Now That His Texas Rangers Are Gunning for the Top, Nobody's Telling Bobby Valentine to Shut Up
Now he talks about his pitching rotation; now about his friend and mentor, Tommy Lasorda, manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers; now about his theory of managing. "The old-time managers kept you in doubt," he says. "It drove me nuts as a player. I try to eliminate doubt with my players. If I pinch-hit for them, I tell them why. They've got wives and girlfriends who wanna know why the manager took them out! I'm sensitive to their feelings."
When he finishes dictating his lineup, his coach shoots him a questioning look. "You don't like it?" the manager asks. "We didn't win with it last time," says the coach. "We'll see," says the manager. Then he tells a joke, pedaling faster as he approaches the punchline. "So Joe DiMaggio walks to first on four pitches, you see, and the old Italian asks his grandson why. 'Because he got four balls,' the kid says. The old Italian stands up and begins to clap, 'Attaboy, Joe!' he says. 'Four balls! Marrone! Stand proud!' " Everyone in the room laughs but the manager. He hears something from the players' clubhouse that bothers him. Still pedaling, he flings sweat from his brow with a shake of his head and shouts into the clubhouse, "Shut off that damned basketball game! Put on baseball!" There is a click as the NBA gives way to the Mariners videotape.
Bobby Valentine, the 36-year-old manager of the Texas Rangers, gives off more heat than a pizza oven. For years that heat was anathema, disturbing the game's phlegmatic players, coaches and managers. His teammates in the minor leagues once threatened to strike if someone didn't cool him off. His manager with the Dodgers, Walter Alston, was offended by Bobby's pleas to communicate—"But why, Skip? Why did you pinch-hit for me?"—and shipped him to the California Angels. Even his best friend hated Bobby the first time he met him. "I just wanted him to shut up!" he says.
Lately, though, Valentine's intensity has ignited his youthful Texas Rangers, who have spent much of the young season in first place in the American League West. After only 13 months as a major league manager, Valentine writes a column for a Fort Worth paper, has two radio shows, models clothes on TV and is called "the best manager I've ever seen," by his pitching coach, Tom House, 39. "He's enough of a traditionalist not to tear down things without a good reason, but he's young enough to be receptive to new ideas. For years certain ways of doing things have been passed down in baseball. People in the game just accepted them. Bobby asks why." Yet when Valentine believes, he does it with feeling. His faith rubs off on others, as if by osmosis. And Valentine believes in osmosis, which is why he always has a baseball game playing on TV. Things rub off, he believes, even when he's not paying attention.
With that in mind, he convinced the Rangers to put up a satellite dish to pull in his rivals' games, even offering to pay for it out of his own pocket. He felt that scouting reports on other teams were less useful to him than watching the teams himself. One scout lost his job as a result, and the incident illustrated why Valentine has made enemies. Yet there are few managers more traditional when it comes to conditioning, strategy and the role of the manager as benevolent despot. Last season he had shouting matches with veterans Cliff Johnson and Dave Rozema, neither of whom is still with the Rangers. "I had to make a point with the older players," Valentine says. "And I decided to do it in front of the team. If it had been one of the young players, I would have done it behind closed doors in my office."
Valentine feels most comfortable with players younger than he is. He decided this spring to go with a host of rookies, blended with a few steady veterans like Toby Harrah, Larry Parrish and Darrell Porter. So far, that gamble has paid off. Four of his winningest pitchers are between 20 and 25 years old, and Valentine's pet project, outfielder Pete Incaviglia, 22, has the look—girth and all—of a youthful, Italian Babe Ruth. Valentine told Incaviglia at the close of spring training that he would be batting fourth for the Rangers, even though last year's college home run champ had yet to play a single inning of professional baseball. Incaviglia responded by floundering at the plate with an anemic batting average and a ton of strikeouts. But Valentine stuck with him, and Incaviglia is now leading the team in homers and runs batted in. "We're a lot alike," says Incaviglia of himself and his manager. "We're fiery. His parents are like my parents. He takes an interest in me as a person. One of the older guys told me that's not the way big league managers are." In fact, Valentine and his coaches take such an active role in their players' personal lives that they have been derided by some baseball people for running an encounter group, not a team.
Bobby Valentine was arguably the finest athlete ever to come out of Stamford, Conn., an all-state halfback three years running, holder of the state record in the 60-yard dash and a superlative high school shortstop who was taken by the Dodgers in the first round of the 1968 free-agent draft. (Former major leaguer Tim Foli, now a Rangers coach, was picked first in that draft; his future boss went fifth. "Jeez, that made me furious," says Bobby.) Valentine was an iconoclast even then. As a teenager he had quit Pop Warner football rather than cut his pompadour as the coach demanded. He felt he needed the hair for his other passion, ballroom dancing. Often his mother would bring a pail of water to baseball practice so Bobby could wash up quickly and change in the car on his way to dance class. He was the basketball team's mascot, appearing at games dressed as an Indian. If all the world were a stage, Bobby Valentine had to be on it.
In the minor leagues, he rose quickly through the Dodgers chain, but when he got to L.A., he clashed almost instantly with manager Alston, a taciturn Midwesterner who couldn't wait to get him out of his life. "I'd get three hits in a game," Bobby says, "and then I wouldn't play for a week. When I asked Alston why, he'd never tell me." In 1973, after Alston packed him off to the Angels, Bobby was batting .302 when he crashed into an outfield wall and broke his leg in two places. The leg never healed properly, and at 24, Valentine was on his way to being a has-been. "Up until then," he says, "I thought I could do anything on a baseball diamond. I was in winter ball with Tommy Lasorda later that year. We were having a pizza in the Dominican Republic, and he told me I'd never be the player that he thought I was going to be. We were both crying. He told me that if I wanted to stay in the game, I should start thinking of managing."
Valentine played six more years on the fringes before he finally quit in 1979 to become a coach. After seeing the game from both sides, there were ideas he wanted to try as a manager. "Some of them may not seem like much," he says, "but they were important to me as a player, so I try to do them with my own team. Once I got on an elevator with my parents and my manager never even said hello. That hurt me. I try to know the names of my players' wives and girlfriends, and when I tell my players how to do things, I tell them how they can do it, not how I would do it. I wanted to get to the Hall of Fame as a player. Now I want to get there as a manager."