- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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The most encouraging part of the Boston Red Sox-Bobby Valentine grand experiment that begins with the start of spring training this weekend is that at this stage of their epochal histories, there is little left unexcavated about the 61-year-old Valentine or the team he's inheriting.
It's well-documented that Valentine has a fascinating, but labyrinthine, brain and personality. At any moment, he's liable to zigzag off course like a butterfly, philosophically dig in until he's as immovable as a foothill, or amaze with a startling insight or indefatigable burst of energy that will enthrall everyone around him -- or, alas, irritate the hell out of everyone instead. This pattern is not an "if" thing. It's a "when" thing. So get used to it. Just Wednesday, Valentine launched into this long exposition about why the "frowning" about his demanding spring camp plans is "baloney."
And the Red Sox? The club he's inheriting collapsed beneath too much beer and chicken and bad pitching last September, and death-spiraled to 20 losses in its last 27 games to miss the playoffs. You know the rest. A nuclear winter ensued. Top management ran general manager Theo Epstein off and stood accused of smearing manager Terry Francona with leaks on his way out the door, then gave the unmistakable impression that it wasn't rookie general manager Ben Cherington's first choice to toss a stick of dynamite like Valentine into a clubhouse that hasn't changed much since last season.
But look at the bright side. The returning Sox players and Valentine have something to prove.
This is spring training, where hope always springs anew.
And at this stage of his life and career, it's entirely possible to send Valentine into this next adventure with his own Bobby V 5.0™ Owner's Manual -- you know, a user's guide culled from his previous 42 years in professional baseball that contains the troubleshooting information and FAQs needed for proper operation, maintenance and care.
The Bobby V 5.0™ Owner's Manual should help the Red Sox obtain maximum enjoyment from their new manager. Whatever the concerns, they'll find the answers here:
1. INNOVATIVE CONSTRUCTION: It's true, the Bobby V 5.0™ model has been fired from four previous managerial jobs (Rangers, Mets and twice with the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan). But he has a little of the Larry Brown phenomenon going for him. Even people who fire Valentine can't seem to hold his many peccadilloes against him or rule out rehiring him, as these postpartum testimonials from former president George W. Bush, once a co-owner of the Texas Rangers, and former Mets GM Steve Phillips show. Valentine's ex-bosses usually end up saying it's just Bobby being Bobby -- but he's a genius, you know. And how great is that?
Players' opinions of Valentine are similarly bipolar. Matt Franco, the ex-Met, once told a friend: "Nobody loves Bobby V more than I do. But sometimes nobody wants to punch him in the face more than me, either."
2. STATE-OF-THE-ART ACCELERATION: Your new Bobby V 5.0™ has produced instant results at all four of his managerial stops. The Texas Rangers improved by 25 wins in his first full season. The Mets leaped up 17 wins the first year he came on board. He somehow got a Mets team led by starting pitchers Rick Reed and Glendon Rusch and a starting outfield of Jay Payton, Benny Agbayani and Timo Perez to the 1999 National League Championship Series and then the 2000 World Series (where they lost 4-1 to a Yankees' club in the midst of a dynastic run). Overall, Valentine's Mets finished above .500 in six of his seven seasons, a run the franchise hasn't matched since. He also transformed the moribund Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan into winners during both of his stints there, and won the Japan league championship in 2005. When he was sent packing because the Marines no longer wanted to pay his high salary, fans rebelled with a "Keep Bobby" petition signed by more than 120,000 people.
3. BONUS HARD-SHELL CONSTRUCTION: The exterior casing on the Bobby V 5.0™ has been proven to survive harsher conditions than beer and chicken. Once, when he managed the Mets' zoo, it came out that oft-injured reliever Jason Isringhausen's idea of rehabbing included playing softball for a strip club team. When Valentine's Mets lost the 1999 NLCS, it was learned that Rickey Henderson and Bobby Bonilla were playing cards in the clubhouse as their teammates out on the field were dropping the clincher to the Braves; the Mets recovered the very next season, when Valentine pushed his players a step further to win the NL pennant.
4. SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE ENGINEERING: : After the 9/11 attacks in New York in 2001, Valentine was praised (not for the first time) for his tireless community work, and he still maintains close relationships with families of some of the victims. After landing the Red Sox job, he barnstormed around to meet with fans and players and drum up goodwill. "Nobody cares more. He's got a heart of gold," says Larry Rocca, a former journalist who covered Valentine in New York and later worked for him with the Chiba Marines.
5. HEAT-SEEKING NAVIGATION SYSTEM: Your new Bobby V 5.0™ is factory-programmed to seek and enjoy tweaking rivals, even sacred cows. He endeared himself to Japanese fans after his Chiba team won the 2005 championship by challenging Major League Baseball to send over that year's World Series champion, the Chicago White Sox, for a winner-take-all showdown. He's been known to feud with reporters. He used to have long-running hissing matches with opposing managers Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox. This January, at baseball's winter meetings, he laughed and said he'd already told Yankees manager Joe Girardi, "I hate the Yankees."
Valentine then dismissed the Yankees' biggest roster moves (Michael Pineda, Hiroki Kuroda) with some frank critiques that amounted to "Eh " This, though the Red Sox added next to nothing this offseason while they lost closer Jonathan Papelbon, let captain Jason Varitek walk, need Carl Crawford to rebound from wrist problems, and have a question-filled starting pitching staff themselves.
6. LONG-LASTING APPEAL: The Bobby V 5.0™ comes equipped with a history with the Red Sox. This isn't the first time Boston president Larry Lucchino thought about hiring Valentine after he had success in Japan. Though it's little-known, Lucchino privately spoke to Valentine before Francona was hired in 2004. The Sox had a formal working relationship with the Chiba Marines, including contractual language stipulating that if Valentine left, the agreement was off.
FAQs and Troubleshooting
1. WHAT KIND OF SOFTWARE DOES THE BOBBY V USE? Lucchino alluded to this at Valentine's introductory press conference: tactical brilliance, shrewd talent-evaluation skills, bottomless energy, a charismatic effect on fans and an all-consuming drive to win.
2. IS THE BOBBY V COMPATIBLE WITH OTHER DEVICES? Not always. Even if you wear a Red Sox uniform or are loyal to him, use with caution. Heed danger signs. Valentine does not suffer fools gladly. He does not always operate well when overheated. He is easily baited. Losing makes him miserable. He will sometimes say something controversial because staying true to his conviction is more important to him that the predictable fallout that comes next. He can have trouble with authority figures if organizational roles aren't clearly defined or cohorts do not match his meticulous preparation, especially if he thinks he's smarter than them. Seek cover.
3. WHAT ARE THE IMPROVEMENTS MADE TO THE BOBBY V 5.0™ versus PREVIOUS VERSIONS? The humility and emotion Valentine showed at his introductory Red Sox press conference was striking. He sincerely doesn't care that he was the Plan B choice. He volunteered that he didn't dare think such a job might be his after a 10-year absence from a major league dugout. More recently, he said, "I used to think I was the guy who had all the answers. Now I have so many questions."
4. WHAT IS THE EXPECTED SHELF LIFE? Your Bobby V 5.0™ generally operates well for 5-6 years before fuses need to be replaced. Beware if boredom overtakes his hyperactive mind. But in the interim, it is generally advisable to keep an open mind and allow that one of the many bromides he likes to repeat could indeed come true: "With passion and commitment, magic can happen."
NOTE: The Bobby V 5.0™ comes with no warranty. But the Red Sox club that Valentine takes over is closer to making "magic" than repeating last season's disaster. And it seems he's never been better situated to reprove another axiom: A beautiful mind is a terrible thing to waste.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A word to the wise for the Red Sox: Always keep a copy of the Bobby Valentine Owner's Manual handy during his tenure as manager.