By Matt Straub
I’m rarely apprehensive about covering something, but I was a bit Tuesday night. I wanted to make sure I was objective and gave Bobby Valentine a fair shake, considering some of the things I’ve said about him on this website.
Listening to him speak for about an hour, then talking to him briefly personally, I got the full Bobby Valentine experience. At times, he’d completely won me over. Hearing him charm a crowd in Southington, Conn., I was willing to overlook his season in Boston. Someone this smart and this engaging, I figured, can’t be hated. Then, as the stories went on and on, the disbelief many in the media have felt listening to Valentine started to set in. Either some of this is made up or Valentine is baseball’s Forest Gump.
He’s been everywhere and had everything happen to him.
He told a tale about how he helped get his boyhood idol, Mickey Mantle, into rehab by shaming him during a trip to the World Series in Toronto. He had wanted to get a picture signed taken of the two when Valentine was in high school, but never had it with him during his later encounters with Mantle once he got into the big leagues. So, knowing he was going to be with Mantle while on assignment for Sports Illustrated, he brought the picture with him. But after he said Mantle “embarrassed himself” during the trip, he said he didn’t want the picture signed. Mantle, Valentine said, became upset Valentine didn’t want to have him sign it, and kept demanding to. Eventually, with help of family, Valentine made a deal with Mantle saying he was willing to have the picture signed if Mantle agreed to go to the Betty Ford Clinic.
It’s a nice and believable story, as are all of Valentine’s. Putting them together, however, is where things get weird. He told a tale about a game he was in as a young player in Hawaii and suffering a facial injury, which didn’t turn out to be a problem because one of the world’s leading plastic surgeons happened to be at the game, jumped in the ambulance and asked the Dodgers for permission to perform the operation. The doctor was Japanese, and when Valentine became a star in Japan he tried to find the doctor to thank him.
He eventually met the doctor’s son, who told Valentine the reason the doctor didn’t come forward was because he was on his way from L.A. to Japan and wasn’t supposed to be in Hawaii.
There was a “wink wink” kind of implication there, as several of the stories ended. For about a half hour I was enthralled, but by the end I was starting to wonder. Now, Valentine wouldn’t be the first person to enhance a tale in order to make a dinner more interesting, but the laughter and skepticism I went back-and-forth between felt appropriate considering the speaker.
Some of the stories I believed. He told the tale of the famous disguise he wore in the dugout in a game he’d been ejected from. Even those, however, had added layers which seem to define Valentine. The reason he went back out to the tunnel in the glasses and mustache, for example, was because the young players on the team were nervous to play a big game without him. Ugh.
Still, the high moments of the stories had me sold. The reason he got kicked out of that game, for example: He asked the umpire if he could be thrown out for just thinking something, and when told no, he said "good, because I think you’re a piece of [blank]."
I’ve heard managers say similar things, so I believe it. There was only one child I saw in the audience, so I didn’t even object with the couple of times Valentine used colorful language. In fact, it fit his nature.
Before and after the stories, I had two personal encounters with Valentine. When I first introduced myself, he called me "Matty," a name I’m fine with but one usually reserved for people who’ve known me for more than 30 seconds. During that introduction, I saw Valentine’s incredible ability to make a connection first hand, when he started talking to my boss, found a connection and immediately started trading stories with him about their days in California. Valentine even asked for his card.
But then, during my final meeting, I saw the other side of Valentine. He had agreed to a 1-on-1 interview after his speech, which he granted me. We spoke for a couple of minutes about his new role at Sacred Heart University and his thoughts on the evening (I stayed away from Red Sox questions because of how quickly he had brushed them off during the night). When I was done, I turned my tape off and started to chat with him for a moment after the interview, which is commonplace in my business. I even had my own story prepared about how I had grown to know Carlos Pena in college. I was a few seconds into my story when I looked up after having made sure my tape was off only to realize Valentine was no longer listening to me. He had turned and moved on to the next person without as much as a "nice to have met you."
In that one moment, I experienced the essence of Bobby Valentine. He can win a room over with a few stories, even though if you think about them in totality they become hard to believe. He can act like he’s completely invested in what you have to say, and he’s got a story to fit any situation and make you feel like he cares about his conversation with you.
And then he can be done with you in a second. There’s always someone else for Valentine to charm, always someone else to whom he can tell a story.
I left my evening with Bobby Valentine totally understanding of how he kept getting jobs in baseball and just as understanding of why so many are put off by someone who can be so engaging. My night with Bobby V wasn’t boring, but it was enlightening. Lots of people love him and just as many hate him.
After Tuesday, I can tell you they’re both right.