Wednesday, February 23, 2011

#101 - Bobby Valentine

Continuing on the vacation theme, my family and I went zip-lining in St. Martin and the family immediately behind us was Jim Bouton's. He was awfully nice, looked great, and his grandkids were pretty sweet. Figures that a guy that has spent his last 33 years working in NYC would have to leave the country to meet an ex-Yankee.

This is a great action shot of Bobby Valentine, who was pretty much a bulldog of a player himself, at Yankee Stadium. It shows a nice swing extension which is appropriate since the shot was taken during his very brief season in '73 when his average did not dip below .300. After Dick Allen he was my favorite player; in the mid- and late-60s he was a hard guy to avoid in the sports pages if you lived in Southern New England or Jersey like I did.

Valentine was drafted in the first round of '68 by the Dodgers out of high school in Stamford, CT. He was All-State in everything and signed with the Dodgers when a couple scouts attended his signing day at USC where he planned to be a halfback and convinced him that baseball was the better choice. That year he kicked things off as a Rookie ball outfielder. By '69 he was playing at Triple A Spokane, whose manager was Tommy Lasorda. There Bobby moved primarily to shortstop where he had a decent defensive season but his offense came in a bit as he picked up the new position. The Spokane roster that year and the next would include as many future major leaguers - Steve Garvey, Tom Paciorek, Tommy Hutton, Bob Stinson, Von Joshua, etc. - as not and in 1970 Bobby would win the Pacific Coast League MVP while leading the team to a 94-52 record and the league championship. He was being groomed as the next Maury Wills and had all the power and speed to warrant the comparison. But in winter ball he injured his leg sliding and when the outfield in LA started getting crowded with the young guys, the Dodgers decided to turn one of them - Bill Russell - into a shortstop. When Bobby then came up in '71 he played everywhere in the infield but first which contributed to a slow start as he hit only .249. He had a decent - yet still itinerant - '72, boosting his average but not his power so that when the Dodgers decided they wanted California's Andy Messersmith, Bobby was part of the package that got them their boy.

In 1973 spring training, Valentine was given the starting shortstop job by the Angels on the heels of the trade to Cleveland of their '72 starter, Leo Cardenas. Bobby responded well, starting off the season at a .400 clip. That May 17, still hitting above .300, he got a rare start in center, because Ken Berry was not feeling well. Chasing a fly ball that became a home run hit by Dick Green of Oakland, Bobby jumped the outfield wall in an attempt to catch it. When coming down, his cleats got stuck in the soft padding that covered the wall - really a fence - and as he fell, his right leg was broken in both his fibula and tibia (think Joe Theissman). That was it for his season and his rehab was very painful. By the time he returned in '74 his speed was pretty much gone and his lower leg was bent at an angle (there is a photo in an SI article from that year here) that made playing problematic. But he played hard and started off the year at .323, finishing at .261, again playing all over the place. He was beaned late in the season and the following year saw limited playing time for the Angels, mostly at DH, and played most of the season in the minors , where he hit .267 with a .383 OBA while concentrating on another new position, third base. For '76 he went to the Padres for Gary Ross and had a super season at Hawaii, the San Diego Triple A affiliate, hitting .304 with 89 RBIs in 396 at bats. He came back up at the end of '76 and hit .367 in the last month. He started '77 slowly and that June went to the Mets for Dave Kingman. In '78 he was an often-used backup, mostly at second base, hitting .269 in 160 at bats. He was released during spring training the next year and signed with Seattle where he backed up at shortstop and the outfield, hitting .276. When the '70s ended, so did Bobby's playing career. He finished with a .260 average.

Almost immediately after he stopped playing, Valentine returned to the Mets as a minor league coach. By '82 he was up in NY in the same role which he did through '84. In '85 he was hired as manager for the Rangers. He would take them to second place the next season and to a couple third place finishes by the time he left in '92. After a few years as a commentator for ESPN, in '95 he pulled his first management gig in Japan, getting the Marines to their first winning record in a while. But he had a personality clash with management and was fired before the next season. Back in the States, he was returned to the Mets as a Triple A manager in '96 and late that season was promoted to the top. Bobby returned NY to the post-season in '99 and 2000, when they made it to the Series. He lasted there through the end of '02. He then returned to Japan where he took the Marines to the Series title in 2005. This time he lasted through '09 when he was dismissed, returned stateside and rejoined ESPN. He is still there. To date Bobby's managerial record is 82-59 in the minors; 513-429 in Japan; and 1,117-1,072 for his MLB work.

On the card back the big 1970 season shows. Bobby was a speedster early on and could get from home to first in 3.5 seconds until he got hurt. The cartoon is a bit different but significant: he won ballroom dancing contests in his early teens. Bobby was a big deal pick for USC and was expected to succeed OJ Simpson at halfback so the scoop by the Dodgers was a big setback for the school.

We travel from Pops to a Valentine (two weeks too late) through the NL:

1. Valentine and Maury Wills '71 Dodgers;
2. Wills and Willie Stargell '67 to '68 Pirates.

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