitching coach in three seasons (preceded by John Farrell and Curt Young), the Sox were hoping to stabilize the position and believed they had made a wise choice in McClure. Instead, he became part of the disconnect.

"Bobby is a borderline genius," Wallace said. "A brilliant guy. But his people skills? It's just a shame."

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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