It hangs quietly in a frame in the top right-hand corner of the back wall of Bobby Valentine’s office at Shea Stadium, nearly invisible among the impressive array of baseball and family memorabilia one fully expects to see in a place of business like this. In fact, to even find it, you have to look quite carefully around the room: past photos of previous occupants (Casey, Gil, Yogi), past the pictures of mentors and heroes (a fresh-faced Valentine with his rookie-league manager, Tommy Lasorda; Bobby and his son Robert Jr. with Joe DiMaggio), and past the gallery of World Series programs that serve as a constant reminder that this lifetime baseball man has never been a part of even one Fall Classic in his nearly 30-year career as a Major League player, coach, and manager.
And yet the item in question draws my eye every time I enter Valentine’s office. It’s an inscription entitled “Duty, as seen by Abraham Lincoln,” and this is what it says:
“If I were to try and read, much less answer, all the attacks made upon me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how—the very best I can—and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said about me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would mean no difference.”
Six months and one week into the 2000 Major League Baseball season, Bobby Valentine’s shop is still very much open for business. In what is fast becoming a familiar no-net tightrope act, his Wild-Card Mets have survived to go on to another round in the post season by dint of their three games to one smothering of the Giants in a series highlighted by drama (Benny Agbayani, the legend continues) and maybe a little destiny, too (if slump-possessed Derek Bell doesn’t get hurt where’s Timo Perez in all those rallies?). Now it’s on to—surprise—the Cardinals, who sent the Braves home early, and who will no doubt give the Mets all they can handle in their bid to navigate their way to the World Series.
In baseball lexicology, managers are often called skippers, and there certainly are many people in baseball who see in Bobby Valentine an edgy, battle-scarred figure not unlike Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny—a veritable Captain Queeg for all (summer) seasons. Then again, just because Valentine may be paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get him—”they” being the conga-line-forming media, who’ve spent much of Valentine’s four-plus years as Mets manager fairly tripping over their keyboards, microphones, and TV cameras in giddy anticipation every time it looks like he’s about to walk the plank. Which, admittedly, he’s often veered out on without any prodding at all. You’d think a guy who said early on (think back to 1997 and the “Who Killed McIlvaine?” controversy) that he fully understood the media “gets paid to stir things up” could keep himself from regularly handing out gift-wrapped spoons. Yet, time and again, Valentine has proved himself willfully incapable of putting on the industry-standard game face when fielding questions he perceives as leading, flame-fanning, or just plain stupid. (Take my word, that covers about 75 percent of them. At least.)
I’m no Civil War buff, but my guess is that Honest Abe didn’t suffer fools easily, and as has been often painfully clear in watching him these last four years, neither does Bobby V. And because he’s been just as unable to hide his true feelings as he was unable to pull off his Groucho Marx disguise last year, he’s made enemies throughout the branches of the armed, and dangerous, media forces (Murray Chass, come on down). It’s an enemy that seizes upon any quote it can use—see last year’s “five losers” comment in Sports Illustrated—to make Valentine squirm and to reinforce the public perception of him as an arrogant know-it-all disliked not only by opponents, but his own players too. About the last group, I’d say go ask Agbayani, or Edgardo Alfonzo, or Bobby Jones, or even senior citizen John Franco, all of whom he’s loudly invested faith and confidence in at critical times, often when most others in the organization wouldn’t—and all of whom, tellingly, came up huge against the Giants. (It should not be forgotten that Valentine’s predecessor, that greater leader of men Dallas Green, wouldn’t give Alfonzo the playing time of day.) Besides, the last time I checked, the general idea of managing a baseball team was to win as many games as possible, and the plain facts are that Valentine took over a Mets squad that had stumbled its way through six consecutive losing seasons and has guided them to four straight winning ones, including back-to-back trips to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, and a second straight 50-50 shot at a World Series berth.
Nonetheless, there is always an undercurrent to Valentine’s demeanor, even in the best of times. It’s an intense, but also tense, overachiever’s drive to succeed that seems shaded more by darkness than light. Thus, another captain comes to mind—namely, Ahab. And what muddies and complicates the waters around Valentine’s boat is the fact that this year in particular he’s had to fight not one, not two, but arguably three distinct white whales. First and foremost were the Atlanta Braves, who, especially in their home park, handled the Mets not only with ease and luck, but with an air of nonchalance that clearly has stuck in Valentine’s craw. Suffice it to say that watching him go head-to-head with Bobby Cox always reminds me of the Saturday Night Live 1988 presidential campaign skit: Watching Dana Carvey’s George Bush bumble his way through question after question, Jon Lovitz’s Michael Dukakis looks straight at the camera and sighs, “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy!” Perhaps the best one-liner in all of Valentine’s Division Series press conferences came when someone asked if he had hoped the Braves would have won at least one game to keep the Cards from getting much rest before their showdown with the Mets. Valentine nearly fell off the podium. “I don’t think I’ve ever rooted for Atlanta,” he said. “I certainly wouldn’t start now.”
The second big Moby Valentine’s so far been unable to harpoon would be the Mets’ crosstown not-so- friendly rivals, the Yankees. The Bombers’ World Championship ways three of the last four years have made them this burg’s impervious Hertz to the Mets’ we-try-harder Avis. If the last two seasons have been exceptions to the norm in terms of the historical yin-yang of the respective fortunes of both clubs—with few exceptions, the Bronx is up when Flushing’s down, and vice versa—Valentine still knows full well that in a frontrunner town like New York, being a contending team simply isn’t enough. Making it here, rather than anywhere, means winning it all. Go ask Patrick Ewing.
Lastly, there’s the new monster that rocked Bobby V.’s ship all season: the matter of his job stability. When the Mets co-owner Fred Wilpon announced last winter that he wouldn’t address Valentine’s expiring contract status until after the 2000 campaign, he knew what he was doing: looking for increased productivity from a hard-working employee, and perhaps for some humility, too. For the most part, he’s gotten it: Outside of the Wharton School teapot tempest early this season, Valentine’s said little to discredit himself in the eyes of his bosses, and regardless of the final outcome of the playoffs, he’s done little to not warrant a fat new contract. Deep down, I don’t think Valentine wants to go anywhere else to manage. He brought up the issue and got a favorable response from Wilpon in early September, just before the team’s third annual swoon (hey, they’re making progress; this year’s fall slump was ultimately just a scare). And even when he overheated down in Atlanta during the first-place-showdown meltdown, he quickly went into you’re- not-gonna-get-me-this-time damage control.
Granted, the laughs have proved to be few and far between for Bobby Valentine, especially during crunch time. Maybe that’s why the most refreshing thing about being in his office after the Mets clinched their Wild-Card spot wasn’t the cold champagne that general manager Steve Phillips poured over his head, but his impromptu fake phone conversation with Wilpon while waiting for the owner’s congratulatory call. “Sure. . . . Gladly. . . . How many?” joked Valentine, injecting some much needed levity into a situation that’s quietly but deeply worn on him all year. So maybe that other thing my eyes always fall on in his office, that silly rubber fish his wife, Mary, bought him a while back—the one that sings “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”—is having some effect after all.
As they say, hope floats.