The Great Survivor

In seven seasons, Rangers manager Bobby Valentine hasn't even won his division. But he still has his job—and that's a triumph
April 05, 1992

He is looking for the funeral home amid the commercial chaos along Tamiami Trail in Port Charlotte, Fla. He remembers that there's a blue sign in front of the building next door to the funeral home. Where is it? There seems to be a sea of blue signs. Bobby Valentine can't find the right one.

"Is this it?" the manager of the Texas Rangers asks. "What's that sign say? Nope. Not the one."

The time is perilously close to eight o'clock on a Friday morning. He is going to Mass at the funeral home. No one has died, at least no one he knows. He simply is going to Mass. This is a part of his spring training day. Not the start, because he already has ridden an exercise bicycle for half an hour, posed for a portrait in the Rangers' dugout and showered. He is a man who likes to explode into the day. Where is that funeral home? Eight o'clock Mass.

"I started going to Mass last year during spring training," he says. "It was Lent. I decided to go one day, and I went...and I liked it. That's all. I liked it. I went back, and I'm doing it again this year."

He discovered the funeral home Masses in the yellow pages. He had been going every day to St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church when he heard about Masses held at a funeral home on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. He now goes to the church on the other days and to the Roberson Funeral Home—yes, here is the sign—on the yellow pages days.

The chapel is filled with old-timers, Florida retirees. Valentine moves into the middle of them, looking so much younger. He is 41 years old, with a touch of Frankie Avalon to him. The hair. The nice looks. A bounce. He seems filled with a kinetic energy, his motor running at a fast idle. During the service the old-timers go through the practiced movements of a Catholic lifetime, standing, kneeling, sitting. Valentine moves with an aerobic determination. Stand. Kneel. Sit.

He seems so alive, so different....

He shakes the hands of the older people around him at one point in the Mass. He nods. The people nod in return. There is at least one obvious common bond. He is a survivor among survivors.

"If I had the same record in New York that I have here," he says, "I'd have been fired after my third year managing. People get fired in this business, and situations fire people. I would have been fired after my third year in New York."

He now is moving into his eighth season as manager of the Rangers. Charging hard. Making the people who like him smile. Making the people who don't like him call him the worst of possible names. When he started with the Rangers, hired on May 16, 1985, three days after his 35th birthday, he was the youngest manager in big league baseball. He still is young but is already poised on the edge of a record for longevity. Only one man in the history of baseball has managed a single team for more games while never winning a division title, a pennant or a World Series. Pinky Higgins of the Boston Red Sox (1,119 games, 1955-62) holds the record that Valentine, now at 1,100, will break on April 14—barring rainouts. Forty-one years old. Already the alltime survivor.

"There are things you can say on the other side, that in six full seasons as a manager my record is better, say, than Casey Stengel's record after his first six seasons, but I just say that I'm proud of the job I've done, other than the fact that I haven't won a championship," he says. "Where it's at now is 1992 and beyond. I believe right now we have a team that is as good as any team in the major leagues."

Since Valentine arrived in Texas, 89 managers have come and gone. Only his friend and mentor, Tommy Lasorda, with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Sparky Anderson of the Detroit Tigers have stayed in one place longer among current managers. Each has won at least one World Series. The successes of Valentine have been successes in miniature.

For the first few years he was rebuilding, trying to bring dignity to a second-rate organization that was having trouble selling tickets. For the next few years he was caught under the shadow of the Oakland A's colossus. Last year there was a 14-game winning streak in May that sent the Rangers into first place and started heads spinning. That was followed by 11 losses in 12 games, which brought everyone back to the ground. There still has not been a meaningful game played in September in the history of Rangers baseball. The club finished at 85-77, 10 games behind the champion Minnesota Twins. It also drew 2,297,720 people, a franchise record, more than twice as many as during the first Valentine season.

"It is unusual for a manager to last seven years and not win anything," general manager Tom Grieve says. "But I like to think if you look objectively and ask, 'Could any manager have won our division with these same teams?' the answer would be no. Strategy? I think even Bobby's greatest critics will admit that he knows baseball. I think he deserves to be here when the winning finally comes."

The idea is that this is supposed to be the season. Win or...well, probably else. There still are serious holes in the pitching staff, but the every-day lineup is as solid as any in baseball. This is a team that both scored and allowed the most runs last year in the major leagues. The hope is that the equation can be made more favorable. This is the year, a five-year timetable already overdue.

"The pressure to win is just a fact," Valentine says. "That's all right. I'm not in this for surviving. I never have been. I'm hereto win."

Win or...well, he knows the rules. He always has known the rules.

"I was the kid who got everyone to come out and play," he says. "I was the one outside the window yelling, 'Hey, Joey, let's play baseball.' I think I read the rule book for the first time when I was 13, and I have read it every year of my life ever since. It's something I've always liked to do."

He was touched early with a gift for games. His high school years were a golden blur in Connecticut, and he still is regarded by many as the greatest athlete to come out of the state. John McKay wanted him to play tailback at Southern Cal and replace O.J. Simpson. The Dodgers wanted him to be the shortstop to replace Maury Wills. He was the state 60-yard-dash champion and a ballroom dancing champion and the lead in The Teahouse of the August Moon and the president of the student council at Rippowam High in Stamford. He was that kind of kid.

"I think I always wanted to be a manager someday," he says. "I had a chance to be something pretty good in sports. It didn't happen, but even if it had, I still think I would have wound up doing what I'm doing. I always was thinking this way."

He always was confident, cocky. What couldn't he do? He turned down USC and went with the Dodgers when scouting director Al Campanis told him he had the chance to be the "best baseball player in America." He was blessed by his talent, cursed by his talent. Who likes someone who does so many things so easily? He also soon was paired with Lasorda, the biggest influence in his life. Blessed and cursed again.

"Everyone always says I'm just like Tommy," Valentine says. "I'm not just like Tommy. I'm proud to be associated with him. I like him. I love him. I also tell him all the time that people hate me because of him. The same people who hate him hate me. He says that I'm wrong, that he has told a lot of people about me and they like me because of what he said. I say, 'Oh, sure, big deal. Frank Sinatra likes me. What about everybody else?' "

They met in Ogden, Utah, rookie league. Valentine was 18 years old. Lasorda was the manager there. Valentine, another Italian guy from the East, became almost an adopted son. Lasorda jumped to Spokane, Triple A, the next year. Valentine jumped along with him. The starting shortstop. Lasorda's boy.

"That Valentine was crazy," Lasorda says, beginning his stories. "He had a deal with his hometown paper, the Stamford Advocate. He was reporting back to them on our games. Pretty soon we started seeing the papers. The headlines always were VALENTINE HOMER WINS GAME, VALENTINE STARS AGAIN. He was making up the stories! Crazy. We were in Vancouver. There were these two big guard dogs barking at us every day. Valentine bets he can go inside the cage and pet the dogs on the head...."

Valentine says the stories have grown with time. The Advocate? He would get the paper in the mail, a week late. He would read it on the bus. The headline might talk about a homer, but it would have happened a week earlier. Lasorda would grab the paper and pretend the story was describing the previous night's game, in which Valentine went 0 for 4. The dogs? He quietly had been feeding them for a week, setting up the bet.

"Did he tell the Brubaker story?" Valentine says. "That's another favorite."

This was Spokane. Valentine was playing short and was on the way to a 38-error season. The pitchers were not happy. A group of them, headed by Bruce Brubaker, went to Lasorda and said they wouldn't pitch if Valentine continued to play. Lasorda went crazy. He called a team meeting.

"I'm sitting there," Valentine says. "I think it's just another meeting. Tommy starts yelling at the pitchers. He tells them they each have five minutes to go over and ask Bobby Valentine for his autograph, 'Because five years from now, when you're carrying your lunch buckets, you'll at least have the autograph of a major leaguer.' I'm shrinking in my seat. These guys hated me before. Now they're hating me even more. Tommy won't shut up."

The major league stories are not as happy. Valentine, attending Arizona State after the 1971 season, reported to the Dodgers that spring in a cast. He had blown out a knee playing intramural football. The phenom was the phenom no more, a step taken away from his speed. Valentine was Lasorda's boy, but Lasorda was back in Spokane, and Walter Alston, no great admirer of Lasorda's, was the Dodger manager. Within two years Valentine was with the California Angels.

It was in Anaheim, in 1973, that he collided with the outfield fence while chasing Dick Green's homer off pitcher Rudy May. His right leg was broken in two places. The injury never did heal right.

"I thought I still could play," he says. "After the next season Tommy was managing winter ball in the Dominican Republic. I went and played about 50 games for him. He took me to dinner. He told me I was done. I played five more years [mostly with the San Diego Padres and the New York Mets], but that was when I realized I was done. He didn't lie to me."

At 29, Valentine retired. He began a restaurant and bar business in Stamford that since has grown to six restaurants in three states, but still he was looking for a chance to come back to baseball. The gift. He coached in the minors for three years, then went back up to the Mets as a third base coach for two years. Grieve hired him from the coaching box to take control of the woeful Rangers.

"I'd roomed with him with the Mets," Grieve says. "I guess we sat on the bench a lot together, too. His passion in life was baseball. His goal was to be a big league manager. He was the only guy on the team who never missed a pitch. When I became a general manager and needed a manager, I remembered."

The years as the manager of the Rangers have not been easy. There have been feuds with umpires, feuds with players from other teams. The passion of Valentine has stirred the passions of others.

"Bobby is not one of those people, you hear his name and just yawn and say, 'He's all right,' " Grieve says. "You either like him or you hate him. People see him with the long hair, cocky, yelling out of the dugout and say, 'What a jerk.' What they're watching is youthful exuberance, but they don't know that. They don't know him."

"I've experienced the wrath, and when he's focused on you, it can be pretty hard," says pitching coach Tom House. "At the same time he's extremely loyal, he's capable of incredible acts of kindness, he's extremely bright. He's the epitome of what a major league manager should be."

Decisions turn into soap operas when passion is involved. The release of outfielder Pete Incaviglia, once Valentine's favorite player, on March 29, 1991, has become a back-and-forth tussle of words. For motivation Incaviglia has a Valentine baseball card stuck on his locker with the Houston Astros. Valentine says Incaviglia forgets the nice things that were done for him. The release last fall of coach Davey Lopes has brought more harsh words. The release of Bill Zeigler, the team trainer, just before Christmas brought more. These are just the feuds with people who have been with the Rangers. What about the rest?

"I can understand why some people don't like me," Valentine says. "I think I'm misunderstood sometimes, but I understand the other times. I'm loud. I say things. I do more things than a lot of managers do, so that means there are more things that people can decide not to like."

He signs autographs at Arlington Stadium, unusual for a manager. He thinks it is positive, reaching out to the fans. It drives other managers to distraction. What is he? A hot dog? He understands the thinking. He still feels it's important.

He talks about his tendency to yell things from the dugout. He does not yell nice things at the other team. He does not yell nice things at umpires. This can cause problems. He talks about the simple act of smiling. Smiling gets him in trouble.

"I smile a lot," he says. "It drives some people crazy. I understand that. You see somebody who smiles a lot.... Steve Garvey always was smiling. People hated him for it. I just smile."

"Bobby is always doing something," Grieve says. "I think he goes on about four hours of sleep. At the same time, he can sleep anywhere. I'm no psychologist, but from what I've read, he's the classic Type A personality. And I don't think he's ever been embarrassed a day in his life."

The people who deal with him every day say that he can be sarcastic and he can be friendly. He can be warm and he can be mean. He has a voice that can be heard above the din of a stadium filled with 40,000 people. The words can be funny or profane. They never seem to be dull.

"O.K., so I'm the manager of Nolan Ryan," Valentine says. "Nolan and I get along fine. I have asked him to do only one thing for me. I said, 'Nolan, every time you pitch at our stadium, it's filled with people who have come just to see you. Now, a lot of those times, I'm going to have to be the guy who has to come out and get you. This is not going to be a popular decision. When I come out and get you, can you just stay on the mound for a minute? Give the ball to the relief pitcher and wait. I'll say what I have to say and we'll walk off the mound together to a great standing ovation. O.K.?'

"He never does it. I go out to get him. He gives the ball to the relief pitcher. He walks. Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaay. I talk. I walk. Booooooooooooo. Valentine, you no-good——-."

Never easy.

"What you do is look for the X," Valentine is saying. "This is a mystery. We're searching for the X. How much is the X worth? The whole thing is to find out what the X is worth."

He is teaching algebra to the batboys. He has learned that they have been released from their Port Charlotte schools during spring training to do their jobs, that they are getting credit for being bat-boys. He thinks this is terrible. What's the class supposed to be, Hit and Run 101? So he is giving his own classes on the bus.

"The other day was civics," he says. "It was about Super Tuesday. The system for nominating, then electing a president. The electoral college. All of that."

He is, for himself, learning Spanish. He took a two-week Berlitz course before camp opened, working toward a point where he can speak Spanish with Ruben Sierra and Rafael Palmeiro and Juan Gonzalez and the other Latin players who dominate his team's roster. He carries his book of Spanish idioms and his book of 501 Spanish verbs with him. He listens to Berlitz tapes in the car.

"¬¨¬®‚àö‚àèQuè pasa?" he says to first base coach Juan Gomez. "Why don't you drive with me tomorrow to the game? We can talk." Every day seems to be a succession of adventures. Mass and workouts and Spanish and baseball. His wife, Mary, and eight-year-old son, Bobby, are arriving in a day, and Bobby is bringing the Roller-blades. The Rollerblades! Maybe someone will even come along who wants to go to one of the local Rotary or Legion halls and play bingo. Bingo!

"Bobby's dying to play bingo, but no one will go with him," Grieve says. "Who would go? These people are serious about their bingo down here. Bobby would come in and start talking, disrupt the whole thing in about 15 minutes. He'd be yelling 'Bingo!' when he didn't have it. He'd be telling everyone how he missed by one number, just like about 700 other people in the hall. It would be terrible. Who would go?"

"I've already got my bingo daubers," Valentine says. "I'm ready." Bingo.

The season approaches. The survivor survives. If only he could find a little pitching, he would be a happy man. Then again, feuds and no feuds, winning and not winning, he seems pretty happy already. He is here.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRA PHOTOFOCUS ON SPORTSValentine is teaching himself to speak Spanish to grow closer to young Latin players like Gonzalez and Sierra. PHOTOSTEPHEN DUNN/ALLSPORT[See caption above.] PHOTOALLSPORT USAWhen Ryan gets the hook, Valentine is the least popular man in Texas. PHOTOCOURTESY VALENTINE FAMILYMultitalented, Valentine was a high school hero.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)