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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Bobby Valentine's Spring Training: Shades of '67?

The era of good feeling is over. Let the boot camp begin.

Last season's September collapse by the Red Sox and the subsequent revelations about the team's in-game dining habits has resulted in a dramatic altering in the team's image. If you listened to sports radio over the past couple weeks, it was easy to pick up: fans are angry and want a change. Enough "Sweet Caroline" and waxing poetic about 2004 and '07; it's time for these underachievers to get serious.

Bobby Valentine, of course, must set the tone. In his first spring training as manager, he needs to let his players know that he's the boss and not their buddy. Tito Francona had a reputation as a "player's manager," a style fans loved as long as it worked. Last summer it apparently stopped working, and this is a prime reason ownership brought in Valentine. He rules more with an iron fist than a warm hug, and early indications are that his Florida sessions are going to be more Dick Williams than Terry Francona.

Those well-versed in Boston baseball history know the story. The Sox of the mid-1960s routinely finished near the bottom of the American League, and developed a reputation as a party-hearty crew that underachieved despite the presence of sluggers like Carl Yastrzemski, Tony Conigliaro, and Dick Stuart. Fans had largely given up on the team, and in the fall of '66 GM Dick O'Connell fired affable manager Billy Herman and brought in Williams -- a scrappy former utilityman for the club who sported the crew cut and demeanor of a Marine drill sergeant.

Williams made his mark immediately. He stripped Yaz of his captaincy -- saying that he was "the only chief of this team" -- and put the club through its paces in a spring training that felt more like basic training. There was a constant drilling of fundamentals, along with a strict evening curfew and 7 a.m. wake-up calls. When the other Williams in camp -- Red Sox immortal Ted Williams -- spent more time than Dick liked regaling players with his theories on hitting when they could have been running, the new skipper ordered him to stop. A miffed Ted left camp the next day.

The rookie boss had no trouble getting on players for making mistakes or not hustling, including stars like Yaz and Tony C. The troops grumbled, but when the season started it was clear that the methods had worked. The Sox played more of a hustling style of baseball, got contributions up and down the roster, and won back the hearts of their fans. They also won the pennant, as Williams' plaque in Cooperstown notes.

This is not 1967, of course, and today's players will not necessarily fall into line so easily. But last fall's fall suggests that a big change in attitude is needed, and Valentine sounds eerily like Dick Williams circa '67 when asked about how tough he plans to make things this spring. Here's an example: 

Dick Williams:  "I give 100 percent because I hate losing. And for those players who treat losing and failure lightly I will give them something else to hate -- ME. I try to make some players win just to show me up."

Bobby Valentine: "We all know that nobody likes change except for those who are making other people change to do what they want them to do. I happen to be one of those guys who likes change because guys are doing what I want them to do. I would bet there will be 100 guys who won't really like it because it's change for them. But they'll get used to it."

Time will tell, but it will likely make for a very interesting spring. And if the results turn out like '67, nobody will be complaining come October.

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