Bobby Valentine was hired because he had a history of helping to turn around dysfunctional organizations. Immediately. Five months into his first and likely only season as the Red Sox skipper, he’s not only failed to accomplish that mission but in fact has failed in spectacular fashion.
His ongoing employment as Red Sox manager has become, at best, awkward, at worst, destructive to the team going forward. Reports of his behavior (full disclosure: I have not spent a day around the team on the current West Coast road trip) suggest an embattled manager who feels the walls pressing in around him, amplifying the behavior that characterized the end of the Sox’ recent (and roster reshaping) homestand.
It’s come to the point where it is fair to question his ongoing emotional investment in the team.
On Friday, for instance, he showed up at the ballpark less than three hours before the first pitch -- hours after a manager typically makes his way to the ballpark in order to guarantee his preparedness and ensure his availability to his players and coaches. On Saturday, he was asked about a Red Sox lineup that featured Scott Podsednik penciled into the third spot in the order for the first time in the veteran’s big league career.
"Just a mistake," Valentine said in response to his deployment of Podsednik. "Is that what it says on the lineup? What the (expletive)? Switch it up. Who knows? Maybe it will look good. I haven’t seen it."
And again on Saturday, when Valentine was asked about the fact that the fans in Oakland booed after catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia challenged baseball etiquette by breaking up a no-hitter in the fifth inning (of a 5-0 game) with a bunt single, Valentine’s response was not defense but rather dismissal.
“Who cares?” he told reporters.
Valentine appears (armchair psychology alert!) to be struggling with a situation that offers no hope of comfort. It is undoubtedly a terrible, terrible feeling for anyone to be in a job in which it seems that he or she is unwanted. That is the unpleasant reality that seems to confront Valentine.
Repeatedly, his bosses have been given the opportunity to answer publicly questions about his job security for 2013. Repeatedly, they have declined to offer any assurances beyond this year.
Even when owner John Henry wrote in an email on Aug. 6 that Valentine would not be fired, he did nothing to indicate that he felt the manager was doing his job well. Instead, he simply downplayed the significance of the manager’s role in a team’s struggles while (rightly) pointing out that the blame for a disappointing season extends far beyond one individual.
“To blame Bobby Valentine for the Red Sox being .500 at this point in the season is simply wrong. A lot has been written about injuries to key players this year. The impact of that on the Sox this year should not be discounted,” Henry wrote almost four weeks ago. "In baseball, managers often get too much credit and too much blame for what happens on the field. That seems to be a constant. There is often the thought in organizations, 'This isn't working so the manager needs to go.' But an organization is much more than the field manager. We all share responsibility for the success and failure of the Boston Red Sox. We are not making a change in manager.
"There has been no lack of effort from our players and we have had a number of them playing hurt. I watch every game and the effort our players put in right after night is very clear to see,” he continued. "In regard to the notion that we have somehow not empowered Bobby, you should ask him directly about that. We have been nothing but supportive of him inside and outside the clubhouse. Stories that imply otherwise are due to speculation that is not warranted at all by the facts.”
Yet it is difficult to view the latest comment from Sox ownership as being “nothing but supportive of [Valentine] inside and outside the clubhouse.” In an interview given by Tom Werner to the Boston Globe that ran on Saturday, the team chairman spoke glowingly of GM Ben Cherington and his Red Sox future.
“We give him high marks in how he’s dealt with the challenges this season, and he’s going to be with us for a long time,” Werner told the Globe.
Such remarks came in stark contrast to Werner’s assessment of Valentine.
“I don’t really want to get into that today,” Werner said in the same story. “I don’t want to talk too much about him. But he’s had a challenging year. I think, as we’ve said before, he’s doing a good job.”
Asked if Valentine would return in 2013, Werner did not offer a direct response.
“I don’t really want to go there,” Werner said. “I think we all thought we’d bounce back more this year.”
There’s been no bounce. Indeed, that appears to be the horrifying reality of a Red Sox team in apparent freefall for whom no bottom appears to be in sight.
The team is 0-5 on its West Coast roadtrip. With Saturday’s 7-1 loss to the Athletics, the team has dropped 10 games under .500 for the first time since July 1997; the Sox have been outscored, 48-13, in their five games since leaving Fenway Park.
Perhaps the Sox thought that they could get through the duration of the season. Particularly when the team made the blockbuster trade with the Dodgers -- thus continuing a months-long exodus of players who have had qualms or conflicts with Valentine -- perhaps there was a sense that the team could use a full season of evidence to determine whether or not the manager was a fit for this team.
But at this point, what remains to determine? The Sox hired Valentine as an agent of change, an energetic presence meant to connect with the clubhouse in a way that his predecessor, Terry Francona, suggested he was no longer capable of doing. That hasn’t happened.
The season has one potentially excruciating month remaining for the Red Sox. And still, whatever “it” was that Valentine was supposed to bring to the table has not materialized.
At this point, it is difficult to suggest that his hiring was anything but a mistake, albeit one made in good faith by a number of parties in the Red Sox organization and by Valentine himself.
On December 1, the day that he was hired, the Sox declared Valentine the right man for the job and he seemed both honored, humbled and thrilled by that sentiment. But the great expectations have yielded to a disappointing reality that has led to endless discomfort for both Valentine and the team amidst the constant speculation about his job security. (Officials from other organizations have wondered aloud about the staying power of Valentine in Boston since April.)
All of that is bad and uncomfortable enough. But now, after a botched managerial hiring last winter, the Sox face a more troublesome reality as they determine how to handle what lies ahead.
As Valentine twists in the wind, the situation is not merely challenging but potentially perilous for the club. He is a manager with no assurances about his future, and so he is not beholden to the long-term interests of his players. Yet he is also a man who struck a “Who cares?” chord on multiple occasions on Saturday.
The result is decision-making without a constituency or mandate, offering decisions that can defy logic -- and, at times, the best interests of the players.
Por ejemplo: Since the conclusion of his three-game suspension, Alfredo Aceves has pitched four times in five days, throwing 143 pitches in the process. One-hundred forty-three. One-four-three.
Valentine has discussed the idea of stretching out the right-hander, but this sort of workload has more closely approximated a medieval act of punishment (drawing and quartering? the rack?) for the pitcher’s transgressions.
(But which transgression? Aceves had a public dugout dispute with Dustin Pedroia on Saturday night, in the midst of a three-inning, 63-pitch labor out of the bullpen. Valentine made little secret about with whom he sided in the dust-up.) But not only did Valentine continue to charge Aceves with an immense workload, his insistence on doing so also led to head-scratching demands on Rich Hill.
Valentine had Hill -- who until Saturday had been on the disabled list since June 8 due to a strained flexor muscle in his left elbow -- warming in the sixth inning, at a time when the A’s had lefties Seth Smith and Josh Reddick due up. Hill didn’t enter. Finally, the left-hander entered the game in the eighth, and while his first big league outing in nearly three months was a success, Valentine’s approach to Hill’s health was nonetheless puzzling.
But what does that matter for a manager who is left to believe either that he will not be back next year or that, if he wins now, he has a shot at returning?
Valentine won’t facilitate the process by quitting. It’s not in his DNA. He was hired for a job he wanted to do. He’s not going to ask out; indeed, as he explained recently on The Big Show, he “wouldn’t insult [the Sox] by thinking that there’s some timetable in my life that they needed to adhere to.”
Translation: It’s on the Sox to say whether they want Valentine or not. He signed a two-year contract and he’s prepared to honor it. The ball is in the court of the team.
The Sox’ indecision last winter was costly. Most obviously, the team seemingly did not end up with the right man for the job, and passed on a potentially strong candidate in Dale Sveum (who has shown the ability to discipline his players while maintaining their respect in a Cubs clubhouse that has worn defeat heavily all year).
But beyond that, the Sox also: a) had to invest most of their energies through early December on the managerial hiring rather than fixing their roster; b) endured the perception of a rudderless franchise; and c) waited so long that the effort to construct the coaching staff, at least by Valentine’s account (at the time of the dismissal of pitching coach Bob McClure), that the hiring process was driven by the calendar rather than a sense that the right people were being identified for their jobs.
The Sox can’t afford to make the same mistakes this offseason. Unlike a year ago, when the decision to let Terry Francona go came at the end of the season, they have ample time to chart their course.
It is impossible to imagine that the team doesn’t know what it wants to do with Valentine. In the event that the team plans to move forward with him, say it. End the perception of Valentine as a lame duck in the manager’s office.
More likely, given that no one has been willing to discuss his role with the club beyond this year, dismiss him. End the uncomfortable, awkward middle in which Valentine seems like a man waiting to get whacked.
If the Sox are going to make a change, it makes no sense to wait -- do it now, get a sense for whether there’s an interim in-house option (the obvious candidate being bench coach Tim Bogar), channel the remaining weeks into all necessary due diligence on candidates, make sure that the owners and front office are on the same page about the checklist of necessary qualities for the next Red Sox manager and hit the ground running for the interview process. If the team is going to make a charge for John Farrell, dismiss Valentine so that it can happen in the light of day rather than having to deal with the awkward and undignified realm of courting him at a time when there’s an incumbent under contract.
After all, the team will need to have as much time as possible to devote this offseason to reloading a roster that just endured a seismic change. What it doesn’t need are questions about Bobby Valentine’s future looming, either in the offseason or even into the present.
The last month of the Red Sox’ season is about building towards the future -- both in 2013 and beyond. Presuming that Valentine is not a part of that, then the rationale for keeping him on board is hard to fathom.