The atmosphere was simply … different.
On Monday, Bobby Valentine became the sixth Red Sox managerial candidate to meet the media following a daylong interview process. And it is fair to say that there was a different level of intrigue and tension than had existed with the other candidates.
The first four participants to the process -- in order, Phillies bench coach Pete Mackanin, former Brewers hitting coach and now Cubs manager Dale Sveum, Indians bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. and Blue Jays first base coach Torey Lovullo -- had no managerial experience. The questions about how they would handle the Red Sox job were thus speculative in nature, given that they had never been full-time managers of big league teams (both Sveum and Mackanin had been interim managers).
Lamont, meanwhile, was more than a decade removed from his last managing job. Though a two-time Manager of the Year, his tenures at the helm of the White Sox and the Pirates were not easily recalled.
And then there was Valentine, the man who had been the face of the New York Mets team that went to the World Series in 2000, the face of the Mets team that was so intimately and genuinely connected to New York City after 9/11, the face of the Mets team that blew apart so spectacularly in 2002.
While it has been nine years since he’s been in the majors, his back-page occupying face remains entirely familiar not just here (in part, too, because he’s been a constant face and voice on ESPN in recent years) but also in Japan, where he was, yes, the face (and just about everything else) for a Chiba Lotte Marines team that won a championship and pronounced itself ready to take on the world.
Most participants in the managerial search process must demonstrate that they won’t be swallowed up and overwhelmed by the demands of Boston. Valentine required no such line of inquiry.
His resume and history are known, the significant successes and the colossal failures require little restating -- except, perhaps, for Valentine, who either joked or admitted that he had forgotten the circumstances of the end of his Mets tenure.
None of that necessarily suggests that he is the best man for the job; nor does it suggest that he’s not. The last time the Sox conducted a managerial search, in 2003, both Terry Francona and Joe Maddon were unproven commodities whose ability to handle the voracious baseball interest of Boston represented a leap of faith into the unknown. Maddon even acknowledged that there was an enormity to the job that was daunting. In the intervening years, both proved entirely comfortable in the spotlight, and both were perfect hires for their franchises.
Yet while the media session is no indicator of Valentine’s fitness for the job, it was intriguing precisely because his profile was so different from that of the other parties to the process -- not just based on his array of experiences, but also based on the path that led to his sitting in Fenway Park on Monday.
After all, unlike the first five candidates, Valentine wasn’t truly in the running until after a second-round interview (the sitdown between Sox owners and Sveum) had already occurred. Sox GM Ben Cherington hadn’t ruled out adding candidates before going to Milwaukee last week for the GM meetings, but he had said that he expected the Sox’ hire would come from the first five candidates who had gone through the process.
Cherington had met with Valentine on Nov. 3, but the former Rangers and Mets skipper was not invited to come in for a full interview until after Sveum’s meeting with Sox owners ended without an offer, thus laying the groundwork for the former Sox third base coach to join the Cubs.
That being the case, Valentine’s presence in Fenway Park was as fascinating because of what it said about the search process as it was for the personality of the late entry to the Red Sox managerial derby.
Here are eight takeaways from Valentine’s Day at Fenway.
The Red Sox’ baseball operations staff was impressed by Indians bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr., with Cherington suggesting that he will one day make a great manager. But for this Sox team? He was told over the weekend that his lack of dugout experience meant that he wouldn’t make the cut.
Lovullo has several years of minor league managerial experience but just one year of big league coaching. He remains a part of the process, but he has not yet been called scheduled for a second round interview.
Sveum had just 16 games (12 in the regular season, four in the playoffs) of big league managerial experience, and three years of managing in the minors to his credit. It was after the Red Sox owners met with him that Cherington -- who had previously suggested that big league managing experience was a plus but not a prerequisite for the job -- articulated what sounded like a shift in priorities in the search process.
“If we could identify someone who had that type of experience that we thought also fit our clubhouse and fit what we were trying to do, then we might pursue that,” Cherington said last Wednesday in Milwaukee. “We feel like there are some unique circumstances here. This is not just any manager’s job. This is one where we do feel we’re ready to win and there are challenges that related to what happened to what happened last year and just generally in the Boston market, as you guys know.
“I’ve been very happy with the candidates and our next manager could very well come from those candidates but we’re not ruling out adding to that field.”
That utterance, in turn, led to the addition of Valentine in the field. He has already met with the Red Sox’ baseball operations department as well as with team owners. The only other candidate who is scheduled to meet with team owners is now Lamont, who managed for parts of eight seasons in Pittsburgh and Chicago.
Evidently, unlike the White Sox (who hired Robin Ventura), Cardinals (Mike Matheny) and Cubs (Sveum), the Red Sox feel increasingly that their win-now composition is better suited for a proven commodity than for someone who might require some time to grow into the job.
THAT SAID, VALENTINE WELCOMES THE OPPORTUNITY TO GROW
Cherington said that the scouting report on Bobby Valentine revealed total agreement on a certain set of traits.
“The one thing that's very consistent, really from everyone I've talked to, is that this guy's a really smart baseball guy. He knows how to help the team win a game,” said Cherington. “He'll work as hard as he has to and be really open-minded in how he helps a team win a game.”
The question of Valentine’s open-mindedness is perhaps the most interesting one related to the manager. In New York, he sparred openly with his GM, and was characterized (caricatured?) as someone who believed in the my-way-or-the-highway approach. In Japan, he had immense power while managing Chiba Lotte, not just with regards to on-field matters but also in terms of roster-making muscle.
He has operated as something of a unilateralist for much of his career, something that would seem at odds with a Red Sox front office that values an open dialogue between the manager’s office and the front office.
But Valentine said that he would “expect” and “hope for” input from the front office. Though 61 and with 15 years of big league managing experience to his credit, Valentine said that he viewed the Sox job as one of possibility, and one in which he could experience the job in a different way than he had in the past.
“This is a growth opportunity for me,” said Valentine. “I know I'm old. The back of my card gives my date of birth, but I want to understand what's going in my life, and my life is baseball. I've been outside the information age of baseball for the most part.”
Cherington, for his part, suggested that Valentine had made a convincing case that as a manager he could be open to an exchange of ideas with the front office.
“I think he values good information. If you deliver good information to him, he's going to use that to his advantage because he badly wants to win. He wants to win as much as anyone,” said Cherington. “He has a real passion for winning and playing the game the right way. He values that input. I think he's got high standards for what that input is, and we need to have that high standard no matter who the manager is.”
TEAM OWNERS ARE DRIVING THE BOBBY V BUS
Sveum had convinced Red Sox baseball operations that he was a worthy candidate. Undoubtedly, he graduated to the second round of the process in part because the Sox knew that the Cubs also regarded him highly, but the fact that the former Boston third base coach was the lone candidate who stood in front of the owners said something about how he was regarded by Cherington and the others in the Sox front office who are, at least in the theory, guiding the process.
With Valentine, however, the process appears to be working in the opposite direction. Yes, Valentine confirmed, he was introduced by Red Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino to Cherington on Nov. 3, prior to an event at which both Lucchino and Valentine were speaking in Hartford. At that time, he was told that it would be up to Cherington to determine whether to bring in Valentine for a formal interview.
Until Monday, as a parade of five candidates publicly went in and out of Fenway Park, Valentine hadn’t been in further conversation with Cherington. He had, however, met with both principal owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner prior to Monday’s day-long interview at Fenway. In some ways, he had already been vetted by the owners before baseball operations had a chance to weigh in on him.
Indeed, Cherington suggested -- in response to a question about Valentine’s poor relationship with his GM in New York, Steve Phillips -- that there was more due diligence to be done on Valentine. There had been no such suggestion about any of the other five candidates.
All of that points to the idea that, despite the suggestions of a stealth candidacy for Valentine, he was simply not a candidate in the eyes of Cherington and the baseball operations department until after their front-runner had been dismissed. And that, in turn, suggests that the Sox owners have redefined the process that the Sox are using to identify a manager.
Cherington said earlier this month that his role was to narrow the field of candidates and then, even if he had a favorite, to work with owners to achieve a consensus about which of his finalists was the right fit for the job. But that isn’t what has happened.
According to multiple sources familiar with the Sox’ search, it was the owners who pushed the expansion of the pool of candidates beyond the five who had interviewed publicly. And so, while it is possible that Cherington and his baseball operations colleagues decided that Valentine merited another look, the perception is unavoidable that the Sox owners offered little backing not just for the favorite from the first round of the process but also for the process itself.
Even so, the two people impacted most directly by those dynamics were gracious in discussing the notion. For his part, Cherington affirmed that his relationship with the team owners in the selection of a manager is a collaborative process, rather than a unilateral decision by the GM or the owners.
“This has always been a choice that I’m going to make with ownership,” he said on Monday.
Valentine, too, suggested that his excitement to discuss the job rendered irrelevant any concerns about the machinations that preceded his opportunity to interview.
“If I was Plan B and I got this job I would feel like it's Christmas and I was Plan A, the luckiest guy in the world,” said Valentine. “It would be cool. It's really kind of cool that I'm sitting here.”
EVENTUALLY, CONSENSUS WILL BE ACHIEVED -- AS IT SHOULD BE
The path to the hiring of a manager has winded in unexpected directions. That said, it would not have made sense for ownership to rubber stamp Sveum simply for the sake of expediency if it was uncomfortable with him.
In the absence of consensus that includes the owners, either the manager or the GM or both are set up to fail. Imagine that the owners had felt uncertainty about Sveum but had signed off at Cherington’s behest in an effort to hire him before the Cubs did so.
Every routine instance of a blown lead by the bullpen would have served as fuel for team owners to second guess both their manager and the man who selected him. That would have represented a poor working model for all parties.
In many respects, from an organizational standpoint, it is likely better that a compromise candidate be identified than for the team to proceed with a manager who had backing from one side of the franchise but not the other.
That said, within that notion, it is also important that consensus work two ways. Just as it would make no sense for owners to sign off blindly on a candidate, it also would represent a poor outcome if the owners essentially hired a manager -- presumably Valentine -- over the objections of Cherington and baseball operations.
IT’S PREMATURE TO JUMP TO CONCLUSIONS ABOUT THE GM/OWNER DYNAMIC
Cherington is not Theo Epstein, and so we do not yet know how to view the way in which the course of hiring a manager has taken shape and then been reshaped. Under Epstein, it would have represented a tug-of-war between him and Lucchino, with echoes that spanned the course of a relationship that spanned the better part of two years.
Epstein wanted as much decision-making autonomy as possible until he left for the Cubs, where, as president of baseball operations, he reports directly to owner Tom Ricketts. But that does not mean that Cherington views decision-making through a similar prism.
Perhaps Cherington is privately bristling about the fact that Sox owners did not immediately endorse the man whom he considered the best candidate for the job in Sveum. But if so, there’s no public evidence of it. To the contrary, Cherington suggested that he applied the brakes to the idea of hiring Sveum rather than encouraging short cuts.
“In my conversations with ownership, we just didn't feel, we hadn't got to the point where we felt confident in offering him the job,” Cherington said of Sveum’s candidacy. “We think very highly of him, really respect Dale a lot. We just weren't there yet to offer him the job, and as I told ownership that day he was in Milwaukee, because they asked me about the timing, I said we shouldn't rush this. We can't react to what some other team is doing. As much as I respect him, I just didn't think that was the right thing to do. He got hired, so he's no longer a candidate here. We're happy for him. We're never going to rush the process.”
The new Sox GM welcomes broad-ranging input. It is a testament to his personality that he was able to emerge as an up-and-coming front office star under Dan Duquette and then make the transition to working seamlessly with Theo Epstein.
That suggests that Cherington is pragmatic, adaptable and open-minded, and that it would be a mistake to guess whether the current direction of the managerial search is driving a wedge between him and the team’s owners or if it may be bringing the two sides closer together.
THE CHERINGTON PROCESS: PATIENCE MUST YOU LEARN
By his own admission, Cherington is deliberate and methodical. It is often a strength, but what remains to be seen is whether it is also a weakness.
The certainty with Cherington is that he is an excellent builder for the long term. His work with the Red Sox farm system demonstrated that he is capable of serving as the architect for a structure that can create a sustainable foundation of success over time. Towards that end, it is notable to see him devoting early attention to restructuring several Red Sox departments, including both the team’s international operations as well as its medical operations, areas that have both had spotty results in recent years.
However, it remains to be seen whether that deliberate and comprehensive process will work in a dynamic environment in which the variables change constantly and rapidly. While Cherington received widespread praise throughout the industry prior to and after his hiring, there were some who were curious to see how he would respond to being the ultimate decision-maker when facing a clock, whether in individual negotiations or when dealing with Major League Baseball-imposed deadlines such as the July 31 trade deadline.
That curiosity will not abate in the aftermath of this process. For a while, Cherington had sole province of the managerial search landscape. But, after the Cubs canned Mike Quade, they raced through their hiring process in fewer than three weeks.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox have been somewhat plodding in their own approach to replacing Terry Francona. It’s been 53 days since Francona and the team parted ways at the end of the season. Granted, the first 25 days featured the Sox in a state of limbo while resolving (more or less -- save for the ceaseless compensation talks) the status of Epstein’s departure for the Cubs.
Even so, four weeks into his tenure, Cherington still does not have a manager. He expects to miss his initial, soft target of Thanksgiving, and right now, the Sox are hopeful but cannot state with certainty that they will have a manager in place prior to the winter meetings.
And so, as the process drags on, it is obvious for outsiders to view the Sox as indecisive at a time when they are undergoing their most significant transition since the three months in which Epstein left his post as Sox GM after the 2005 season. That may not be an accurate portrayal. But the basis for that perception is obvious.
IN THE END, THE PROCESS LEADING TO THE HIRING IS LESS IMPORTANT THAN THE PROCESS THAT FOLLOWS IT
Sometimes, there is something to be said for Plan B -- or Plan C or D or E.
The baseball world and the broader business world feature numerous instances of partnerships that are initially forged reluctantly evolve into tremendous pairings. Sometimes, arranged marriages and/or marriages of convenience can nonetheless prove fulfilling.
Cherington is a pragmatist, rather than an idealist, when it comes to this process. From the day he was hired, the Sox GM began discussing the necessity of identifying the right fit, rather than the perfect one.
It was a concept that was relevant for any number of constituencies in and presumably outside of the organization. It had to be the right person hired for this specific group of players, for this specific ownership group, for this particular general manager and front office, for this particular city.
In the end, if the Sox end up with the right guy for the job, that matters a lot more than the pace at which that outcome was achieved. Cherington said that the managerial search hasn’t interfered with the team’s offseason roster work, and so long as that is true, the Sox need not feel any compulsion to rush to conclude the process.
That said, the jury will remain out on whether the Sox hired the right guy for months. If Lovullo or Lamont or Valentine can work with and evolve with Cherington (who is getting his own legs as a GM), then what might now seem like an uninspired field could yield someone who ultimately evolves from the “right” person for the job into the “perfect” one.
AND, BY THE WAY, THIS REMAINS A COVETED JOB
Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury was runner-up in the AL MVP race on Monday. Two of his teammates, Adrian Gonzalez (7th) and Dustin Pedroia (9th), also placed in the top 10 in voting. No other AL team had three top-10 MVP candidates.
The Sox came within two wins of reaching the playoffs last year. Based on their run differential, they performed like a team that traditionally would have ended the year with 94 wins (rather than 90) -- in a season when injuries ravaged their rotation, when Carl Crawford and John Lackey were unimaginably terrible compared to their career track records, when everything imaginable had to go wrong at the same time to deny the Sox (barely) entry into the postseason.
It’s been easy to forget during this offseason of infamy how close the Red Sox were -- and likely are -- to some significant accomplishments. They were viewed as the favorites to win the World Series entering 2011, and by the time the dust settles on the offseason, it would be unsurprising if they rank among the favorites (if not as the favorite) entering 2012.
That helps to explain why Valentine described himself as nervous and excited for having spent the day sweating through the interview process. Asked what appealed to him about the opportunity to talk with the Sox, Valentine offered a laundry list of reasons.
“Other than they have one of the best teams in baseball, one of the best organizations in baseball, one of the greatest places and venues in baseball, with a great, now, winning tradition over the last 10 years, other than that, there’s really no reason that I want to be here,” he cracked. “This is a great organization with a great team and a great city and ballpark. That is very attractive. I don’t think that anywhere else there’s been a job opening where my name has been mentioned [where] there have been as many fabulous factors.”
Such statements offer a reminder. As much as the Sox appear to have been meandering through a forest of uncertainty this offseason, they remain close to their intended destination. Though the course taken in the managerial search and the offseason has been neither expected nor direct, there is a reason why the position is a coveted one, and why once the process reaches its conclusion, the state of the team may look vastly different once it is the forest and not the trees that are in view.