It remains to be seen whether Bobby Valentine will be the next manager of the Red Sox, but one thing is certain: If Larry Lucchino and his partners are looking for a guy who knows how to bounce back from a tough year, this is their man.
Valentine was one of baseball's top prospects in the late 1960s. The Connecticut native with sprinter's speed headed west to USC and was the fifth pick (by the Dodgers) in the '68 draft. Big things seemed in store when he was named Pacific Coast League MVP after batting .340 with 14 homers and 16 triples at Triple-A Spokane in 1970. A shortstop, he was the heir apparent to Maury Wills in Los Angeles.
Things didn't go quite so smoothly. Valentine started out slow in the big leagues, partly due to torn knee cartilage sustained playing touch football, but seemed to be hitting his stride after being swapped up the freeway to the Angels.
A month into the '73 campaign the 23-year-old had his average at .302 and was taking time off from shortstop to fill in for an injured teammate in the outfield when he ran back to the wall in pursuit of a Dick Green fly ball.
What happened next was a baseball equivalent of the Joe Theismann injury, with the vinyl fence at Anaheim Stadium playing the role of Lawrence Taylor.
As Sports Illustrated later described it: The ball missed Valentine's glove by an inch, and his leg drove into the vinyl between the two support poles so that the tarp first yielded, then ensheathed his calf like a vise before flinging him back to the ground with a grotesque bend in the middle of the shin.
The incident fractured both of the bones in Valentine's lower right leg, and he spent nearly six months in two different casts. When the second one was removed, doctors discovered that the bones had knit poorly—leaving an 18-degree bend between his knee and ankle.
Valentine had two choices: suck it up and learn to play in pain, or spend 13-16 more months undergoing surgery and leg reconstruction with screws and plates.
"In my mind," he told SI, "to go with their plan meant not to be a ballplayer." Doctors gave him a few months to decide, and by spring training he was jogging and ready to play. Valentine had a huge lump on his knee, a constant limp and his speed was gone. But he played 117 games anyway, batting .261 in his transition from superstar prospect to fringe performer.
Over the next five years he did whatever he could to stay on the roster—eventually playing every position but pitcher—and wound up getting into nearly 400 games on one good leg for four different teams. He knew adversity, but didn't know how to quit.
In that regard he had a lot in common with his father-in-law, former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca, another guy who wore No. 13 and had been dealt a tough blow by fate (in Branca's case, it was giving up Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard Round the World" that clinched the '51 pennant for the Giants over the Dodgers). Imagine the late-night discussions those two had.
Nobody would have blamed Valentine for limping away from the game, but he loved it too much and wanted to help others succeed at it.
As manager of the Rangers and Mets, and in two stints skippering teams in Japan, he was not always loved by his ballplayers, but he was respected for his intelligence. Peter Gammons, who has worked with him at ESPN during Valentine's recent stint as an analyst, calls him, "One of the most brilliant men I've ever met."
Cocky and at times abrasive, he rubbed many people the wrong way. He could also explode with the best of them, and wasn't afraid to sit down under-performing players.
Clearly this is one guy who would not let pitchers get fat and happy on beer and wings. He fought too hard to stay in the Show to let others give less than their best.
Terry Francona had a sterling reputation as a nice guy and a "player's manager" who preferred letting others get the bulk of the attention and credit.
Valentine enjoys being in front and saying what he feels, even if players won't want to hear it. And with a roster full of stars that could use some shaking up, Bobby V. may be just what Larry Lucchino and Red Sox ownership feel they need.