Bobby Valentine is dangling. This is last Saturday night, late,
and he has no way of knowing that within 48 hours he will make
the playoffs for the first time in his career. He doesn't know
yet that the Mets will complete their sweep of the Pirates in
the season's final series tonight to set up a playoff against
the Reds--a game they will win with absurd ease on Monday night.
All he knows tonight is that everything big in his baseball life
hangs oddly in the balance: his job, his career, his reputation.
Is he on the verge of misery or joy? Will his Mets win or lose?
Will he be back next year or never manage again? Who can say?
Valentine is sitting in his office at Shea Stadium. Tonight's
7-0 victory over Pittsburgh has pulled the Mets even with
Cincinnati for the wild-card slot, the latest turnaround in a
two-week yo-yo ride for the New York fans. Since Sept. 21, the
Mets have lost eight out of nine to blow a cushy four-game lead
over Cincinnati, but now they're making a dramatic stand against
the Pirates that, combined with the Reds' sudden collapse, may
land New York a postseason berth. "We're getting closer,"
He looks around the room at the faces of those who have rushed
in to support him: his wife, Mary, from Texas, and her sister,
Patti, from Florida; his older brother, Joe, with the features
so much like their father's, and close friend Doug Romano, both
from nearby Stamford, Conn. Valentine says that Joe hasn't
brought much luck in his two previous visits. On the first one,
when Bobby was an outfielder with the California Angels, Joe saw
his little brother suffer a dislocated shoulder in an on-field
fight. On Joe's second visit, Bobby got fired as manager of the
Everybody laughs at this, surprisingly loose, happy. "Joe's
always been there," Valentine says. "If ever there's something I
need, he bails me out." Bobby's been getting phone calls from
Stamford people down the stretch, from guys he hasn't heard from
in years, from one friend in Hong Kong. Maybe it's all good
karma. Maybe it will all be enough to push the Mets over the top
...or maybe not. So Mary checks the manager's ticket list for
Sunday. It will be the final scheduled game of the regular
season. She scribbles down a name.
"We're putting Mickey on the list," she says to her husband.
"Yeah, we talked about that," he says. "We need Mickey
tomorrow." Next to the name, Mary writes a memo for the ticket
office: "Don't have to be good seats."
This is how it is before the most important game of Valentine's
life. His family is with him, his hometown is with him, and all
that's left to say is some kind of prayer. So Bobby Valentine
leaves two tickets for a dead man.
A week earlier, as the losses were piling up--three, four, five
in a row--Valentine had been reduced to a series of closely
watched tics: an eyebrow flicking erratically skyward, a smile
growing so tight that it looked as if his face would burst. A
24-hour stretch during the last weekend in September at
Philadelphia had been extraordinary: The Phillies shutting down
the Mets 4-2; Valentine declaring that he should be fired as
manager if his team failed to make the playoffs and then
striding through the clubhouse jauntily snapping his fingers and
grinning as if delighted by that notion; Valentine awakening to
a New York Post column headlined, WHY WAIT? CAN THE PHONY NOW!;
and, finally, the Mets losing again to the Phillies, apparently
ready to complete a stretch-drive collapse for the second
New York had a chance to tie or win that game in the ninth:
bases loaded, one out, down 3-2. The momentum, it seemed, was
finally shifting the Mets' way. Then Rickey Henderson grounded
into a double play. "I thought we were going to hit for half an
hour," Valentine said to the reporters in the manager's office
afterward. Long, awkward silences followed each of his answers.
Someone said, "You said you felt good yesterday. How do you feel
today?" and Valentine winced. All that odd buoyancy from the day
before was gone. Just six games to go now, and next up: a
three-game series with the hot and fearless Atlanta Braves.
After everyone else drifted out of his office, Valentine looked
at me. "Maybe it's your fault," he said. Maybe he was kidding,
but he was not smiling.
Ihad come to Philadelphia by way of Stamford, Valentine's
hometown, and mine as well. Like his old teammates and friends
there who had been awed by Bobby V over the past 35 years, I hit
mid-September sure that the 1999 playoffs would belong to him.
Why not? We'd all grown up watching him, the most celebrated
schoolboy star ever to come out of the state, and if Valentine
hadn't achieved the greatness everyone once expected, we were
sure it wasn't because of anything he lacked. Wasn't Valentine
batting .302 for the Angels on May 17, 1973, when he suffered a
gruesome compound fracture of his right leg in a collision with
the centerfield wall at Anaheim Stadium? Didn't everyone concede
his baseball knowledge and drive, even while he managed
overmatched teams in Texas and New York (chart, page 78)? This
time, though, it seemed Valentine finally had all the pieces:
baseball's best infield, a decent pitching staff, superstars
such as Henderson and catcher Mike Piazza turning in huge years,
not to mention the most dramatic turnaround of the baseball
season. After a 27-28 start prompted general manager Steve
Phillips to fire three of his coaches on June 5, Valentine
stated that he should be replaced if the Mets did not
dramatically improve over the next 55 games. The team then
responded with an amazing 40-15 run. For the first time in his
12-year career as a major league manager, Valentine was heading
for the playoffs. At 49, he was going to make it to the top,
just the way Bobby V was always supposed to.
But then a seven-game losing streak during the last week of
September--even more horrific than the Mets' 0-5 finish last
season, when they blew a shot at the wild card--brought all the
doubts about Valentine's character and his ability to manage a
ball club bubbling to the surface. He had long been accused of
overmanaging, and now nearly every move he made, no matter how
firmly grounded, backfired. He had long been accused of
manipulating the truth, and now nothing he said was taken at
face value. He had long been accused of exhibiting a Nixonian
paranoia, and in Philadelphia that, too, began to surface in his
running battle with the New York press.
After the 3-2 loss to the Phillies, Valentine sits at his desk,
cutting a solitary figure amid furniture stained by dirt and
sweat. A harsh fluorescent light washes over his head. Valentine
talks a little about the coming day off he'll spend with family
and friends in Connecticut. But it's difficult to just chitchat;
no one knows better than he that few managers can survive such
disastrous finishes two years running. Suddenly he blurts out,
"How about that f------ asshole that comes in here and says,
'You said you felt good yesterday. How do you feel today?'--and
looks at his buddy and laughs?" Valentine stands up, grinning.
"I could stand up and say, 'As soon as I whack you and see you
on the ground, I'll feel really good,'" he says. "They wait
until the end, wait until you get to a breaking point and your
guard's a little down, and then they throw it out there."
Valentine sits again, bows his head over the desk and shakes it
hard. In a raspy voice, barely audible, he says, "God, what a
game. What a stupid game."
This wasn't the first time I'd seen Valentine hit a wall.
Stamford is no one's idea of a glamorous town, so 19 years ago,
when its biggest celebrity opened a restaurant and bar, Bobby
Valentine's Sports Gallery Cafe, the place became an instant
happening. Never mind that there were bums cadging money in the
nearby park and a porn theater across the street and hookers in
the neighborhood who serviced the truckers exiting I-95; Bobby
V's was a big lunchtime draw and did huge business on weekends.
The bar's combination of sports memorabilia, good food and lax
doormen brought in the high school and college crowds (the
drinking age in Connecticut was 18 then, and so was I), and
Valentine was always there, 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., clambering up
ladders, emptying ashtrays, pouring drinks.
He had retired a year earlier after a 62-game season with the
Seattle Mariners, just 30 years old, and I remember watching him
flirt with the girls, smother one minor flare-up after another,
and thinking it was sad to see him back in town. The idea that
you could get out of Stamford and become famous and still end up
slinging drinks in a grungy neighborhood left a nagging
discomfort. If even Bobby Valentine couldn't get away for good,
what hope was there for the rest of us?
He had been, simply, the town's gold standard. Sitting just 40
minutes from New York, Stamford has long been perceived by
outsiders as a rich and leafy suburb on the order of Greenwich
or New Canaan, an enclave dominated by the executives of its
dozens of corporate headquarters. But in Valentine's time, from
the 1960s (when TIME described it as "a dingy factory town") to
the '90s (when Rolling Stone dubbed it the Big Empty), much of
Stamford was actually working class, its most famous product the
5'10" son of a carpenter. From the time he was a teenager,
Valentine was seen as a civic treasure, something to be
protected; when, one night, crosstown high school rival Bennett
Salvatore, now an NBA referee, was horsing around with the
16-year-old Valentine and accidentally hit him in the eye, all
he could think was, I just hurt Bobby Valentine. I just ended
Mr. Baseball's career.
Everything came easy: Valentine won a national ballroom dancing
title at 14, a pancake-eating contest at 18, and in the downtime
between making himself a baseball legend and winning the state's
60-yard dash title he also became one of the most sought-after
football players in Connecticut history. He scored 53 touchdowns
for Rippowam High and was named all-state three times--a
distinction still unmatched. "If anyone has a chance to be the
next O.J. Simpson," USC coach John McKay said at the time, "it's
Valentine chose instead to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who
picked him fifth in the 1968 draft and gave him a $65,000 signing
bonus. In spring training general manager Al Campanis would point
him out as the future captain of the team that would include Ron
Cey, Steve Garvey and Davey Lopes. It didn't matter that injuries
would soon diminish his talent or that Dodgers manager Walter
Alston had no use for his cockiness or that some teammates
couldn't stand his popping off; in Stamford, Valentine could do
no wrong. His father covered the lights outside his house with
globes painted to look like baseballs, and the young men who
would later buy drinks from Bobby V were just larger versions of
the boys who made their parents drive slowly past the house on
Stillwater Road, slow enough so they could stare at the lights.
"The basketball coach at Rip got annoyed at me once and said,
'Who do you think you are, Bobby Valentine?'" says Frank
Ramppen, a baseball star at Rippowam in the mid-'70s who went on
to play Double A ball for the Minnesota Twins. "I said, 'I'd
like to be.'" Ramppen settled for the next best thing: He now
manages Valentine's restaurant. It's an easier job today than it
used to be. In 1983 Valentine was arrested for disturbing the
peace when he tried to chase a pair of prostitutes away from the
restaurant door; Keith Hernandez had been propositioned that
night, and Valentine lost control. The police came, let the
girls walk and hauled Valentine off to jail. He paced his cell
for an hour, bellowing, "Oh, you've got a lot of f------ nerve!"
before realizing at 4 a.m. that it wasn't getting him anywhere.
He asked for the phone and--with his wife, Mary, at home and
beginning to worry--used his one call to wake up the mayor,
Louis Clapes. "You're going to have a situation," Valentine told
him. Valentine was released almost immediately, and the charges
were later dismissed.
"There's been a real comeback in that part of town the last six
years," Salvatore says. "Bobby helped spearhead the movement to
clean it up. I can't tell you how much this town is wrapped up in
the Mets right now because of Bobby, because he never forgot
where he came from. My father's 85 years old and doesn't see very
well. He waits all day long to sit in front of the TV and listen
to Bobby Valentine's games, and he's not the only guy in Stamford
who does that."
Three days later, on Sept. 24, I take a train to Philly to catch
up with Valentine as the Mets open their series at Veterans
Stadium. It is, according to media relations director Jay
Horwitz, a horrible time to try to talk to him. Aside from the
three-game spanking the Mets just took from Atlanta, there's
also a cover story in the current Sporting News asking, WHY DOES
EVERYONE HATE BOBBY V?
Valentine is, obviously, the most controversial manager in the
game today, and though there is a large part of him that relishes
the title--he occasionally introduces himself as the Most Hated
Man in Baseball--he monitors all criticism with the meticulousness
of a medieval scholar. Valentine's father-in-law, Ralph Branca,
the former Dodgers pitcher immortalized for serving up the pitch
that Bobby Thomson hit for a pennant-winning home run in 1951,
helps by scanning the Internet. "People just feel the need to
tell you about these awful articles," says Mary Valentine. "I
tell Dad I really don't want to know."
A few hours before game time, Valentine is lying on the dugout
steps doing a series of leg lifts. He has recently had
arthroscopic surgery to repair ligament damage in his left knee,
but even 26 years after the crash it is his right leg that
catches your eye. The broken bone was set wrong, throwing off
Valentine's stride so drastically that during his comeback he
would sometimes trip and fall while trying to run to first.
"When I saw that," says Branca, "I cried." Even now the right
calf remains shrunken, and there's a baseball-sized mass of bone
protruding off the shin. He gasps lightly each time he raises
I have spoken to him a couple of times over the years but only
casually, so I sit in the dugout and mention all the people we
have in common. I work the Stamford connection hard because I
know he is worried and suspicious, and because I know he will
give in. Everyone in baseball says so: No matter how embattled,
Valentine is incapable of saying no to someone from home. So I
tell him of the people I've talked to there, and when I say that
Salvatore was fair in his comments about him, Valentine lifts an
eyebrow and says, "Probably overly fair. Because he doesn't know
I've never seen anyone find fault with fair remarks, but
Valentine has a point. No matter how much they support him, the
people in Stamford don't have to live with the Bobby Valentine
who runs the Mets, a man whose abrasiveness inspires personal
attacks from former players such as Pete Harnisch and Todd
Hundley. They have never stood on the mound and heard Valentine
sneer at their courage, which makes many teams want to beat New
York if only to wipe that smirk off his face. Some players, such
as current Mets benchwarmer Bobby Bonilla, even want to pummel
him. But to the folks back home Valentine will always be the
high school hero made good. They weren't there when he alienated
Alston by openly politicking for Tommy Lasorda to take over as
manager and got himself traded from the Dodgers; or when he
roved around as an instructor for the Padres and the Mets; or,
after managing the Rangers for seven years, when he spent the
mid-1990s eating crow in two minor league managerial stints for
the Mets in Norfolk, Va., and, in between, one season in Japan.
Valentine came back to the majors from Triple A Norfolk in August
1996, replacing Dallas Green as New York skipper. When I walked
into the Veterans Stadium pressroom, I bumped into Green, the
manager of the 1980 world champion Phillies whose four seasons
running the Mets were undistinguished. Green, now an adviser with
the Phils, said, "I don't want to talk about Bobby Valentine. I
wouldn't waste my time. Besides, it wouldn't be printable." His
loathing stems from his belief that Valentine undermined him.
When I ask Valentine about this the next morning, he dismisses
the idea--and then he dismisses Green.
"Dallas is counterfeit," Valentine says. "He looks good, and it
stops there. I was in spring training with Dallas, and he didn't
know a relay play from a relay race. It's that simple. He went
around yelling at players and saying how bad they were. In
meetings he would berate guys and his coaches...ah, I don't want
to go into that. But he has a lot of allies in the game."
Valentine, of course, has few allies in baseball--and the number
is shrinking fast. He is not, as he says, a member of the
managing "fraternity," and he doesn't really care. Few in
baseball work as hard at getting the edge on opponents, at
studying videotape, and Valentine's grating personality and
competitive fury are conducive to rumors about the Mets'
stealing signs or even bugging the opponent's dugout at Shea
Stadium. Valentine is up front about the signs; he personally
designed a remote-control three-camera system that was installed
at the stadium in 1997. "They're teaching tools, but if there's
anything else you can see on those cameras, after the game I
look for it," he says. "I do that every day that I manage. I'd
do anything I could to steal signs. We had a little thing where
someone on my team thought Chipper Jones was catching signs. My
feeling is, shame on us, not shame on him. It's part of the
game. Any way you can do it." As for bugs in the dugout,
Valentine says, "No, that's silly." Then he adds cryptically, "I
mean, I don't think so."
Even when he pays someone a compliment, it comes out snarky;
recently Valentine said he thought Atlanta's Bobby Cox should be
named National League Manager of the Year "because he's had to
manage this year." It doesn't matter that until Monday,
Valentine had managed 1,703 games without making the playoffs.
He says what he thinks, and the subtext tends to be: The only
genius in this game is me. "I don't need my competition to like
me," he says. "But a lot of them just absolutely fear that
someday they're going to have to be on a panel with me or
something, and they'll just be exposed. That's a bad statement.
I know that. But I think it's absolutely true.
"I don't know what arrogant means. I don't appreciate people who
cover or coach baseball not knowing what they're talking about.
It's not that tough. It's not like I have any secret answers;
it's just that I have worked a little harder than most to grasp
the simple ideas of baseball. People say I'm arrogant when
someone who's a newspaperman or sportscaster or someone in
uniform says something really dumb, and I'm supposed to accept
it? I don't accept that."
His players are a different story. He has to live and die with
them, so Valentine is ever conscious of where the lines fall,
how the factions form. In this clubhouse he loves Piazza,
outfielder Darryl Hamilton, first baseman John Olerud, third
baseman Robin Ventura and pitchers Orel Hershiser, Rick Reed and
Masato Yoshii--"Not just good guys, good stock," Valentine
says--and worries about the influence someone like Bonilla can
wield. The 36-year-old Bonilla has had an awful year in 1999;
virtually untradable because of his two-year, $11.8 million
contract, injured and overweight, he has produced little,
refused to pinch-hit at least once and challenged Valentine to
fight him in the dugout during a July win over the Yankees. "Get
your ass back in the clubhouse where you've been the past two
weeks!" Valentine said then, and most private and public opinion
ran in his favor. But when his season looked as if it was coming
apart, Valentine wasn't sure that Bonilla wouldn't somehow
undermine him. As we speak at the Vet, a players-only meeting is
under way in the Mets' clubhouse. Valentine is sure that if the
losing continues, Bonilla's influence will only grow.
"You're not dealing with real professionals in the clubhouse,"
Valentine says. "You're not dealing with real intelligent guys
for the most part. A lot can swim, but most of them just float
along, looking for something to hold on to. That's why, I'm sure,
they're having a players-only meeting. Because there's about five
guys in there right now who basically are losers, who are seeing
if they can recruit. They actually think there's some
accomplishment and some reward in being the BMOC. They don't know
that, looking back at it five years from now, that will mean
His friends, his wife, the guys back home will tell you that
Valentine has never been more alone. On June 5, in the midst of
another seven-game losing streak, Valentine picked up Newsday
and read that pitching coach Bob Apodaca's job was in jeopardy.
When he got to the ballpark he denied the report as speculation,
then found it to be true and screamed at Phillips in a rage.
Gone not only was Apodaca, whom Valentine brought with him from
Norfolk, but also longtime confidant and hitting coach Tom
Robson and bullpen coach Randy Niemann. Ignoring the custom of
allowing a manager to pick his staff, Phillips made Dave
Wallace, a player personnel adviser, the new pitching coach (a
job he'd held with the Dodgers), and brought in minor-league
instructor Mickey Brantley as hitting coach and minor-league
pitching coordinator Al Jackson as bullpen coach. Phillips
insists to this day that his motives were pure, but many close
to Valentine believe the move was designed to embarrass him into
Valentine believes the world is full of conspiracies, large and
small. He's very interested in the next batch of documents the
government will release on the Kennedy assassination, and late
last month, after a Brewers fan attacked Houston Astros
infielder Bill Spiers, Valentine casually said to me, "You see
what happened in Milwaukee? First it was kids in school, and
now? We're next." On June 9, Valentine got ejected from a game
against the Toronto Blue Jays and then showed up in the tunnel
to the dugout in a makeshift disguise, wearing a goofy fake
mustache and glasses. There was plenty of speculation about his
intentions, but you could argue he was just tired of being Bobby
In these days of losing streaks and jubilant calls for his head,
it's easy for Valentine to wonder whether he should have quit
back in June, gotten out before all the conspirators got him at
last. "It's not just about my coaches being fired," he says,
sitting in front of his hotel in Philly. "It's about never being
consulted, never being told, leaking it to the press--how it was
done." He mentions Wallace. "My pitching coach now was involved
in the decision to fire my hitting coach. If he wasn't part of
the solution when he was out of uniform, why wasn't he part of
the problem? He was part of the staff."
Valentine is wearing a black leather jacket that seems to
swallow him up, make him smaller. He stares out at the hotel
driveway. "Half the players probably think I had something to do
with it, that I'm totally in agreement with it," he says. "I've
had to act like nothing was lost, like we're better for it." He
forces a casual shrug. "But what the hey."
At that moment Wallace emerges from the hotel and passes in
front of Valentine. The two men exchange pleasantries. Wallace
walks off. After a while Valentine says, "I hate surprises."
All controversy stops at the Stamford city line. There is one
place left in America where no players question his honesty,
where his brashness is a point of pride, where Bobby Valentine
is universally loved. It is Saturday night at Mario the Baker on
High Ridge Road, the Mets are on TV, and the place is packed
with people digging into classic Stamford fare: pizza, lasagna,
meatball wedges. "There are two Stamfords," says Al Shanen,
Valentine's high school football coach. "The northern part is
wealthy, but south of the parkway it has always been
blue-collar. And there are two Bobby Valentines: the Bobby who's
been thrust into the national limelight, with a personality that
maintains stability in the face of his critics. Then there's the
other side of Bobby, the good old Italian boy brought up in a
small town who never lost sight of his roots. He's a real,
honest-to-goodness hometown hero. That will never change in our
But how well do they really know Valentine? His wife and son,
Bobby Jr., live in Arlington, Texas, where Bobby Jr. was born;
they plan to stay there until the boy is out of high school.
During homestands Valentine stays in a Westchester County
apartment because it's only a 45-minute drive to Shea. Still,
he'll show up at the restaurant three times a week, and during
lunchtime rushes this season more than one customer has glanced
up to find the manager of the Mets bussing his table. He signs
autographs endlessly, argues with patrons over his managing
moves until they agree. "Stamford is a refueling place--I always
get energy from there," Valentine says. "My only real regret in
49 years is that I didn't raise my son there."
Everyone in town speaks of Valentine in glowing terms: He is
generous, he is genuine, but most of all, he is loyal. When he
heard that Julian Levine, his old doctor, was dying of cancer
two summers ago, he called repeatedly and went to sit with him
in his hospital room and talk baseball. "Julian was thrilled,"
says his wife, Carol. "It's a strange thing: Wherever Bobby
goes, there's some controversy about his temper or the trouble
he gets into. But he's always considerate of the people back
Shanen's right: There are two Valentines. The first spent 18
years living without a slump, an injury, or a hostile public--an
athletic marvel who also got the lead in the school play and
became president of the student council. Valentine grew up in a
world that so regularly announced he was more gifted than
everyone around him that he took it for granted. "I didn't think
I was doing anything special," Valentine says. "I was playing
with all the college kids in Cape Cod when I was a high school
junior, hitting .300, and thinking, This is easy. I wasn't even
trying." In that world, of course, there was never any need for
him to deride opponents. "We were rivals, but as far as being
malicious or arrogant, he didn't have that reputation growing
up," says Rick Robustelli, who quarterbacked the 1967 undefeated
Stamford Catholic High football team that crushed Valentine's
unbeaten team in what remains the biggest sporting event in city
history. "He was always competitive but never hotheaded, never
getting on people."
The second Valentine, of course, didn't have it so easy. He came
back after shattering his right leg to play for six seasons but
was never the same. He needed an orthopedic lift in his shoe to
help him walk evenly; his first marriage to a Stamford girl fell
apart; his golden future transmuted to lead. Bobby V was not an
ordinary player who always knew he would have to scrap his way
into a lineup; he was a superstar turned role player overnight,
an action junkie unable to act. His sense of superiority
remained, but now the only outlet was his mouth. "You'll never
make it out of the fourth inning!" Valentine screamed at Florida
Marlins pitcher Al Leiter from the dugout in 1997. "I looked
over and said, 'Is that the manager?'" says Leiter, now a Mets
starter and the man Valentine handed the ball for the climactic
playoff game in Cincinnati.
The manager held tight the hometown ties, and not just to keep
his restaurant humming. During his first few seasons in Texas,
in the mid-'80s, Valentine met every few weeks with his
"backroom advisers"--former managers Paul Richards and Bobby
Bragan--to kick around strategy. In New York he constantly
bounced ideas off Robson, but more and more he turned to Mickey
Lione, a Stamford coaching legend 11 years Valentine's senior.
It was an unorthodox choice. Lione had coached champions in the
small-time worlds of Babe Ruth baseball and high school baseball
and hockey, and had none of the credentials of the usual old
hands who hang around the big leagues. Yet Valentine kept Lione
close. He had hired him as a manager at the restaurant a decade
earlier, and after a while came to depend on seeing him in his
Shea Stadium office after every home game, where the two would
toss around questions about tactics, clubhouse politics, coaching.
"Mickey was able to feel situations," Valentine says. "He knew
my environment, and he knew me in that environment: He could
feel it. He'd feel personalities in the clubhouse, say, 'What's
his problem?' and after two days, he'd say, 'You got a situation
over there.' That's how I learned. It's intimate stuff, and to
share it is rare."
It's as if, to survive in New York, the second Valentine needed
the first, needed to see Stamford faces while navigating the
boiler-room pressure. Valentine had looked up to Lione since
he'd seen him play as a boy. When, last winter, what was
supposed to be a routine hernia operation evolved into Lione's
losing battle with cancer, Valentine felt something
irreplaceable slipping away. For weeks, doctors at Stamford
Hospital puzzled over the case. Lione couldn't eat, and yet his
body grew bloated. On one visit, after feeding Lione himself by
hand, Valentine raged up and down the hospital hallway,
screaming, "How can you think this is normal? This is an
emergency! I want you to do something!"
Lione died last February, leaving Valentine to navigate this
turbulent season alone. "For what Mickey did and what he meant
to me, he doesn't have to be here to influence me," Valentine
says. "He doesn't have to be here today for me to feel it."
Bobby Valentine is dangling still. This is Sunday evening, and
he has now managed a full slate of 162 games, winning four of
his last five to erase the late-season gag-tag--and he still
doesn't know if he'll finally make it to the postseason. He
doesn't know that in Monday night's playoff, Leiter, the onetime
object of his derision, will shut out the Reds on two hits, 5-0.
All he knows is that his Mets just beat the Pirates for the
third straight time, 2-1, when Brad Clontz bounced a
ninth-inning, bases-loaded pitch to the backstop. As Clontz, who
had just entered the game, was about to make his first and only
delivery to Piazza, Valentine bellowed: Be alive for the wild
pitch! "I do it every time a guy's on third," he says proudly.
"And I do it so the pitcher hears me."
He'd come to Shea early this morning, and soon an express-mail
package arrived with the return address smudged out. He guessed
it was hate mail and almost didn't open it, then figured, What
the hell. Out spilled two cards from Bobby Jr. in Texas. "Hang
in there!" said one. Not wanting his players to see, Valentine
went into the bathroom before allowing himself to cry.
After the game Branca stood in the tunnel outside the clubhouse
door. No one expected him. He'd been in New Jersey for an
autograph signing with Bobby Thomson; this was Oct. 3, of
course, the 48th anniversary of Thomson's homer. The door
opened, and Valentine emerged. They embraced. During Valentine's
press conference, co-owner Fred Wilpon abruptly glided in and
also wrapped him in a hug; and later Phillips reiterated
Wilpon's claim that Valentine would be back next season.
Problem is, no one in the Mets organization has bothered to ask
Valentine if he wants to be back. In truth those closest to
Valentine would be stunned to see him return next season. Some
say that he hasn't been himself since Phillips fired his
coaches. The Bobby they know is too loyal, too wedded to his own
ideas of right and wrong, to have done anything but quit in
disgust; many of them feel he is bitter because he didn't.
"Having his coaches fired like that is the toughest thing he has
ever experienced as a manager," says Mary Valentine, who still
wants her husband to quit.
Valentine walks over to his desk and holds up a large, grainy,
black-and-white photo: "Isn't this something?" he says. It's a
picture of him when he was a Dodger, sometime back in '71 or
'72, sitting on the set of the Mets' postgame TV show, Kiner's
Korner, with host Ralph Kiner and Dodgers pitcher Jim Brewer,
now dead. "He got the save and I got the game-winning hit,"
Valentine says. "Off Tom Seaver." He grins. His parents, Joe and
Grace, snapped the picture off the television screen, capturing
in blurry perfection their son when he was a mop-haired star on
the rise, until now the closest he ever got to being everything
Bobby V was supposed to be.
I've never cared much about Stamford, and having spent time with
Valentine, I can't even say how much I like him. But roots
tunnel deep. I want him to win, and win again, and then I want
Bobby V to walk away from New York. He is the local hero, you
see. And in the best baseball stories, the hero always heads for
Though it took Bobby Valentine 12 seasons to reach the playoffs
as a manager, his records in Texas and New York compare
favorably with those of his immediate predecessors and
successors. In the short term here's how Bobby V stacked up:
YEAR MANAGER WINNING PCT.
1984 Doug Rader .429 (69-92)
1985 Rader .281 (9-23)
1985 Valentine .411 (53-76)
1986 Valentine .537 (87-75)
1991 Valentine .525 (85-77)
1992 Valentine .523 (45-41)
1992 Toby Harrah .421 (32-44)
1993 Kevin Kennedy .531 (86-76)
1995 Dallas Green .479 (69-75)
1996 Green .450 (59-72)
1996 Valentine .387 (12-19)
1997 Valentine .543 (88-74)
LEFT TO SAY IS SOME KIND OF PRAYER. SO BOBBY VALENTINE LEAVES
TWO TICKETS FOR A DEAD MAN.
WHEN ITS BIGGEST CELEBRITY OPENED A RESTAURANT AND BAR, THE
PLACE BECAME AN INSTANT HAPPENING.
'WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, BOBBY VALENTINE?'" RAMPPEN RECALLS.
"I SAID, 'I'D LIKE TO BE.'"
HAVE TO BE ON A PANEL WITH ME, AND THEY'LL JUST BE EXPOSED,"
VALENTINE SAYS. "A LOT OF THEM CAN SWIM, BUT MOST OF THEM FLOAT
ALONG, LOOKING FOR SOMETHING TO HOLD ON TO."
NEXT SEASON. SOME SAY HE HASN'T BEEN HIMSELF SINCE PHILLIPS
FIRED HIS COACHES.