As chance had it, the man with more experience clashing with Bobby Valentine than anyone else in the world was at Fenway Park on Tuesday night. And the reality of an embattled manager fighting for his job amidst a mid-year coaching staff change created a sense of, “Been there, done that.”
“I see it. I look at it and say, 'That sounds familiar,' ” said Steve Phillips, the former Mets general manager who worked with Valentine in New York from 1997 until firing the current Red Sox manager after the 2002 season. “There's a parallel, for sure.”
Phillips, at Fenway on Tuesday night as a radio broadcaster of Angels games, had a famously tumultuous relationship with Valentine when the two were together in New York. He inherited Valentine as manager when he became GM of the Mets in the middle of the 1997 season, and recalled that there were instances in which he wanted to fire Valentine in the initial seasons in which the two worked together.
The fact that Phillips was at Fenway Park on Tuesday night, at a time when the Sox had fired pitching coach Bob McClure and replaced him with Randy Niemann, was particularly fascinating. After all, one of the most infamous chapters of the pairing of Phillips and Valentine occurred when, in 1999, Phillips fired Valentine’s pitching coach (Bob Apodaca), hitting coach (Tom Robson) and bullpen coach (Niemann, as it were).
Phillips remembers the circumstances -- and consequences -- of that move vividly. That staff change -- portrayed by media outlets as a “massacre” by Phillips of Valentine’s handpicked ensemble of coaches -- transformed both the fortunes of the Mets and the manager’s career.
“We changed coaches at Yankee Stadium. It was during the Subway Series. We were going to wait until after the series, but word leaked out, so we changed coaches on June 6 of 1999,” Phillips recalled with startling precision. “We were 27-28 at the time. I thought we should have been doing better, so we changed the pitching coach, the bullpen coach and the batting coach. Over the next 55 games, we went 40-15.”
Indeed, that change was the point of departure en route to what became the apex of Valentine’s managerial career. The Mets won the wild card in both 1999 (reaching the NLCS) and 2000 (when they reached the World Series against the Yankees), and the then-Mets manager became a darling of New York.
Phillips believes that transformation of the perception of Valentine commenced with the coaching staff changes.
“What it did for him is he became a sympathetic figure at that point. I think it really changed the relationship he had with Mets fans. I think the perception changed. It seems to me, there's some part of him becoming a sympathetic figure here. I think there's a pretty decent parallel to draw from his time with the Mets.
“He was still Bobby. The perception just changed. Often times, the judgments that people make are far more about them than the person they're judging. They don't know Bobby. People making the judgments don't know him. They're interpreting whatever they can, and filling in the blanks with whatever they want to make up from wherever they sit. Bobby didn't change. It was just the way people looked at him, instead of being "Top Step Bobby" who raised his eyebrow, he became a guy where, 'How unfair is that? The coaches got fired.' Even though it worked, and it's hard to argue it was the wrong thing, he became the victim in the situation.”
The circumstances that Valentine now faces in Boston are slightly different, though still comparable. McClure, for instance, has been portrayed as the preference of the front office, part of a growing (albeit disputable) narrative that Valentine did not have complete autonomy to select his coaching staff, having inherited McClure (hired as a scout and minor league instructor weeks before Valentine was named manager), bench coach Tim Bogar and bullpen coach Gary Tuck.
However, Valentine acknowledged on Tuesday that he didn’t have anyone else in mind for the job of pitching coach at the time that McClure was hired in late December.
“I don't think he was on the first list. And then after we narrowed down the first list, he got on the second list and then he came in and interviewed with everyone,” Valentine said. “I liked the interview. … I continued to interview people and we were running out of time and he was the best candidate out there that I felt, and Ben felt and whomever else was interviewing I think felt. If that means he was my choice, he was my choice. I didn't have someone I was going to take over him."
Regardless of the details related to the assembly of Valentine’s coaching staff, however, it is the case that the manager is currently subject to a debate that seems to have little middle ground. There’s now a very public dialogue about whether the first-year Red Sox manager -- whose team lost on Tuesday to the Angels, 5-3, to fall five games under .500 for the first time since May 12 -- should be fired or given a shot at returning.
Phillips sees the return of the polarizing conversation surrounding Valentine that characterized so much of their partnership from 1997 to 2002. And, for the former Mets GM, the development is somewhat distressing, given that Phillips feels that he originated some of the portrayal of the manager as such a divisive figure.
“I think I might have been responsible for some of those perceptions, this whole notion that he was tough to handle. There was some part of that that I didn't handle properly. I was always clear that when there was an issue, it was Bobby's fault and not my fault. I feel some culpability in that the preconceived notion of Bobby may not have been completely accurate,” Phillips said. “[The idea that he’s polarizing is] a self-fulfilling prophecy to a degree. I think people's perception, there's some part of training people how to treat us -- 'Oh, he's a polarizing figure, so let's lead him down that path to let him become that.' I don't know what comes first, the chicken or the egg.
“I think that in any season, there are times a manager can make critical decisions that are maybe the right thing to do but that may publicly be perceived as a negative thing. The [Kevin] Youkilis situation [when Valentine said that then-Sox third baseman appeared less invested in the game] may be one of those. If you don't have any collateral in the relationship when you come in, you don't have a tie to what the guy did for the organization in the past, or the willingness of the fans to forgive some kind of decline because of the contributions of the past.”
Valentine had the benefit of prior history in the Mets organization as he felt his way through his initial seasons in New York, before he reached the playoffs in that 1999 campaign that was his third full season in the Mets dugout. He has none in Boston.
While Red Sox CEO and president Larry Lucchino committed to keeping Valentine as his manager through this season, no one in the organization has said anything about his future beyond 2012. Given the train wreck of a Red Sox season, that has featured not only poor performance on the field but also a constant soap opera off of it, Valentine’s standing at this point would appear to be far more tenuous than it was even in the early days of his Mets tenure.
Yet with the benefit of hindsight on their relationship, Phillips wishes that he’d handled things differently with Valentine in New York. And given that, he’s also hopeful that the manager gets more of a shot than simply being a one-and-done presence in Boston.
“I look at the Red Sox so far this year, with what's happened to the health of their team, and people want to be critical of the fact that they're right around .500. I think they ought to be grateful for the fact that they're around .500 because of the injuries they've had,” Phillips said. “I don't think they've had a managerial problem. I think they've had a health problem and a starting pitching problem. There's part of me that feels a little bit of compassion for what Bobby's going through and hopes that things settle down a bit to the point where people can give him a chance to show what he can do.
“I think there's some thought that any other manager would have been better -- would have been better than they've done so far. I don't know that it's true. There may be some of the growing pains of the first year of the relationship that will make it better next year, that will make the price of everyone's pain this year worth it. There have been growing pains.
“The issues of the pain that everyone feels here -- there's so much angst -- I don't know that the team would be better if it weren't for the pain. I think there's a part of it, the record is what it is because you pick the scab a little bit, it hurts, but some other manager of the team might be 20 games under .500 with all the injuries they've had. So I don't know what we're comparing it to. And because pain is involved, why shouldn't there be pain? Why shouldn't the players be a little bit uncomfortable when the thought was that they were so comfortable that they collapsed last September and they thought it was safe to eat chicken and drink beer in the clubhouse?
“The new guy comes on and the players don't cling on with complete adoration. But he was brought in to change things. Who's comfortable with a change in culture all the time? It's kind of to be expected, rather than this thought that he's going to come in, we're going to be in first place in September and get things going -- and all the injuries as well. So I think the expectations might have been skewed a little bit from everyone here, and some preconceived notion about who Bobby was, and that when there was pain to be suffered in the relationships on the team, it was all about Bobby.”
It is hard to imagine that changing. The fact that the same issues are swirling around Valentine now that also revolved around him in New York suggest that, whether because of his personality or the perception of his personality, the fact of his presence being a polarizing one is unlikely to change anytime soon, at least if the Red Sox do not quickly and dramatically improve their performance.
“When the White Sox were winning it was Ozzie being Ozzie,” Phillips said, comparing Valentine to fellow managerial lightning rod Ozzie Guillen. “But those same things, when you're losing, that's a reason you can fire somebody. It's the same thing. It's just Bobby being Bobby. It's his thing. But when you start off losing, it's, 'What's this?' It's not any different than any other manager. There's just more personality and more preconceived notions about him than anyone else.”