An off-season that has seen two men with no prior managerial experience hired to guide contenders (the Cardinals and the White Sox) and a G.M. resurrected after a decade in the woods (the Orioles' Dan Duquette) got a little bit weirder when the Red Sox selected Bobby Valentine as their new manager last week. Valentine, 61, last managed in the majors with the 2002 Mets and spent much of the intervening decade in Japan, leading the Chiba Lotte Marines to the Japan Series crown in 2005, and as an ESPN analyst.
Hiring Valentine is a departure for the Red Sox, who for nine years under Theo Epstein had a G.M.-centric structure. Manager Terry Francona, while a key member of the organization, wasn't the star the way the youthful, Moneyball-flavored Epstein was. New G.M. Ben Cherington, who apprenticed under Epstein, hired one of the strongest personalities in the game, one who will pull the spotlight away from the executive suite. The decision changes the organization as radically as the hiring of Epstein, then the youngest G.M. ever, did in 2002. When you hire Bobby Valentine, you make yourself Bobby Valentine's team.
Valentine isn't just a loud voice and a bright smile, though. In two managing stints in the U.S. he showed the single characteristic most missing from the modern dugout: a willingness to defy convention. Whether it was bringing in controversial pitching coach Tom House, his stretching of players defensively to maximize offense—Valentine played some of the worst defensive alignments of the 1980s—or creating a job for former replacement player Rick Reed just two years after he'd crossed the picket line, Valentine's focus was finding the next win. If he looked silly doing so (the lasting image of Valentine is of him in a cheap disguise, running the Mets from a corner of the dugout following an ejection in 1999), he didn't care.
Managers now hew so closely to the orthodox line walked by their peers that the game suffers. Everyone runs his bullpen the same way. Everyone runs his rotation the same way. Everyone bunts the winning run to second, never uses the backup catcher and carries at least seven relief pitchers. It's not that Valentine won't do any or all of these things; it's that when he does, it won't be because Joe Girardi and Mike Scioscia do it. It will be because he's looked at the information and decided that's how Bobby Valentine should do it.
December 12, 2011
The story line is that the Red Sox are hiring a manager who has a history of taking on his players. In the wake of a September collapse and rumored clubhouse misbehavior, perhaps that approach is necessary. What the Red Sox get in Valentine, though, is much more than a bad cop. They get a mind at work, one of the best, one who will bring the Earl Weaver/Tony La Russa approach of squeezing every drop of value from the roster, and who will never make a decision based on how it will play in the postgame media gaggle. Valentine is one of the few managers who combines the two disparate talents necessary to run a team: the leadership skills necessary to get the most from people, and the tactical savvy necessary to win games from the bench. An emphasis on the former by front offices has led to a generation of managers who can lose the game but win the press conference. If you don't think that has a cost, rewatch the 2011 World Series.
VALENTINE IS UNLIKE MOST MODERN MANAGERS: HE'S WILLING TO DEFY CONVENTION.