Could it be that Bobby Valentine is going to manage his way out of Boston in one season or less? The answer depends on if you think Valentine is crazy or crazy like a fox.
When Valentine criticized Kevin Youkilis on Sunday night, the timing seemed odd. The Red Sox had won three straight, and Youkilis was heating up. Yet Valentine chose that moment to observe, “I don't think he's physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past, for some reason.”
As managerial tactics go, this is a good way to get the opposite effect of the one you intended, in baseball or in your local rabbit-warren of cubicles. If one of your subordinates is giving a good effort, and you accuse him of having a bad attitude, you have likely just issued a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If he didn’t have one before, he’s going to have one now.
Valentine backtracked on Monday:
I should have explained that his swing isn't what he wants it to be, the physical part of his swing is frustrating. Frustration leads to emotion. I haven't seen him break as many helmets as I saw him break on TV, so, you know, it just seemed different.
At the end of the thing, I said, "I don't know what the reason is, because I haven't been here long enough." I don't know why his swing isn't exactly the way he wants it to be and why he's not throwing as many helmets. I thought it was rather innocuous.
Any time you appear to question someone’s effort, it is going to seem like a pointed criticism given that so much of baseball is about consistent effort. Since failure dominates the game, effort is about the only thing a player can do consistently.
Valentine’s apology came too late to avoid a devastating slam from Dustin Pedroia. When asked if the boss was trying to motivate Youkilis—which leaves aside the question of why a veteran player would require motivation—Pedroia said:
Maybe in Japan or something, but over here in the U.S., we've got a three-game winning streak and we want to feel good and keep it rolling. ... We feel we have a good team and we've just got to get each other's backs and play together. If you don't do that, I don't care what sport you're playing, you're not going to win.
Valentine then followed up by pushing reliever-to-starter project Daniel Bard to 111 pitches despite his having had a day that both he and the manager should have been able to tuck in their back pockets as a lucky one-to-grow-on given how lucky the team was to escape being bombed due to Bard’s wandering command. Bard had walked four in six innings heading to the top of the seventh.
Bard induced Jeff Keppinger to ground out and struck out Jose Molina, but he ran out of gas. Sean Rodriguez walked, Desmond Jennings singled and Carlos Pena walked. No move was made, though the bases were loaded and Tampa’s most dangerous hitter, Evan Longoria, was on deck.
Longoria walked. It was Bard’s seventh free pass of the day. The run forced in would stand as the final score as the Sox went down 1-0. Bard was credited with the defeat, but the defeat was authored by Valentine.
Talking about pitching changes, the Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher used to say, “I’m not nailed to the bench,” meaning, “Intervene in a timely fashion.” Valentine was nailed to the bench.
It would be nice to think that Valentine knows exactly what he is doing—that he is trying to establish his presence in the Sox clubhouse by taking on some of the veterans. This is an old story of the tug-of-war between a new manager and veteran players. Sometimes it resolves in favor of the former, sometimes the latter.
Yet unless there is something we don’t know about, the shot at Youkilis seemed unmotivated, the timing poor.
When taken with today’s shoddy in-game work and what has transpired through spring training to the present, you have a picture of a 61-year-old manager 10 years removed from his last work in a major-league dugout. Valentine has simply seemed rusty.
Here’s the thing about older managers past their use-by dates: They don’t get un-rusty, but just go on being out of touch.
That said, if Valentine has the backing of Boston ownership, if upper management feels that the team’s chemistry is so bad that some of these veterans need their feathers ruffled, then the manager is going to come out on top (if not necessarily a winner) in this particular conflict with his own team. Youkilis will go at the end of the year, if not sooner, and you might see a few other old hands make surprising departures.
If, however, these comments are not part of that agenda, if Valentine is just lashing out, then it’s going to be a long year for the Red Sox and a short ride for Bobby V.