- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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The gratuitous tweaking Tuesday of Alex Rodriguez for the catcher's mitt facial he got from Jason Varitek once upon a time? That's old material. The same goes for new Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine's "I hate the Yankees" decree that he first uttered at baseball's winter meetings last month. It might have sounded fresh to New Englanders' ears, but New Yorkers know that could've come out of Bobby V's mouth in any of the years he managed the Mets. This was the real departure Valentine made Tuesday: He did not really mock "The Flip" too, did he?
Not The Flip -- one of the most sacrosanct pieces of the Derek Jeter legend.
"I think [Jeter] was out of position and the ball gets [Jeremy Giambi] out if [Jeter] doesn't touch it, personally," Valentine said, referring to the renowned play in the 2001 ALDS in which Jeter went racing all the way from his shortstop position to well down the first-base line to retrieve a throw that had sailed over two Yankees cutoff men, then threw out Oakland's Giambi with a backhand flip to home plate that helped save the Yanks from elimination.
Who will be next in Bobby V's crosshairs? Aaron (Bleeping) Boone and his epochal walkoff home run in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS? Bucky Dent, you might want to keep the hallway light on at night -- Bobby V may be coming for you, too. Even Babe Ruth is suddenly in play again for the first time since Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez plunked a few Yankees, face-planted Yanks coach Don Zimmer and growled he'd drill the Babe in the ass, too, if he stepped in the batter's box against him.
Anyone who's spent the last few seasons muttering that the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry had lost a little juice or seemed a little forced needn't worry anymore now that Valentine -- and, more precisely, his sodium pentothal-fueled mouth -- is back.
If you add up all the sacred cows and sitting ducks Valentine has gored in the last six weeks alone, it's going to be hard to wait for the first Red Sox-Yankees showdown of the regular season on April 20 at Fenway Park.
Valentine gives new meaning to the term "rotisserie baseball."
The Red Sox will always be able to preen about how they rallied from a three-game deficit to beat the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and go on to win their first title in 86 years. But now the Yankees have fresh ammunition. What's to stop their fans from waving chicken drumsticks and beer steins at the Red Sox the first time they pull into Yankee Stadium, just to remind the Sox of last season's clubhouse scandal and epic September collapse?
Normally, nobody really works up a good head of steam over who the opposing team's manager is. But Valentine may prove to be the exception.
He hasn't managed a big league game since the Mets fired him 10 seasons ago. But his mouth and his ego have never been in mothballs. After Valentine won the Japanese championship in 2005 during the second stint with the Chiba Lotte Marines, he challenged that season's World Series champs, the Chicago White Sox, to a winner-take-all showdown for the "real" world title, and Japanese fans have never quit loving Valentine for it.
During his time as an ESPN baseball analyst, Valentine never gave up wanting to manage again and yet he regularly harpooned players, front-office types and umpires he might need again. He got on alpha dog Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett for things like working too slowly on the mound, and then bluntly asked Beckett during their get-to-know-you chat this winter if all was forgotten.
How did reporters know this? Because Bobby V told them.
Beckett was so thrilled (not) to hear that, he sniffed when asked about it the very first day he arrived at spring training and insisted he didn't remember much of the discussion.
Valentine is 61, but he's never really grown out of being a provocateur, a needler, a man who's often accused of having no filter. He's exceedingly bright. He's an original thinker with energy and commitment to spare, and he typically brings instant success wherever he goes. The Texas Rangers improved by 25 wins his first full season there. The Mets' win total leaped by 17. And this Red Sox team looks ready to win big again, too.
And yet one of his career-long blind spots is he just can't resist taking the bait when someone questions his decisions. And he can't seem to avoid turning even the most innocuous chore that comes with the high office of baseball manager -- like, say, giving a valedictory on Varitek's great career when Varitek announced his retirement the other day -- then somehow turning it into a tangential headline like "Valentine jabs A-Rod and Jeter," thereby diluting what was just supposed to be Varitek's fond farewell.
"Who cares? Why are we even talking about this? He must be bored over there," Jeter said of Valentine when reporters asked for his reaction Wednesday.
A-Rod laughed and said, "I'm not gonna win many battles here when it comes to words, especially against Bobby. But I will tell you this: I got my new press secretary that should be landing in couple of days, Reggie Jackson, so I'll let him handle that, all right?"
The Red Sox made Valentine their surprise hire in December. Boston began spring training only 10 days ago. Yet Valentine's daily press briefings are already must-listen sessions because you never know when he's going to behave like he's shooting skeet: Ready. Aim. Ka-BOOM.
Behold what else he's said recently, besides jabbing A-Rod and Jeter with a sharp stick on Tuesday:
• Jan. 14: When asked to critique the Yankees' biggest offseason additions, pitchers Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda, Valentine's reaction was essentially, "Eh." He noted Pineda faded late in 2011, and Kuroda, an ex-Dodger, was "a year older" and leaving a "great pitcher's park" for the much tougher American League.
• Feb. 16: Perhaps remembering the unattributed reports that some Red Sox players were not "thrilled" with his hiring, Valentine waited until pitchers and catchers were in camp only four days before a long-winded dissertation on why the "frowning" about how he's running a more demanding spring training camp than his predecessor, Terry Francona, is "baloney."
• Sunday: When Francona, now an ESPN baseball analyst, dismissed Valentine's just-announced clubhouse ban on alcohol as a "PR move" meant to airbrush over last season's disastrous 7-20 finish, Valentine shot back, "How is it a PR move" when 20 other teams also ban alcohol? Then, referring to how he and Francona essentially swapped jobs, Valentine added, "Remember, you're getting paid over there for saying stuff, you get paid over here for doing stuff. I've done both."
Very soon we are going to hear opponents scoff and say they are not going against Valentine as much as they are playing the Red Sox. And sometimes that will be a lie.
Valentine used to have running feuds with Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox, and high-strung Yankees skipper Joe Girardi could be the next manager that Valentine gives a facial tic. Tom Glavine once said he'd have never left Atlanta to sign with the Mets if Valentine had still been manager. And although Red Sox slugger David Ortiz backed Valentine's no-alcohol ban the other day like a good soldier, saying the clubhouse "ain't no bar," Beckett -- one of the accused in-game beer drinkers -- has struck a far less contrite tone all spring.
The other day Beckett said the real problem last season was, "The snitching [expletive]."
Get used to the back-and-forth.
As long as Valentine keeps holding court like this, he will always be the pebble in someone's shoe, the irritant in someone's eye, that fellow driver you want to flip off in traffic.
But most of all, Valentine is this: the most provocative thing to happen to the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry in a very long time.