Bobby V is off and running and Red Sox will have to keep up
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Getting Bobby Valentine's autograph is not a passive activity. Implicit in the request for his signature, as Red Sox fans making the pilgrimage to spring training are learning, is consent to match his hurried pace because the club's new manager is in perpetual motion.
Valentine led his first official workout for pitchers and catchers on Tuesday by swiftly cycling between the four practice fields in use, making nearly a dozen clockwise laps from drill to drill. As he passed from Field 6 back to Field 3 he took a quick moment to sign his name for waiting fans, advising them to "walk with me."
On one occasion, however, he reached his destination a few steps ahead of the autograph-seeker. Upon completing his last pen stroke, Valentine realized the fan was no longer by his side. There was no time to stop, so Valentine handed the signed ball to an usher and said, "Give this to somebody." (A moment later, the ball's rightful owner arrived to retrieve it.)
For nearly two hours the 61-year-old Valentine was on the go, a uniformed Pied Piper in red shades and black New Balance kicks who led around reporters trying to document his first official day as a major league manager since being let go as the Mets' skipper at the end of the 2002 season.
In arriving at each field Valentine often announced his presence with energetic claps but rarely stayed in any spot for more than two minutes -- just long enough to offer positive reinforcement ("That's good work, boys"), encourage a quick pace ("Let's go, keep the intensity"), step in the batter's box during a bullpen ("I like to see guys"), record a moment on a digital flip-cam ("For timing") and give tips in three languages (he advised Alfredo Aceves in Spanish and Daisuke Matsuzaka and Junichi Tazawa in Japanese).
"That's the way I've always done it," Valentine said. "I like to see it and feel it."
To paraphrase Newton, a Bobby in motion tends to stay in motion.
"He's in good shape, no? I don't know how old he is, but he is in good shape," Aceves said. "This is unique. He's a unique person. He has the ability to get engaged with every single player. That is unusual."
Each action had a purpose. Valentine played catch with Matsuzaka during warmups, so that the pitcher's interpreter could discuss terminology with one of the coaches. ("It was my first time playing catch with my manager since turning professional," Matsuzaka said later, "so I was very nervous.")
Valentine had his pitchers practice bunting, hitting and slashing the ball -- something AL pitchers usually only do prior to an interleague series -- because he saw the Rangers miss an opportunity in World Series Game 6 and thought to himself that that he'd want to practice and implement it. You know, just in case he managed again.
At other times Valentine interjected instruction, miming proper balance in fielding a groundball on the mound, discouraging flipping the ball to a base with one's glove or giving lighthearted advisement -- when reliever Matt Albers made one errant throw, Valentine said, "Your body will take it there, and there's a lot of body to get it there."
He's a manager unlike any other, which is exactly what Boston is counting on.
What the Red Sox are hoping to put past them was an infamous September in which they became the first team to blow a nine-game lead and miss the playoffs in the season's final month. That dreadful finish was further tarnished by offseason allegations of declining fitness and in-game clubhouse consumption of fried chicken and beer by members of the starting rotation. Two of the three implicated pitchers, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, were contrite in their opening remarks this spring for what Beckett called "lapses in judgment." (John Lackey, who is likely out for the year following Tommy John surgery, has not yet spoken.)
The 2011 Red Sox logged their second consecutive third-place finish behind the Rays and Yankees in the AL East. Both opposing clubs are likely to be even better in 2012, and the improving Blue Jays figure to be a darkhorse challenger. Boston has no shortage of talent on its roster, which helps explain how the Red Sox played nearly .700 ball for the season's middle four months.
So why hire Bobby V, and why now? He hasn't managed in the majors for the past nine years, after all. New general manager Ben Cherington explained on Tuesday that as the managerial search unfolded, the club's focus shifted from specific attributes and skills toward a manager with those qualities who also had significant experience.
"Aside from the specific baseball knowledge and intellect, I think we were really just impressed with the broadness of experience he's had," Cherington said. "Managing in Boston doesn't happen in a vacuum. The manager in Boston does not just show up to the park each day and get to live in a sterile environment in which he makes out the lineup and figures out who's available.
"His experience on and off the field, in major markets and different cultures and including in the media would be helpful to him."
That breadth of experience includes previous stints managing the Mets and Rangers, as well as Chiba Lotte in Japan's Pacific League (where he learned Japanese). He recently served as the public safety director in Stamford, Ct., and a baseball analyst for ESPN. He even gave one interview in which he explained how he invented the wrap sandwich.
The tireless Valentine organized charity and relief efforts in the aftermath of 9/11, for the victims of the massive earthquake in Japan and any number of scholarship and medical research funds.
The involvement with one such group, the Strike Three Foundation for childhood cancer research, led him to meet new Red Sox closer Andrew Bailey a couple years ago, when his energy at the annual banquet helped raise larger donations.
"He always drums up some big money with the live auctions," Bailey said. "He's definitely got a gig as an auctioneer if need be."
This winter Valentine was like a campaigning politician trying to drum up support, calling and visiting the roster of players he inherited in Boston.
Reliever Rich Hill, who makes his offseason home in South Boston, rehabbed from Tommy John surgery at Fenway Park and had several impromptu conversations with his new manager, whom he found to be endlessly enthusiastic about the club.
"How can you not be with what's in this locker room?" Hill said. "The pieces are here."
Said Bailey, "He's going to grasp this clubhouse really easily, and I think guys are going to fall in love with him. He's a good guy. He's a guy that demands the best out of you, and we're professional athletes and that's what we want to give anyway."
There have been plenty of knocks on Valentine over the years, ranging from his overbearing personality to a perceived arrogance to an underwhelming career record (.510 winning percentage and two playoff appearances in 15 seasons, though he did win a championship in Japan).
The Sox believe Valentine will incorporate the best from each of his varied experiences and be the leader this club needs.
"Spring training's the opportunity to let the manager become the voice of the team," Cherington said.
Now it's up to Valentine to help the Red Sox keep up with the AL East the way everyone else has tried keeping up with him.