7:06 PM EST, March 4, 2012
FORT MYERS, Fla. — As he starts his job as the Red Sox's manager, Bobby Valentine gets to be one part Tommy Lasorda, two parts James Carville and three parts the guy who walks behind the elephants in the circus parade. And he loves every minute of it.
At 61, all that matters to Valentine is that he's back in the dugout of a team that not only expects to be good but has fans that care about baseball as much as he does.
"I didn't like wearing a tie on the field," Valentine said. "I always felt a little out of place."
While Valentine was terrific in his role as a commentator for ESPN, he admits he always felt "like an outsider" at the ballpark. He has been back in the loop, a 24/7 extension of Red Sox owner John Henry and first-year general manager Ben Cherington, since Nov. 30, when he was given a job that was on the verge of going to Dale Sveum two weeks earlier.
Mike Maddux's 11th-hour decision to pull out of the Cubs' managerial sweepstakes caused Theo Epstein to turn to Sveum, and the former Red Sox third-base coach decided he'd rather follow his old boss to Chicago than take his chances fixing the dysfunctional clubhouse culture behind a September collapse and Terry Francona's firing.
Valentine, who had been waiting for this opportunity since he was ousted after a six-year run managing Japan's Chiba Lotte Marines, saw the upside in the job and trusted his experience would help him weather the downside.
He's had plenty of the latter in the early days in camp.
Valentine has confronted the awkwardness of managing players such as Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett, whom he had criticized during ESPN telecasts, to potential anger over banning alcohol — but not fried chicken and video games — in the clubhouse. And there's an edginess in the clubhouse as Jon Lester, Beckett and other embarrassed players search for the sources of offseason stories that exposed their selfish, seemingly indifferent behavior during the 7-20 September in which they lost an eight-game lead in the American League wild-card race.
"Somebody was trying to save their own ass, and it probably cost a lot of people their asses," Beckett told WEEI.com. "It's not good."
Manager 101 suggests Valentine call a meeting and tell the Red Sox players he doesn't care what happened before he took over, that it's "time to turn the page," or, if he prefers, to "get on the same page." But Valentine doesn't believe it would be the productive thing to do.
He expected all of this, and knows there's a certain amount of drama that he must let play out before finding out whether Mike Aviles can play a decent shortstop and if Ryan Sweeney can hit enough to stick in right field.
"Saying forget it is like saying relax," he said. "The words mean nothing. It takes breathing and confidence and those wonderful things to relax. It takes time and possibly apologies — apologies that come with actions — to heal."
Earlier in his career, Valentine often came off as thin-skinned and insecure. But he has been anything but that since taking over a team that won the World Series in 2004 and '07 but won only one postseason series the last four years, missing the playoffs in 2010 and '11 when Epstein assembled teams with franchise-record payrolls that averaged $166 million.
Valentine didn't seem to mind Francona saying on ESPN Radio that the clubhouse beer ban was "a PR move." He saw it as the commerce of modern sports.
"You get paid over there for saying stuff," Valentine said. "Here you get paid for doing stuff. I know about both of those."
Most analysts rank the Yankees and pitching-rich Rays ahead of Valentine's Red Sox, who made only minor, fill-in-the-crack roster moves this winter. No franchise was pulling harder for Commissioner Bud Selig to add the second wild card in time for the upcoming season as the commissioner did last week. Missing the playoffs a third year in a row could make Red Sox Nation notice the price of tickets at Fenway Park.
Valentine loves challenges. His first managerial job was as a 35-year-old with the doormat Rangers and he pulled off a 25-game improvement his first full season. He helped make the Mets relevant in the middle of the Yankees' dynasty years, guiding them to the 2000 World Series and the 1999 NLCS, and he won a championship in Japan, where he never stopped working to learn the language and the culture.
He's all about actions, not words. This is a guy who once built a second-floor deck that was strong enough to support a hot tub because contractors told him it couldn't be done.
The Red Sox have plenty of tough work ahead, but they've got the right guy in charge.