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VALENTINE DAYS PRICKLY MANAGER BOBBY VALENTINE HAS SOFTENED, AND HIS SURPRISING METS ARE PLAYING THEIR HEARTS OUT

Aug. 04, 1997
Aug. 04, 1997

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Aug. 4, 1997

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VALENTINE DAYS PRICKLY MANAGER BOBBY VALENTINE HAS SOFTENED, AND HIS SURPRISING METS ARE PLAYING THEIR HEARTS OUT

Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether manager Bobby
Valentine is talking about his New York Mets or his three
collies and his Jack Russell terrier. "I'm proud of them,"
Valentine says. "It's a good little team." National League clubs
don't come much warmer and fuzzier than the Mets, the worst team
in baseball over the past six seasons combined but suddenly a
playoff contender this summer.

This is an article from the Aug. 4, 1997 issue Original Layout

An outfit that lost 91 games a year ago is now on track to win
92 with a patchwork starting rotation in which only one pitcher
has ever thrown 200 innings and won more than a dozen games in a
season; a backup catcher who was a kids' camp instructor last
July; and a roster so packed with second-chance players that
it's fitting the Mets had more comeback wins (30) through Sunday
than any other team in the majors.

After dropping two out of three games to the San Diego Padres
last weekend the Mets (59-45) trailed the Florida Marlins by
mere percentage points for the National League wild-card spot.
This good little team has established a reputation for being
humble, likable and unselfish--in other words, the opposite of
its manager's image. "I am one of the easiest targets in
baseball," says Valentine. "I understand it." So notorious is
Valentine that when Mets co-owner Fred Wilpon told him on July
16 that he was firing general manager Joe McIlvaine, Valentine
said, "You know what people are going to say. That I did it."

"You're misreading the situation," Wilpon replied.

The next day's headline in the New York Post read VALENTINE'S
DAY MASSACRE. One National League manager, voicing the typical
outsider's verdict, says of Valentine, "He backstabbed
[McIlvaine]."

"People have this impression of me that will last forever,"
Valentine says.

Two years removed from managing in Japan and only one year after
riding buses in the minors, Valentine by last Friday had guided
the Mets to 16 games better than .500--the franchise's
high-water mark since the end of the 1990 season. He is likely
to sign a contract extension soon that will keep him in New York
through 2000. His players, all of whom are made to feel useful,
respond to him. "He's like a movie," reliever John Franco says.
"Somebody tells you, 'Aw, that movie sucks.' But you can't take
anyone's word for it. You have to see for yourself. He's been
great."

This is the season of the metamorphosis of Valentine. Yet as the
innuendo surrounding McIlvaine's dismissal proved, Valentine has
barely begun to erase the impression he left as manager of the
Texas Rangers from 1985 to '92. During that period, in which the
team's record was 581-605, Valentine managed more games with one
club without winning a title than any man in major league
history--and rubbed more people the wrong way than an outbreak
of hives. "He comes across like he reinvented the game," another
National League manager who requested anonymity says. "I think
it's his smile that drives people crazy."

Valentine would stand on the top step of the Texas dugout with
folded arms and an oversized smile. He would offer a running
commentary on the game; his brilliant baseball mind could spot a
player's flaws or break down an opponent's strategy, and he
couldn't help broadcasting it. He also would berate opposing
players. He would scream into the other dugout at a pitcher who
had just dusted one of his hitters, "You're a gutless ass!" He
would shout at an opposing slugger, "Swing a little harder, you
f------ a-----!" He rode umpires mercilessly.

Valentine, who was hired by Texas at 35 without minor league
managing experience, quickly became despised. One season, when
the Oakland Athletics were battling the California Angels for
the American League West title and the Rangers were not a
factor, the A's followed the Angels into Arlington, Texas, for a
series. Someone on the Angels gladly turned over their scouting
reports on Texas to the A's. Go ahead and beat him.

So distrusted was Valentine that opponents whispered that he
shortened the distance between the mound and the plate in the
Arlington Stadium visitors' bullpen so that a reliever, having
gauged the break on his curveball, would bounce a pitch when he
entered the game. "Ridiculous," Valentine says.

According to Valentine, at least one American League manager
thought he had instructed a Rangers employee who worked in the
visitors' clubhouse at Arlington Stadium to spy on opponents'
scouting information. One time the suspecting manager left a pen
and some scouting reports on his desk overnight, noting their
placement. The next day he arrived to see that they had been
moved.

"I'll tell you this," Valentine says. "One time there was a
player who was just killing us. [A visitors' clubhouse
attendant] told me, 'He's got a lucky T-shirt. Won't even let me
wash it. It could wind up in another locker though.' And that
was the extent of it. The extent."

Valentine was accused of everything from undercutting his own
advance scouts (his Rangers were the first club to rely on
satellite TV instead of written reports) to manipulating the air
conditioning at Arlington Stadium. Opponents thought Valentine
kept the visitors' clubhouse frigid so that the Texas heat would
seem even worse at game time. One summer the air conditioning in
the visitors' room didn't work for two home stands--while the
units in the Rangers' clubhouse hummed. "I got blamed for that,"
Valentine says. "That's when [former Texas owner] Eddie Chiles
had money problems. Repair companies would take only cash from
him. The air conditioning in both rooms had gone out, but he
didn't have the cash to get them fixed at the same time."

The Rangers fired Valentine on July 9, 1992, when the team was
45-41. The following season he landed with the Cincinnati Reds,
first as a scout and then as third base coach, a job he found
tiresome. "Not progressive enough for me," he says.

Then one day during the 1993 World Series, between the Toronto
Blue Jays and the Philadelphia Phillies, Valentine attended mass
at a church in Toronto and ran into McIlvaine and Frank Cashen,
a Mets senior vice president and former general manager. They
started talking and continued the conversation in McIlvaine's
hotel room, where the New York executives interviewed Valentine
for the Mets' Triple A managing job in Norfolk, Va. Steve
Phillips, one of McIlvaine's assistants, soon hired Valentine.
"I asked him point-blank questions about stories I had heard
about him," says Phillips, now the Mets' general manager. "He
told me, 'I've grown up. I've learned from the mistakes I've
made.' He told me there was a part of his resume he wanted to
finish off."

Says Valentine, "People said, 'The guy's never managed in the
minor leagues.' I knew it would be very good to erase that black
mark."

He took the Norfolk job, then left a year later for a lucrative
offer to manage the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan. Before he left
the U.S., Valentine spent three months writing down what he knew
about baseball, compiling a personal encyclopedia as a reference
for all the questions he anticipated in a different culture. It
was the same as packing for a move to a new house. He threw out
everything he didn't need. He kept only what he was certain of,
not what he merely thought to be true. He came home a year
later--despite leading the Marines to their best record ever, he
was fired after having a fallout with the team's general
manager--proud of having learned, at 45, more than a little
about another language and about himself.

Last season Phillips brought Valentine back to Norfolk. By Aug.
26, 1996, Valentine's penance was complete: McIlvaine hired him
to replace Mets manager Dallas Green, who the New York brass
thought was overly critical of the team's young players.

"[Valentine] walked in," outfielder Carl Everett says, "and
started with a clean slate with all of us." Everett, 26, had
been buried deep in Green's doghouse. He has flourished under
Valentine, even if he hasn't yet made a name for himself around
the league. Last Friday the announcer at San Diego's Qualcomm
Stadium introduced one of the Mets' clutch hitters (.290 with
runners in scoring position) as Chad Everett.

So it goes with the team that also has the best no-name defense
since the '72 Miami Dolphins. Until first baseman Butch Huskey
made a key error in a 5-3 loss to the Padres last Saturday, the
Mets had not permitted an unearned run in 20 games. The left
side of the infield is particularly sure-handed. Through Sunday
23-year-old third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo--a budding Edgar
Martinez at the plate (.319) and already among the elite
afield--and acrobatic shortstop Rey Ordonez, 24, had combined
for only seven errors all year.

The offense, built around catcher Todd Hundley (team-high 22
home runs), is more resourceful than it is prolific. Valentine
rarely uses the same lineup two days in a row in an effort to
keep his players sharp. He has already gotten at least 145 plate
appearances for 11 players. Huskey, for instance, is tied for
second on the team in home runs (14) even though he has started
only 71 games--at five positions, including DH. Reserves Manny
Alexander and Luis Lopez get semiregular work in the infield,
similar to a rotation of NBA guards. Unlike Green, Valentine
doesn't keep players in a doghouse, reserving that sort of
treatment for those it was intended: Teddy, Bluie, Blaze and
Sammy, his beloved lineup of canines.

"This team is amazing," says second baseman Carlos Baerga, who
this season has turned around his flagging career. "It's a
different guy every night helping us win. We never get down."

Maybe the Mets keep coming back because all but five of their
players have been traded, released or sold during their careers.
Backup catcher Todd Pratt, for example, spent last season
tutoring high school players at a Florida baseball camp after
being released by the Seattle Mariners during spring training.

Last Thursday, against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, Valentine
asked righthander Rick Reed, a former replacement player who is
with his fifth team, how he was feeling after pitching the first
seven innings of a scoreless game. Reed replied, "I'm in L.A.,
in the major leagues. What else would I rather be doing? I feel
great." Valentine let Reed lead off the eighth inning, and the
Mets went on to win in the ninth, 3-1.

"These guys ask me to talk," Valentine says. "For instance,
[last Thursday] Alfonzo asked me if I thought about a
hit-and-run when I had him bunting. I said, 'You bet, but this
time I had confidence in the guys behind you. Keep that in mind
though--we will hit-and-run in that situation.'"

These days you are more likely to see Valentine seated in the
dugout than standing on the top step. You are unlikely to hear
him berate umpires about balls and strikes the way he used to.
"I made a conscious effort to quit that," he says, though last
Friday he annoyed home plate ump Terry Tata enough for Tata to
rip off his mask and shout, "That's enough!"

"First time all year I've done that," a sheepish Valentine said
later.

Mets hitting coach Tom Robson, who first worked with Valentine
in '86, says, "I would not use the word mellowed [to describe
him], because the intensity is still there. But I've seen
changes. He's less animated and less loud. I think it started in
Japan. He'd go out to argue, and he had to have an interpreter
with him. Things don't seem to bother him as much now."

Valentine's biggest challenge may be manipulating a staff in
which only three pitchers have obtained big outs in a meaningful
September game: Franco, Mark Clark and Greg McMichael, with the
latter the only one to have thrown a playoff pitch. Valentine's
resume is similarly lacking. He has worn a big league uniform in
23 seasons--including 10 as a player with five clubs--but has
never appeared in the postseason.

"There is a lot to look forward to," he says. "I feel like my
career is just beginning. I'm 47. Tommy Lasorda managed his
first game in the big leagues at 49. I'm just starting out."

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Alexander has helped balance the Mets' defense. [Manny Alexander in game]COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON [Bobby Valentine] COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Like Valentine's, first baseman John Olerud's career has been revived since coming to New York. [John Olerud and others in game]

GETTING DEFENSIVE

The Mets are in the hunt for a playoff berth, in part because
manager Bobby Valentine (above right) has stressed defense. Here
are New York's fielding statistics from last year and those
projected for this season, based on games through Sunday.

Category 1996 1997 (projected)

Fielding percentage .974* .982
Overall ranking 14* 2
Errors 159* 112
Unearned runs allowed 104 53
Double plays 163 173

*League worst