I participated in a Zoom conference call recently. Bobby Valentine, lifelong baseball man, was the special guest. I couldn’t write about everything he talked about due to space constraints for my JAPAN Forward column, so I’ve saved this material before the column intro for this post.
Valentine discussed baseball from his playing days to the present. He even spoke about his late father-in-law Ralph Branca and former college roommate Bill Buckner. Both men were involved in two of the most infamous gaffes in MLB history.
In short both men handled ridicule with class.
Branca gave up The Shot Heard ’Round the World on Oct. 3, 1951 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vsyYMfEA1sg) and heard about it every day for the rest of his life. (Bobby Thomson belted the three-run, walk-off blast in the ninth inning in the third game of the National League playoff to send the New York Giants past the Brooklyn Dodgers and into the World Series.)
Buckner misplayed a grounder at first base, Mookie Wilson’s slow grounder rolling through his legs with two outs in the 10th inning Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The New York Mets won the game, then defeated the Boston Red Sox the next day to win the series.
“Well, the one thing that was in both cases was the injustice that can present itself in a game and a baseball community, how Ralph had to walk around with that scarlet letter even though he was one of the best pitchers on the team and he shouldn’t have been pitching in the game in relief to begin with. He had started a day and a half earlier,” Bobby V said.
Valentine pointed out that Boston manager John McNamara granted Buckner’s request to be out there in the ninth inning, even though Dave Stapleton had filled in as a defensive replacement throughout the pennant race and postseason.
“Bill had to walk around with that scarlet letter,” Valentine declared.
“There are things that happened while I managed that I got blamed for and they were probably my fault,” he added. “But in these two cases, the two managers (Brooklyn’s Chuck Dressen and McNamara) never got blamed one inch, that the players were the ones who had to walk around and have the insults thrown at them all of their lives when it was really a managerial flaw in both cases.”
Here’s the intro to my column about Bobby V, which was published by JAPAN Forward:
Bobby Valentine loves the spotlight. He loves to tell stories. He loves baseball.
So he was in his element during a Zoom call with baseball fans on both sides of the Pacific Ocean last week, commanding the virtual room not unlike how he’s piloted pro baseball teams for decades.
About 80 participants had the privilege of listening to and interacting with Bobby V during a “Chatter Up” call, a fun event organized by JapanBall. The international baseball tour company began hosting Zoom calls this spring as a way to engage the baseball community during MLB and NPB shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was time well spent with the ever-popular former Chiba Lotte Marines manager, who donned a 2009 Marines spring training hat and sat in his home office.
Since June 2013, Valentine has served as the executive director of athletics at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. More than just a figurehead, he’s an integral part of the community and a great recruiting tool for the school. In 2019, at the Bobby Valentine Health & Recreation Center dedication ceremony on campus, Sacred Heart University President John J. Petillo remarked, “Bobby carries SHU on his sleeves. He’s like living swag.”
He’s also a walking encyclopedia of baseball history.
So when did it all begin?
In 1969, Valentine was 19 when he made his MLB debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He wrapped up his playing career in 1979. For much of his adult life, he’s managed teams, both in the minors and majors. He got his first big break with the Texas Rangers (1985-92), and later led the New York Mets (1996-2002) and Boston Red Sox (2012).
The story of how Bobby V wound up managing the Chiba Lotte Marines the first time probably isn’t widely known. It actually preceded his appointment as skipper in 1995 by several years.
In 1989, when he was at the helm in Texas, Valentine was invited to visit Japan to speak to baseball coaches throughout the country about one of his managerial tactics with the Rangers: implementing pitch counts. Tatsuro Hirooka, the then-Chiba Lotte general manager, invited him.
Fast forward to 1994, when Valentine was managing the Triple-A Norfolk Tides, the Mets’ International League affiliate. Hirooka, who played shortstop for the Yomiuri Giants 1954-66 and later served as the dugout boss for the Yakult Swallows and Seibu Lions, made several trips to the United States throughout the season to keep tabs on Bobby V.
“By the time they offered it, I was praying that they would,” Valentine said last week.
Valentine was fired after the 1995 season, even though the Marines had won more games than in 1994. And despite the authoritarian power bestowed on NPB managers that’s ingrained in the culture, Valentine’s first stint as a Mariners skipper proved to be a humbling experience.
“I had no idea the manager had so much authority, but you know because I was the protruding nail that many people wanted to bang down, I had to prove myself,” Bobby V said on Zoom. “All of my baseball had to be reworked. Whether or not I thought to start at a certain time when you’re running, to grip a ball when you’re pitching, to swing a bat when you’re hitting, to field a ball when you’re fielding, all of the things of baseball as well as what works during the game strategically, I had to reprove to myself.
“I thought I figured it all out, but getting to Japan was a great learning experience for me, not only to learn my own stuff again because I had to inspect what I expected when I was teaching because I didn’t have the language to talk through it. I also benefited from learning from others…”
Exhibit A: Hirooka, the 1954 Central League Rookie of the Year
“I think he was the greatest baseball guy I was ever around except for (Dodgers Hall of Fame manager) Tommy Lasorda,” Valentine told Chatter Up participants. “I think that Hirooka lived the game of baseball. … He understood all facets of the game, and we disagreed on a few things — mainly, the concept of rest.”
“I think if there’s any dividing line that was ever drawn in the sand between the great general manager/manager/shortstop/baseball Hall of Famer that I had the pleasure of working for … it was that idea that more is not necessarily always better. But remember, that’s how I grew up playing baseball. If I couldn’t hit a curveball, the idea was to practice hitting the curveball. And how long do you practice? Until you can hit the curveball!
“More (was) always better when I was growing up. But I moved out of that thinking understanding that a restful body works a lot better than a stressful body.”