BRADENTON, Fla. -- The tone of Red Sox spring training this year is unquestionably different. That is a direct reflection of the standards articulated by the new Boston manager and the approach he takes to pursuing them.
Bobby Valentine believes in the quest for excellence by his players. In chasing that goal, he believes in a directness in discussing the shortcomings of players, a willingness to acknowledge concerns publicly in a fashion that represents unfamiliar terrain in the Red Sox universe.
Valentine’s candor has been described in some quarters as a form of criticism of his players. But the new Red Sox manager bristles at such a characterization of his communicative style.
“In the 3,000 games I’ve had pre- or post-game meetings in, in two languages, I’ve never criticized a player. And I don’t intend to,” Valentine said on Wednesday, prior to his team’s exhibition game against the Pirates. “I’m very sensitive to the players’ feelings. I’m very sensitive and understanding of how tough a job they have.”
Yet that sensitivity, it would appear, is not an argument for complacency. And that, in turn, relates to a second and related change in the tone surrounding the Sox this spring.
Valentine has stated on many occasions what he wants from his players. He wants to manage a team that embraces the pursuit of “excellence,” a frequently used term in his day-to-day lexicon.
He is constantly considering ways that his team can seek improvement, individually and collectively, in the details of the game. He discusses the desire for a team to have excellent execution, to be excellent in holding base runners, to achieve excellence when running the bases and when pitching down in the strike zone.
But just what does that mean?
“It means the highest level. This is the highest level of baseball, and I like to see players play at their highest level individually and collectively,” said Valentine. “I don’t seek perfection, because it’s impossible to reach that. But that level below perfection is where we are at. It’s what we strive for.”
The purpose of setting lofty ambitions is twofold. First, doing so identifies something for which players can strive. Secondly, the process of defining an ambitious agenda also sets a baseline expectation of acceptable performance and effort.
“An analogy that makes it simple for me is that my friend is in the Navy and flies airplanes. His commander understands that some days his scores are excellent and sometimes they’re kind of mediocre,” said Valentine. “If there was no excellence, then [the commander] could never get them to perform at the standard that he needs them to perform at to be at least at their level. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be in the cockpit.”
Similarly, there appears to be an ongoing effort to measure players against both their acceptable baseline standards as well as the achievement of excellence. And that is where the different tone struck this spring by Valentine has produced several raised eyebrows -- a development that, in Valentine’s eyes, is the byproduct of misinterpretation of his methods.
To date, there have been a number of comments by Valentine that underscored the (perhaps obvious) fact that he is a different sort of manager than his predecessor, Terry Francona. Whereas Francona -- who will be in Fort Myers on Thursday in his new role as an ESPN analyst for the broadcast of the Red Sox-Yankees game -- was immensely protective of his players and often publicly identified silver linings with struggling players, Valentine has offered more unvarnished portrayals.
Already, Valentine has talked about outfielder Ryan Sweeney not knowing his swing well enough to hit for power; he has said that Felix Doubront did not demonstrate a killer out pitch in a recent outing; he joked that Mark Melancon backed up the bases well in an appearance in which the reliever was hit hard; Valentine suggested that he was uncomfortable with Daniel Bard’s walks totals if the pitcher is to be a starter.
Yet such statements are not criticisms, Valentine insists, but rather part of the desire he has to see his players excel. When players fall short of performing at an excellent or acceptable level, Valentine believes that it is reasonable to identify the shortcoming. A willingness to speak the truth, suggests the manager, is not akin to throwing a player under a bus, but rather a reinforcement of standards.
“That’s a statement of fact. What the scribes have to understand is sometimes a statement of fact is a statement of fact and sometimes a comment that may be in jest needs to be understood that way,” said Valentine. “When I saw [Melancon] in the dugout [after his outing on Monday], he said, ‘I got all my running in backing up the bases.’ So when I said he got his work in backing up the bases, that’s not a critical analysis. It’s trying to make light of the situation as I did with him.
“A statement of fact should never be misconstrued as criticism. I don’t think it is, or should be. I don’t have time to deal with intelligence or morality. I can’t deal with those. If ignorant people misinterpret simple statements, it’s not my fault. If factual statements are misconstrued as criticism, that’s somebody else’s problem.
“If Daniel [Bard] or anybody else has three walks in an inning, and you say, ‘Three walks in an inning are too many,’ I can’t say that he only walked two, and I can’t say I didn’t recognize the three walks. The next time that anybody else walks three guys, he’s going to expect me to say the same thing.”
Valentine does not want to settle, and he does not want his players to settle. He wants them to pursue their peak performances, and to hold themselves accountable to the high standards that they set.
The new Red Sox manager counts among his foremost influences late UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, whose “Pyramid of Success” resonates with Valentine. That structure defines success as “peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”
Valentine recognizes that there cannot be constant excellence from his players, something that would suggest perfection. That said, the desire for and commitment to seeking excellence can be constant.
Valentine does not shy from that notion, just as he does not want his players to shy from candid self-evaluation. It is all part of an approach that Valentine hopes will connect with the 2012 Red Sox in order to help make them the best team possible.
“Process brings forth the outcome. The last thing that matters is the score of the game or the standings of the team,” said Valentine. “There’s no such thing as everyday excellence. There is such thing as everyday effort that is excellent. As long as someone is going to have an excellent effort, they’ll perform at their highest level as often as they possibly can.”