The Zen of the Red Sox: Bobby Valentine's Redemption Song

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Reflections on the the polarizing manager's first press conference with Boston

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Reuters


There was a distinct moment during Thursday evening's press conference in Boston, during which the Red Sox introduced the mercurial Bobby Valentine as the 45th manager in their storied history, that I began to entertain the following thought: The Sox may win next year. The Sox may lose next year. But the Sox will not be boring next year. This is the happy mantra that signifies high television ratings and still more sellouts of Fenway Park no matter how the team fares in 2012. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to Zenway Park!

This cult of personality, and an endless supply of pithy sound bytes, are what Valentine offers the Olde Towne Team following its disgraceful September swoon. A baseball lifer, a talented veteran manager, he is expected to go into that infamous clubhouse, put a few fellow millionaires in their place, and restore a measure of respect for the grand old game. What Valentine receives from the opportunity to coach the rich, powerful team is a more profound matter. It's his last shot at redemption; at reminding the world that people can learn from their past mistakes. 

So precious is the team to the Red Sox Nation (and to The Boston Globe and The New York Times) that Valentine's televised introduction as manager morphed after a bit from routine baseball blather into a group therapy session in which earnest reporters took turns trying to prod the depths of Valentine's soul. This is because Valentine developed a "polarizing" reputation as manager of the New York Mets a decade ago. Valentine feuded with players, and the media, and with fellow management, and at times his behavior was bizarre. Certainly not Bostonian.

If Valentine had won the World Series in 2000 when he made it there in with the undermanned Mets, he'd probably still be the toast of Manhattan. He'd be like Casey Stengel, the odd-minded genius. But Valentine lost to the New York Yankees (and to their manager, Joe Torre, a reclamation project of his own when first hired by George Steinbrenner after the 1995 season). And then Valentine was fired by the Mets in 2002 after some very public squabbling.  And then he left for Japan. And then to the television booth as an analyst for ESPN.

Evidently Valentine's penance over the past decade--managing overseas, television analysis, loads of charitable work--was not enough to satisfy the moralists and mental-health experts who moonlight as sports journalists. So after Valentine made some pleasing remarks Thursday, in which he said all the right things about the team, the city and management, he was duly grilled by reporters about his personality. Here are some of the questions Valentine faced (keep in mind that he was not applying to be the principal of a school, or a commercial pilot, or the handler of nuclear arms):

Are there things you would have done differently?

How prepared are you mentally and physically for this job?
When asked how he would deal with the players (as if the players were rabid coyotes instead of employees under contract), Valentine responded:

One of the things I have been able to experience is thousands of conversations... some of 'em that went really well and some of them were ones I wish I never made... and I've learned I think how to communicate with guys, talk with them, understand them... it's not magical. .... It's an ongoing process... a collective experience that you bring to the table to make the best of the situation.

Here's another question. One word that's often used to describe you is "polarizing," and I wonder what you make of that description of you? Whether or not you think that's accurate. If so, why? (The reporter next asked Valentine's immediate supervisor, Red Sox General Manager Ben Cherrington, to answer the question: How do you guys assess Bobby's personality?) Here is how Valentine responded:

It's about reputation versus character. I think people who know me, and take the time to get to know me, understand that I have some qualities in my character that are okay. I am not the genius that I have heard people refer to me as. I am not the polarizing guy that people refer to me as. I am not the monster that breathes fire that some people have referred to me as. But I am a guy. I'm a regular human being. With regular feelings and regular attributes that make me what I am. And I think some of them... are okay...

Undaunted, the next reporter asked: "Do you think you are going to have to manage your personality any differently here?

Sports journalism aside, is there any reasonable person over the age of 40 who wouldn't identify with Valentine's self-assessments? We all make mistakes when we are younger that we come to regret later, do we not? We all would like to think we are wiser at 60 than at 50, wiser at 50 than at 40. Before an international audience, Valentine is getting to do what millions of Americans his age (he's 61) would love to do: go back one more time and change the way their industry sees them. The Red Sox are often epic. That's just one of the things I love about them. Now they have a manager with an epic quest.

Contrast Valentine's zen with the words of the man he has replaced. Terry Francona, the beloved former manager of the Sox, was still doing damage control Thursday (of all days) by blaming the media for misinterpreting information about his alleged use of prescription drugs last season. On WEEI, Francona said this: "I wasn't the perfect manager, but I did things my way, and for seven years and five months, it worked." Isn't this what optimists say about people who jump off 100-story buildings? "Gee, for the first 95 floors things went really well."

The older reporters in the room Thursday evening surely know what I mean about second chances in life. And the young Turks, the ones who rushed to ask Valentine those ponderous questions, probably don't get it. After all, it's tough to understand redemption unless and until you've sought it for yourself. And it's easy to believe in the all-encompassing world of sports that a baseball manager must be all things to all people. But the history of the sport is replete with managers and players (and owners and reporters) who would have failed the mental-health exam that Valentine was given on the first day at his new job.

So I welcome Bobby V with open arms and an open mind. I like the idea of redemption later in life. I wish him well. Joe Torre got another chance when he was given the Yankees job and look what happened to him. If Valentine has even half the success with my Sox that Torre had with the Yankees, I will forever tip my cap to him, much in the same way that I still cherish the newspaper clipping I have that reminds me that Francona was drafted 30 years ago (in the first round) by my first favorite team, the Montreal Expos.

American loves a second act. Or even a third one. And so do I.

How do you think you have evolved or changed as a manager?

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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