Time's propensity to march on leaves so much in the dust. People and issues that we focus immense amounts of energy on matter less and less until they matter not at all. They become history. History's a blast, but it's not the same as being vital in the here and now.
Hence, it comes as a creeping surprise on February 14 that the subject of Bobby Valentine is not dripping with vitality. We almost never talk about him anymore.
Sure, the date is a rather obvious hook on which to hang a discussion of our old skipper, but with the slightest step back from the contemporary, it's amazing that he doesn't come up more often. Bobby Valentine was at the center of our thoughts and our lives as Mets fans for so long…and not all that long ago. We devoted who knows how many cubic yards of gray matter to figuring out what he meant, what he was doing, what his next move would be. He was as fascinating a character as we've ever had in our midst. Stengel-fascinating. Strawberry-fascinating. Hernandez-fascinating. Leiter-fascinating.
Say, when was the last time, outside the prism of nostalgia, that we gave those guys any deep thought either? Or Charlie Puleo? Exactly. Time does its number on everybody who's not connected to the 25-man roster, whether they're making it or managing it.
For my money, nobody ever managed one of those babies on our behalf like Bobby Valentine. When the Mets solicited our opinions in 2002 to create an All-Amazin' team, there were four legitimate candidates for manager. Casey Stengel all but created the Mets as we think of them. Gil Hodges is our eternal paterfamilias. Davey Johnson was simply the most successful of the bunch.
But I voted for Valentine. I knew Hodges would win (not altogether undeservedly by any means) and I always thought Johnson was criminally underrated, but I went with Bobby V. I'm not sure that he was the best manager we ever had, but I always felt he inhabited the job like nobody else.
Bobby Valentine loved being the manager of the Mets. He groomed himself for the role from the time he arrived via Kingman trade and once he got it, he ran with it.
I'm not sure what's more jarring, that he's been gone from the organization for nearly 3-1/2 years or that he became Mets manager a decade ago this August. He had one of those tenures during which you all but forgot who came before him and couldn't believe anybody would actually follow him.
Why such love for Valentine? I mean besides his late, lamented restaurant hard by the Grand Central? (Mets cards embedded into the tables, Tom Seaver book covers on display, a menu brimming with Toca Taco Salad and Ribant's Reuben Sandwich…I think I'm going to cry.)
Like I said, he wanted to be here. This wasn't Art Howe shocked out of his mind that somebody would hire him. As soon as Bobby was entrenched, he talked about a Mets way of doing things, about bringing back old Mets to instill a Mets spirit in new Mets. He wasn't close to Mookie, but he embraced having him as a first-base coach. He lured Keith to St. Lucie as an instructor. Rickey will be in camp this year in part, it is said, because Willie knew him from the Yankees. Davey Johnson was part of Cashen's Baltimore cabal. Gil Hodges and Rube Walker were Brooklyn Dodger heroes. Valentine got that we cared about a Mets connection. Maybe it was just lip service, but it made me happy.
Bobby V spoke his mind from the get-go. In Rey-Rey's first year, for example, the Mets had a coach, Rafael Landestoy, whose job was to serve as translator for the rookie shortstop. First spring under Bobby, no extra help. Ordoñez was told no more being an “independent contractor.” Learn English. Communicate with your teammates. Grow up. It's hard to swear that it took, but Bobby took a step.
There was little politic about how he expressed himself. He could have done the Howe thing when it came to the losing streak that greased the skids for his dismissal in '02. He could've said nothing (“we battled”) but he emoted. “It's killing me, it's killing my family, it's killing my dogs,” I believe was the litany of complaints. When asked to elaborate on why things were going so badly, he said he lost his disciples. What manager would admit to that? In happier times, he uttered stop-you-cold stuff as well. When he finally led a team into the playoffs in 1999, a reporter wanted to know if this was the most fun he'd ever had. Surely he'd say, “yes, this is the most fun I've ever had.” Not Bobby. His answer was along the lines of “no, it's not fun. Fun is skiing with my family.”
At least once a year, Bobby Valentine would put Mike & The Mad Dog in their place. He'd as much as tell them they were clueless idiots who couldn't manage a concession stand let alone a big league ballclub. Natch, they reciprocated by sniping at him and kissing Torre's ass that much more, but what savvy listener wouldn't tell Ego & The Idiot the same thing if given the chance?
I once heard Bobby rip into FAN management while on the FAN for not paying him nearly enough to do a manager's show, throwing out the figures that he was getting versus what Bruce Bochy was getting in San Diego, “San Diego” never sounding so contempt-filled as when he said it. That one outburst was more thrilling than anything Jeff Torborg ever said when he was in Jeff From Flushing mode.
Bobby V made enemies, as many on his own club as among the opposition and the media. I suppose that's not a desired attribute, but it was entertaining. Who didn't hate him by the time they were done being managed by him? When he identified one of his missing disciples as “Todd,” a gentleman named Zeile insisted he didn't mean me (no, Bobby said, I meant Pratt). Harnisch hated him immediately. Gilkey hated him eventually. Lance Johnson wasn't crazy about him. Todd Hundley famously feuded with him. And that was after one year! Franco — who with Hundley shoved his face into a heart-shaped cake as a “joke” around this date in 1997 — and Leiter almost certainly helped get him fired. I guess Mike liked him. And I would think those who owed their second chances to him didn't despise him.
That's another thing. Look at all the scrap heapsters Bobby Valentine revitalized. Rick Reed, Matt Franco, Todd Pratt, Benny Agbayani, Melvin Mora were the kinds of guys who were going opportunityless when Bobby decided to give them a shot. They all repaid him (and us) by contributing to the building of a contender. Bobby's the reason I stopped looking at names like Brian Bohanon with a smirk and a roll of the eyes. Bobby got a good year and change out of that guy. Every little bit helps.
And Bobby Valentine won here. He took a team that was demoralized by Dallas Green and turned it into something exciting. The Mets of '97 and early '98 were the eighth wonders. They were rarely out of a game and they were more dangerous than anybody when things got late. When he got some talent, he got to the playoffs. He steered a completely defeated bunch in '01 to a near miracle, all while expending himself to serve countless children of 9/11 victims.
That should be the best part, but to me the best part was that Steve Phillips hated him. Anybody Steve Phillips hates must have it goin' on.
Bobby V was, to invoke an overused invocation, larger than life. I was devastated when he was fired. It was as if he had been impeached by a hostile Congress. The combination of his and Alfonzo's dismissals (speaking of players maximized by the manager) left the worst taste I'd ever experienced in my Mets mouth. Art Howe was an insult to his memory.
Then time marched. It and life went on. Howe went off to wherever Howe went. Willie Randolph came in. He was OK. I don't love him, I don't hate him. When he was hired, it was reportedly instead of Valentine among others. By then, the fall of 2004, it had already seemed a mighty long time since it had been Valentine's day. It's only longer now. I don't miss him on a going basis anymore. He is history. Mets history, the best kind — but still history.
Funny how quickly that happens.
Some amateur psychology is applied to the New York baseball psyche at Gotham Baseball.