O Pioneer! Bobby Valentine Settles in at Sacred Heart
For a separate Point After column in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, Steve Rushin spent an afternoon with Bobby Valentine on the campus of Sacred Heart University, where the former manager of the Red Sox, Mets and Rangers is the Pioneers' new athletic director.
When he was a senior at Rippowam High in Stamford, Conn., Bobby Valentine was recruited to play football at USC, where he was heir apparent to O.J. Simpson as the tailback at Tailback U. "Or so they said," says Valentine. "I was probably one of 14 guys they were telling that."
So go the dark arts of college recruiting, as Valentine is eminently aware in his new role as athletic director at Sacred Heart University, 27.3 miles from his home in Stamford, a commute he makes by bicycle twice a week, for he's still fit at 63 even though—or more likely because—he never played a down in the Pac-10 or NFL.
On his football recruiting visit, Valentine watched the USC baseball team practice, and was approached in the bleachers by minor-league manager Tommy Lasorda, who gave him a transistor radio with the Dodgers logo on it. Two months later, Valentine was playing for Lasorda on the Dodgers' Rookie League affiliate in Ogden, Utah.
"We called USC from Tommy's room in the Ben Lomond Hotel there," Valentine remembers. "First [football] coach [John] McKay, then [baseball] coach [Rod] Dedeaux. They weren't happy. I played two months of pro baseball, returned to USC, got out of a cab in my leisure suit and tried to check into the athletic dorm. They promptly told me I no longer had a room because I was no longer a scholarship athlete. I had to walk across campus with my suitcases, to the foreign-exchange dorm, where they stuck me." He laughs. "So it's been a long time."
It's been a long time since he left college—nearly 45 years since his big-league debut in 1969, an era as distant to today's college students as the Jazz Age was to Valentine, who led the American League in hitting for a spell with the California Angels in 1973. "The only way I knew if I was still leading the league at the end of the week," he says, "was to check the listings in The Sporting News."
Forty years later, as students hustle across the Sacred Heart campus gazing at their iPhones—baseball's league leaders summoned with a single swipe of an index finger—Valentine knows firsthand the perils of smartphone technology.
Two weeks ago, a couple of young visitors to his eponymous restaurant in Stamford chatted Valentine up about Dustin Pedroia, the unsinkable second baseman for the Red Sox, whom Bobby V managed last season. "I love Dustin," Valentine told his patrons, unaware that one of them was recording him on a smartphone. "He's the wind-up baseball player. You wind him up at ten in the morning and he's walking around in his batting gloves--for a night game! It's great. It's absolutely great."
"His handshake is much weaker than the waitress's waiting on you," Valentine went on, by way of praise. "I don't know how the [bleep] he does it . . . [He] hits it 400 feet and I don't know how he does it. I swear to God. It defies logic. And he plays every day. He gets hurt. He gets hit with like 95-mile-an-hour pitches on his hand, you think it's broken in eight places and the next morning it's not swollen. He says, 'Oh, I'm different than everybody else.' "
Mention the YouTube video to Valentine and he winces. A friend sent him the link but he was afraid to click on it. "I only saw the headline," he says, a headline that was inevitably about Pedroia's handshake. "Well thank God it was a tribute to him. All I was saying is, he's got a little hand. He's a little guy. And that waitress, she's an athlete. Her handshake is firmer than Dustin's. And my point was, He still hits the ball over the right field fence. What is that about? He's a freak of nature. It's not as though he is a freak of nature. He really is one. I don't know how he can do it. And he does the time with his kid, he's out there early throwing batting practice to his 2-year-old, then he's in uniform ready to go."
It wasn't Valentine's first misadventure by smartphone. He mentions a group text he sent to his Red Sox coaching staff on a team flight last summer. A player was going to have to be sent to the minors and Valentine wanted his coaches' candid opinions on who it should be. After a short interval, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia approached Valentine on the plane, held up his own phone with the group texts on it, and said: "I'm not supposed to be seeing this." The manager went ashen: He had sent the text to the coaches but also, mistakenly, to the three players taking early batting practice that day. Valentine was mortified and made a round of apologies.
His year managing the Red Sox during their centennial season at Fenway was preceded by managerial jobs with the Rangers, Mets and the Chiba Lotte Marines of Japan, an itinerant life that has always led him back to Stamford. After the Red Sox fired him last fall, Valentine received a phone call from a couple of towns over. "I was asked if I wanted to have lunch with the president," he says. This was not a reference to his friend George W. Bush, who fired him as manager of the Rangers, but to Sacred Heart president Dr. John Petillo, who gauged Valentine's interest in filling the AD job vacated by Don Cook, retiring after 22 years. "My first thought was, 'I can do that'," Valentine says. "And then: 'What is the that that I have to do?' "
He accepted the job in February and started on June 1. The intervening weeks have been an endless parade of seminars, meetings, interviews and remedial reading. "Some of it's been fun," says Valentine. "But I got news for you: So far it's been work. There haven't been any games, just dealing with organizational charts, communications, Title IX and this. You've heard of the rulebook, right? That's it. This is the manual you're supposed to live by, what you can and can't do." He holds the NCAA rulebook in his palm as if weighing it.
Before Valentine took the Sacred Heart job, his film production company made a documentary about the NCAA. Premiering in October on the premium movie channel Epix, it is unlikely to be a love letter to the organization. Valentine also does Mets postgame shows on SNY and an NBC radio show from campus, but it's the athletic director's job that consumes him on a daily basis.
"I've taken this home as much as I took baseball games home," he was saying last week before any of the Pioneer teams had played a single game, before the football team—2-9 last season—beat Marist on the road in Saturday's opener. "There's gonna be a lot of wins and losses—they won't necessarily be in my column--but it's the little wins I look forward to: when the young coach comes in and I'm able to be the older coach, when the young player comes in and I can lend a little guidance."
"The university could go in a direction where it needs to be in 10 years and maybe I'll be the impetus there," says Valentine, in an office festooned with baseball mementoes. "There are a lot of neat little challenges here beyond wins and losses. But it's different, there's no doubt. There are so many things to this job. You go down to the cage and watch a couple swings with the freshman baseball team then to the president's office talking about the future master plan, then to the vice president's office figuring out where we're going to get the money to buy the helmets for the new freshmen that came in. It's enjoyable that way, and it's challenging."
Already Valentine has hired a new women's basketball coach, Jessica Minetti, as well as a deputy director of athletics—Brad Hurlbut, who spent the last 17 years at Northwestern. "I know all the coaches now," Valentine says. "I've met all the players. I've watched the football team practice. I could watch our women's volleyball team all day long they're so inspirational. I've watched both our soccer teams, our women's lacrosse team—they're all revving up now."
And so is he, the wind-up AD. "Let's get out of this office," he says, and heads downstairs to watch various practices.