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You’ll Rarely Manage in This Game Again

With Bobby Valentine’s non-hiring as manager of the Florida Marlins proving once again his predecessor’s 1973 utterance about it not being over until is over oh so true, one wonders if the key credential on his managerial résumé is the item that quietly did him in. Bobby V won a pennant for the Mets, yet the Mets seem to use up the viability of their managers for potential future Major League Baseball employers — particularly if those MLB teams had no prior history with those managers.

Nineteen different men have skippered the Mets. One of them is their current manager. One of them tragically died in office. One of them was 75 when he broke his hip and limped, after spending 54 of his previous 56 years in uniform, into retirement. Thus, you can’t count Jerry Manuel (since 2008), Gil Hodges (1968-1971) and Casey Stengel (1962-1965) as managers who couldn’t get another job after they were done with the Mets.

As for the other sixteen, ten were never tabbed to lead a team in what we tend, perhaps jingoistically, call the big leagues. That includes four interim managers — Salty Parker (1967), Roy McMillan (1975), Frank Howard (1983), Mike Cubbage (1991) — who apparently didn’t make enough of an impression to get a full-time shot anywhere else. Cubbage was named caretaker manager for the Red Sox during the offseason between 2001 and 2002, but never managed a game for them between Joe Kerrigan and Grady Little.

There were six full-time Mets managers who, to date, never again appealed to anybody, at least not enough to get hired: Joe Frazier (1976-77); Bud Harrelson (1990-91); Dallas Green (1993-96); Valentine (1996-2002); Art Howe (2003-2004); and Willie Randolph (2005-2008). To be fair to the last two, they were collecting some fine paychecks after being dismissed by the Mets with time remaining on their respective contracts, so why rush back onto the hot seat? Both became bench coaches — Howe was let go by Texas after 2008, Randolph is still advising Ken Macha in Milwaukee. Maybe Randolph will attract attention again someday given that he did win a division title. Howe, despite three consecutive playoff appearances as A’s manager, probably won’t.

Joe Frazier sank from major league sight once he was axed after his Mets’ horrible start in ’77. He managed one year, 1982, in the Cardinal system, but otherwise stayed out of demand. I was nevertheless pleased in 2008 when Lee Mazzilli, then SNY’s postgame analyst made a reference to Frazier as his first manager, and Matt Yallof smirked like it was a joke. Mazz lowered his voice and reprimanded Yallof with “Joe Frazier was a good man.” Joe Frazier was the on-field steward of the Mets’ downfall, but it seems he deserves a little love for bringing the 1976 Mets home with 86 wins, at the time the second-most in team history.

Buddy Harrelson serves as an example of when your team is hot, so are you. While the Mets were in dynastic fettle in the late ’80s, Harrelson, bench-coaching for Davey Johnson, was mentioned as a leading candidate for other jobs. The Blue Jays were eager to interview him [1] for an opening. Then Buddy gets his chance, leads the Mets from the April-May doldrums to nearly a division title in 1990, is befallen by a lousy team in ’91 and is never mentioned again at that level. He eventually helped give birth to the Long Island Ducks and was restored to Met icon status. Good for Buddy.

Dallas Green came off as a blustering bully [2] who belongs in the Phillies organization. Sure enough, he continues to be listed as a senior adviser to general manager Ruben Amaro.

For the six Met managers who went on to become MLB managers again, five of them benefited to a great extent by who they knew or where they’d been when they got their next shot.

Wes Westrum (1965-1967) went into managerial witness protection until 1974 when Horace Stoneham hired him to lead the San Francisco Giants on their perpetual journey through mediocrity. Stoneham was famously loyal to old Giants and Westrum’s name was made as a solid Jint catcher under Coogan’s Bluff in the early 1950s. Stoneham sold the team in 1976, but Westrum hung on more season at Candlestick.

Yogi Berra (1972-1975), it has become easy to forget, wore a Mets uniform for most of eleven seasons as a player, a coach and a pennant-winning manager. But when M. Donald Grant decided it was time for Yog’ to go, Yog’ knew where he was going: back to the Bronx, where he had worn a Yankees uniform even longer. The Hall of Fame catcher and serial mutterer of observations that sort of made sense settled into coaching and seemed destined to be an eternal background fixture to multiple firings of Billy Martin when George Steinbrenner, forever in search of good publicity, remembered Berra won that pennant for the Mets in 1973 (and one for the Yankees, in 1964) and named him manager for the 1984 season, succeeding Martin. The Yanks were blown away by the Tigers but Yogi kept his job for 1985. They got off to a shaky 6-10 start, which was obviously Yogi’s fault, for he was fired after sixteen whole games…and was replaced by Billy Martin. Berra never managed again, though he did catch on as a bench coach in Houston, a result of his neighbor from New Jersey, John McMullen, owning the Astros…and a result, one supposes, of his being Yogi Berra.

Joe Torre (1977-1981) was not damaged by his Met association, at least not in the eyes of Ted Turner who saw a young, promising pilot who did the best he could with faulty Queens equipment when he scooped him up to manage the Braves in 1982. It didn’t hurt that Torre had name recognition born of several All-Star seasons in Atlanta as a player. Torre turned the Dale Murphy Braves into winners for a couple of seasons before they reverted to pre-Torre form. Turner got itchy and removed Joe in favor of Eddie Haas, kind of the Braves’ version of Joe Frazier — long and meritorious record of service to the organization. Safe to say you’ve heard more of Torre than you have of Haas lately.

Joe, still the only Met manager to become somebody else’s Leader of Men immediately after being bounced out of Flushing, actually had to wait a while to get back into managing. After announcing Angels games to finish out the ’80s, the Cardinals hired him in 1990 when they were at one of their rare nadirs. Torre’s past helped him out again: he won an MVP for the Redbirds in 1971 and remained popular in St. Louis. He never returned them to glory, however, and was let go midway through the ’95 season. His next job came about mainly through a connection he made as a Met. All-purpose front office fixer Arthur Richman was now working for the Yankees and persuaded Steinbrenner that this was the guy who was going to halt his managerial merry-go-round for good. It loomed as bizarre, but Arthur Richman knew from whence he spoke. Torre enjoyed a dozen highly productive seasons in the Bronx before bolting to L.A. and, arguably, the first managerial post he earned since leaving the Mets without relying on “who ya know”.

George Bamberger (1982-83) got the Met job because he knew Frank Cashen. Cashen had to convince Bamberger to take it. Cashen made some good calls as Mets GM. Bamberger wasn’t one of them. The man couldn’t have looked or acted more frustrated as the former Oriole pitching coach and Brewer manager looked up and down the Met bench and could find no sign of anybody who bore resemblance to Jim Palmer or Robin Yount. Less than two years after resigning from aggravation of the Mets, he was lured once more out of retirement for a second go-round in Milwaukee. In the late ’70s, George had molded the Brewers into contenders for the first time. His second tenure as Kegmeister General didn’t go down so smoothly and was over, as it had been with the Mets, before two full seasons elapsed.

Davey Johnson (1984-1990) was successful enough in New York that he didn’t require an extraordinary “in” to obtain his next managing gig, helming the Cincinnati Reds in 1993. The Reds were a mess and Davey pulled them out of it, taking them to first place until the strike hit in August 1994 and to an N.L. Central championship in 1995. Unstable owner Marge Schott, however, saw fit to bestow lame duck status on Johnson before that season was over, promising the job to Davey lieutenant Ray Knight for 1996. Knight and the Reds foundered (they’re only now recovering) and Davey gravitated to a former professional home, Baltimore. He was as good managing the Orioles as he had been playing second base for them, guiding them twice to the postseason. Unfortunately, he ran into another lunatic owner, Peter Angelos, and was let go after 1997; the Orioles have not been seen on the competitive landscape since. Johnson got one more shot, in Los Angeles, new territory for him. Following a disappointing 1999 and a contending 2000, he was axed.

Jeff Torborg (1992-93) never played or coached for the Montreal Expos, but he was elevated to a top job in Canada nonetheless on something less than merit. Anyone who watched the ’Borg run the Mets into the ground would have figured a personal connection was at work. His sudden reappearance in a dugout eight years after presiding over immolation at Shea wasn’t because he knew something. It was because he knew somebody — Expos owner Jeffrey Loria. The two were described in multiple articles written upon his 2001 hiring as “friends” since the ’80s, back when Torborg was a Yankee coach and Loria was a Yankee season ticket holder. Loria infamously packed up the plantation and moved it to Florida in 2002, taking his staff with him, Torborg included. The Jeffs accomplished nothing of substance together and Loria turned his back on his “friend” much as he turned his back on Montreal. Jack McKeon then came in and led the Marlins to an unlikely 2003 world championship, proving a better manager than Jeff Torborg can make a positive impact on an otherwise despicable franchise. Torborg returned to broadcasting, a discipline at which he excelled to the very same extent he did at managing.

And that brings us to Bobby Valentine, arguably the most famous “former Mets manager” to remain in baseball after having been Mets manager.

Sure, Yogi Berra is more famous, but (despite uttering his best bromide in orange and blue) isn’t really famous for having been a Mets manager. Casey Stengel was more famous for having been Mets manager than most anybody will ever be for being anything, but by the time he was former Mets manager, Casey was not actively in baseball, fancy “vice president” title he held until his death in 1975 notwithstanding. Like Yogi is Yogi, Casey was Casey; curriculum vitae was just detail. Davey Johnson has one more World Series ring than Bobby Valentine, but he was never quite as famous. Joe Torre is pretty famous, but we’re the only ones who immediately remember he was our manager. Gil Hodges never had the opportunity to be recalled as a former Mets manager as opposed to “the late Mets manager”. If he had stayed on the scene, he might be have a plaque alongside Stengel and Berra in Cooperstown. (And the history of the Mets would have likely played out much differently.)

Bobby V is still around, as evidenced by his star turn on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. He’s still looking to fulfill his destiny as a major league manager, and he remains top of mind for such a role despite having gone an amazingly long time since his last such gig.

How long has it been since Bobby Valentine managed in — no offense to our friends in Japan — the major leagues? It’s been longer than Wes Westrum waited for a second chance…and there were six fewer teams back then. Westrum went seven years from quitting the Mets to leading the Giants. Torborg was in exile eight years, almost as long as Valentine’s been to date. Yogi Berra was let go by the Mets in early August of 1975 and was at the Yankee helm come April of 1984. Yogi may have been beloved and revered, but it seemed fairly absurd he was being resurrected as he was after so much time. If someone doesn’t hire Bobby Valentine by May 2011, Bobby will be out of the saddle in North America longer than Yogi was.

Is Bobby V destined to go the way of Joe Frazier and never again manage in the majors?

The Marlins seemed so close…as close as the Heat were to LeBron James [3] in the hours preceding the King’s People Of Earth announcement. Loria, who owned the Rangers’ top farm club when Bobby was managing Texas, knew him and allegedly wanted him very badly. Jon Heyman reported it as done [4] and word spread that it would be any minute now. The only detail to be settled was when. Edwin Rodriguez might be given the series versus the Mets in Puerto Rico in deference to his heritage — but that was just interim stuff; Salty Parker with a Spanish accent. Then the longer it didn’t become official, the more one got the sense it wasn’t going to happen at all. And it didn’t. Loria gathered his employees around in San Juan and told them Rodriguez is the manager for the rest of the year [5].

Maybe “who ya know” doesn’t always work.

Bobby Valentine…the most famous former Mets manager who’s ever been…the most famous available manager there usually is…remains unattached to any team save for ESPN. How did that happen?

Bobby blamed the Marlins [6]: “If this is a major league process, I hope I’m never in the process again.” He referred to his Florida dalliance as “very disturbing, confusing and…insulting at times.” The Marlins, not surprisingly, refute the characterization of their methods as bush league. Their president, David Samson, said it was never as done a deal as it appeared from the outside and that certain unfortunate aspects of the negotiations were “unavoidable”.

Anyone not on the inside can’t know exactly why a done deal gets undone, but think about the Florida Marlins for a sec: this is a franchise that has lingered in a mostly empty football stadium whose name changes more often than Cal Ripken took days off; that moved a three-game series with one of its better draws off the mainland in search of a few extra fans; that fired Joe Girardi, its National League Manager of the Year in 2006, right after he won the award; that features Hanley Ramirez, a superstar whose decision not to hustle helped oust the generally highly regarded (if not by all of us [7]) Fredi Gonzalez; that has never parlayed its two championships into any kind of lasting brand equity; and that only gets revved up if another team’s season is on the line.

Thus I’m guessing, whatever the details of the process behind the scenes, that the Marlins were pretty bush [8] in their approach to Bobby Valentine.

For what it’s worth, Joe Capozzi’s [9]Palm Beach Post [9] post-mortem [9] indicates the Marlins baseball people didn’t want to cede control over personnel decisions. And why ever would they want Bobby Valentine, who built a two-time playoff team largely out of spare parts and Mike Piazza, to have definitive say over who’s on their team? I’m disillusioned that an industry like baseball can’t figure out a way to make the best use of someone who should be one of its captains, not one of its analysts. His superlative work on Baseball Tonight only makes me yearn more for him to be back where he belongs. He dissected B.J. Upton’s bout of me-firstism [10] in Tampa Bay so beautifully the other night that for a fleeting moment I wished he was managing the Rays. It’s a waste of a great mind to keep Bobby Valentine out of his natural managerial habitat.

But I’m not exactly sorry he won’t be managing a division rival. That I feared. I feared the Marlins growing legs under Bobby V and I feared how much I was going have to loathe him in teal and black. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t like rooting against Davey Johnson when he brought the Reds and Dodgers to Shea. I did it because self-interest trumps all, but it’s not a clause in the fan contract I particularly relish.

Still, Valentine should be managing somewhere. He resuscitated the Rangers. He sparked the Mets to long abandoned heights. He was a legend and Chiba’s champion in Japan [11]. Yet general managers and owners steer clear of him in the U.S. in 2010. He inspires passion on both sides of the Bobby Valentine debate. He inspires a Bobby Valentine debate to begin with. Was there ever really an Art Howe debate? Few managers or head coaches are capable of electrifying their sport. Bobby is one of them.

Somebody should try and capture that electricity, and soon. He’s suddenly 60, and while that’s not necessarily prohibitively ancient the realm of managing (ask McKeon, a month shy of 73 when he took his champagne shower with the Marlins), perceptions about a person harden the older a person gets and the longer that person is away from the center of the action. Valentine is no doubt helped by being on ESPN. The players on his next club, assuming that club exists, will know who he is. But after a while, they may just know that he’s some old guy coming in to tell them their business. Then all bets are off.

Meanwhile, the Mets are humming along all right under Jerry Manuel. I haven’t noticed him garnering an ounce of credit for their surprise contention, yet I’ve gotta believe he’s doing something right. Have you noticed the Mets are not running the wrong way or throwing to the wrong base this year? Have you noticed they literally touch all the bases this year? And has anybody here ticked you off because they’re not running hard this year?

Not much and not lately. Is that Jerry’s doing? I haven’t heard it mentioned, but I’m thinking it isn’t organic. His lineups are criticized, his penchant for bunting is criticized, his bullpen juggling is criticized (often loudly [12]), nothing about what he does is praised, but Jerry Manuel’s team is three behind the great Bobby Cox’s in the East and tied with the raging Rockies for the Wild Card lead as we speak.

You know that phrase “Skill Sets [13],” of course. It was popularized in the Met lexicon by Fred Wilpon as his nebulous rationale for firing general manager Joe McIlvaine at the precise moment when the team McIlvaine put together — in concert with Bobby Valentine — had emerged from its perpetual morass to compete for a playoff spot in the summer of 1997. McIlvaine was judged not to have the skill sets to serve as GM, but Steve Phillips allegedly did. Perhaps that meaningless bit of corporatespeak wouldn’t have resonated so resoundingly had Wilpon not chosen a ludicrous point in time to off Joe Mac. The team whose construction you’ve overseen is competing beautifully — you’re fired!

In that vein, it would be unfair to Jerry Manuel, whatever his perceived shortcomings, to see Bobby Valentine wasting away in Bristol and bang a drum for his return to Flushing. The current occupant of Citi Field’s home manager’s office has apparently done a great job. Manuel was the pilot in 2008 when the Mets surged from their post-Randolph malaise into first place. He was also the manager when they fell from first (as Wagner, Maine, Easley and Tatis all fell from active duty as well). He was the manager during the blah-storm of 2009 and the bumbling start of 2010 when his exit seemed just a matter of losses mounting. It’s a mixed bag to be sure, but he’s still here and, based on the record, deserves to be here.

But I’d sure like Bobby Valentine back with the Mets. Maybe not as manager right this very minute. Maybe not as manager-in-waiting (as documented during Steinbrenner’s Martinian machinations, that never works). Maybe not as general manager (if we have to tip our caps to Jerry, we have to begrudgingly nod toward Omar Minaya, too — I’ll leave it to Howard Megdal [14] to do otherwise). But in the year when the Mets have FINALLY gotten around to doing the right thing and are inducting Davey Johnson into their Hall of Fame, it’s a little creepy how much of a non-person Bobby V is in the Mets’ official telling of their own history.

Have you seen a Bobby Valentine banner on any of the lamp posts outside Citi Field? I have not. Gil Hodges and Casey Stengel have them, as they should (and praise be for they and Seaver gracing the VIP entrances). Davey has them. I’ve spotted Yogi, who, like Bobby, managed the Mets to a National League pennant. Haven’t seen much of Bobby represented in the museum, either. Not in the constantly looping film, not among the installations, not in any of the murals and montages that make the museum so intoxicating for Mets fans. His players are highlighted, his years are given their due, the moments he was a part of are a big deal…but nothing jumps out and tells you Bobby Valentine was one of the Mets’ most significant characters in their half-century of operation.

Maybe there’s something about managers and their proximity to ownership that creates a necessary arm’s-length distance after they’re gone. Or maybe it’s just this ownership — the dark side of “who ya know” is knowing someone who decides he doesn’t want to know you anymore.

Traded Mets are often welcomed home graciously. Fired managers are not. None has ever gotten a second term (though McMillan, Howard and Cubbage all went back to Met coaching). Few are even welcomed back for the hell of it without a ton of Sturm und Drang. Casey may have been given a lifetime sinecure, but they apparently broke the mold thereafter. Once he was no longer their manager, Wes Westrum is curiously absent from Mets yearbook photos of the 1971 Old Timers Day celebration of the 1951 pennant race, the one in which he played a stalwart role. Anybody recall Joe Frazier being asked to wave to the crowd at any Shea reunion? George Bamberger? When he visited as the Brewers’ bench coach last year, did the CitiVision camera find 2006 N.L. Eastern Division champion manager Willie Randolph?

The Mets remained icy toward Davey Johnson for two years before bringing him back by popular demand to what was then known as Upper Deck Heroes of Baseball Night in 1992 [15] — and from there it took a scant 18 years to elect their winningest manager ever into their Hall of Fame. Buddy’s shortstop genius precluded him from getting a cold shoulder for his tepid skippering. Yogi, on a few occasions, has been welcomed back for being a Met/national treasure. But otherwise bygones seem to take forever to become bygones in this realm.

It’s never happened for Bobby Valentine, which is ridiculous [16]. He’s not managing a divisional rival. He’s not managing an intracity rival (which can a real mood killer — was Joe Torre even asked to remove an actual Shea countdown [17] number in 2008?). Whatever falling out he experienced in October 2002 is now nearly eight years in the past. Steve Phillips is gone. Art Howe is gone. Only the Wilpons remain, so we’ll assume one or both bears the grudge toward the last man to guide their team into a World Series (and that the feeling may be mutual [18]). Hasn’t enough water flowed under this bridge?

Or, where Bobby Valentine is concerned, is there always going to be just too much bridge over the water?

It would be poor conduct on ownership’s part to not have this man back at some point in time, if not in an official capacity then as something more than an unspoken presence in their history. Next rain delay, pay close attention if SNY is showing Mets Yearbook: 1978 or Mets Yearbook: 1984. Bobby is a featured player in the former and has a key walk-on in the latter. Both times he steals the show.

In ’78, he’s zestfully detailing his bubble-blowing game plan much as might explain why Tsuyoshi Shinjo is batting cleanup on a given evening. I love when he raises his eyebrows in the telling, as if earning Topps’ bubble-blowing crown is no less important than moving a runner from first to second (I also love Ed Kranepool’s runner-up scorn over having lost to Valentine). In ’84, he’s the third-base coach frantically waving Mookie Wilson home with a winning run. “C’MON MOOK! C’MON MOOK!” Within a year he’d be off to Arlington, but he looked perfectly at home at Shea, clearing a path to victory.

There aren’t many people we’ve come across who strike me as Born Mets in the very best sense of the phrase. Bobby Valentine tops that list. The old footage and ripening memories — player, coach, manager — reinforce the romance (and make me hazy on the way his clubhouse devolved into a snitfest toward the end of his tenure…though I tend to think that was the players more than it was their manager). I was in love with his thrilling, lively baseball mind. By all indications, that mind is still functioning at levels the rest of us can only dream of. I hope it’s eventually given its due.

(after leaving the Mets)

Joe Torre                    3,542 (through 7/7/2010)
Davey Johnson           1,027
George Bamberger        313
Jeff Torborg                   309
Wes Westrum                247
Yogi Berra                     178

Note: Bobby Valentine managed 837 games for the Chiba Lotte Marines of Japan’s Pacific League.

You’ll probably boo Chipper Jones this weekend. But would you boo him if you knew you were never going to see him again? Jason and I join a host of Mets fan queried on that topic by ESPN New York’s Mark Simon here [19].

Monday, July 12 is AMAZIN’ ALL-STAR MONDAY, with Marty Noble and Howard Megdal. Come out to Two Boots Grand Central [20]at 7 PM. It’s in the Lower Dining Concourse of Grand Central Terminal, 42nd Street and Park Avenue, accessible via Metro-North as well as the 4, 5, 6, Times Square Shuttle and, of course, the 7 train. Phone: 212/557-7992. Full details here [21].