Commentary

Bobby V's got Bombers on the brain

The Man Who Invented Baseball seems obsessed with the 27-time champions

Updated: March 1, 2012, 7:44 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- On the day Bobby Valentine invented baseball, that is not the way he drew up the relay play.

The way he figured it out, on the ball hit to right field, the shortstop is supposed to go out and take the deep relay, the second baseman backs him up and the first baseman is the floater, roaming the infield for an overthrow and deciding whether the play should be to home or to third.

[+] EnlargeBobby Valentine
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesDon't look at us, look at them! Bobby Valentine has spent a lot of time deflecting the focus from the Sawx's dysfunction to the Bronx Bombers.

That is no doubt the reason Valentine has had so much trouble for the past 11 years getting his mind around the possibility that the Yankees actually knew what they were doing that night in Oakland, Oct. 13, 2001, when Derek Jeter executed the famous flip play that cut down Jeremy Giambi at the plate and turned the American League Division Series to the Yankees.

If you recall, Shane Spencer fielded Terrence Long's seventh-inning drive to right and airmailed his relay over the heads of Alfonso Soriano and Tino Martinez to the first-base side of home plate. Jeter, cutting across the diamond, snagged the ball and flipped it backhand to Jorge Posada, who tagged out Giambi, who chose to score standing up. The play preserved the Yankees' 1-0 lead and saved them from possibly getting swept. Instead, they won the next two games, and the series.

And the Jeter play is remembered not only for its timeliness and athleticism, but for the judgment of the man who made it.

"He's probably the only guy who makes that play," said Terry Francona, Valentine's immediate predecessor in the Red Sox manager's office. "He sees the field better than anybody in baseball."

But that's not the right way you do it, Bobby Valentine insists, because that is not the way Bobby Valentine would do it.

Why we are even having this conversation more than a decade after the fact is beside the point. When the new manager of the Boston Red Sox goes out of his way to needle the Yankees as often as Valentine has in his first two months on the job, it is going to be news at least until we all get tired of it.

And on this particular day, it was as if the baseball gods had conspired to take Bobby Valentine's words and make him look, well, a little foolish.

Which is probably why, by mid-afternoon, we got this out of Red Sox camp from Bobby Valentine: "Total mistake on my part that they don't practice it. I want it on the record that I love Derek Jeter as a player. It was not a slight towards him. I love him as a guy, too."

And we all should love Bobby Valentine for injecting some new blood into a rivalry that was looking for some Geritol or Red Bull to bring it back to life. I mean, playing a team 18 times a year can get a little stale, especially when one of them drops out of the race the way the Red Sox did last year.

But now, here comes Bobby Valentine, and suddenly everything that was getting old feels new again.

In the morning, there was Derek Jeter essentially laughing at Valentine's assertion that the Yankees could not possibly have practiced such a play, and that even if they did, Jeter wasn't where he should have been.

Then, about an hour later, there were the Yankees, on the field, working on the very thing that Bobby Valentine said they could not possibly have worked on.

The final exclamation point came when, on a line drive to right field, the Yankees virtually duplicated their unorthodox approach to the relay, sending the second baseman out to right field for the deep relay, the first baseman trailing him by 25 feet or so, and Jeter cutting across the infield in case the throw sailed high.

And as he charged toward the home dugout, Jeter, without missing a beat, looked up at a half-dozen Yankees beat writers watching the workout and said, "See? We work on it."

The crack was loud enough to draw a roar of laughter from the small crowd in the stands at The Boss, because for one day at least, everyone was in on the joke.

Everyone, that is, but Bobby Valentine.

(In fairness, Eric Chavez, on the wrong end of The Flip as an Oakland A in 2001, had never seen the play either, saying, "We would never let our first baseman handle a relay," but back then, the Oakland first baseman was named Jason Giambi.)

"That play's been in our manual for 20 years," said Mick Kelleher, the Yankees' first base and infield coach. "We've been using that since before Jeter was in the big leagues."

According to Kelleher, Don Zimmer brought the play with him from Chicago after he ended his stint as Cubs manager in 1991. Joe Girardi liked it so much that he took it with him to Florida when he managed the Marlins.

"Different organizations do it different ways," Kelleher said. "That's the way this organization does it."

Which is something Bobby Valentine didn't seem to get, and perhaps never has, that his way is not the only way of doing things.

"I don't know why he said it. I wasn't there when he was asked the question," Girardi said. "I think managers have reasons why they do things. He probably had a reason why he made the comments."

And whether Bobby Valentine thinks it was the right way to do it or not, the bottom line is this: It worked. And it will be remembered in New York baseball lore the way people remember Babe Ruth's called shot or Bobby Thomson's shot heard round the world.

Maybe constantly tweaking the Yankees is his way of motivating his complacent team -- that, and a ban on clubhouse booze -- or maybe it's a way of deflecting the focus from his players and directing it at himself.

Or maybe the Yankees are so deep in his head that he simply can't help himself. How else to explain why, in the course of praising a player (Jason Varitek) who is about to retire, Valentine would choose to dig up one of his least gallant moments, the day he initiated a fistfight with Alex Rodriguez while protected behind a catcher's suit of armor, mask and all?

It's barely been 60 days on the job but already, Valentine seems more obsessed with the Yankees than Ahab was with the whale, and we all know how that one turned out.

But the chase was fun while it lasted and with Valentine in Boston, this chase will be fun again, too.

The Man Who Invented Baseball versus the team that holds the patent on winning. Now that's a matchup that should hold our interest through this summer, and a few more after that.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
Follow Wallace on Twitter »  Chat archive »

EDITORS' PICKS

ALSO SEE