So it goes with the team that also has the best no-name defense since the '72 Miami Dolphins. Until first baseman Butch Huskey made a key error in a 5-3 loss to the Padres last Saturday, the Mets had not permitted an unearned run in 20 games. The left side of the infield is particularly sure-handed. Through Sunday 23-year-old third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo—a budding Edgar Martinez at the plate (.319) and already among the elite afield—and acrobatic shortstop Rey Ordonez, 24, had combined for only seven errors all year.
The offense, built around catcher Todd Hundley (team-high 22 home runs), is more resourceful than it is prolific. Valentine rarely uses the same lineup two days in a row in an effort to keep his players sharp. He has already gotten at least 145 plate appearances for 11 players. Huskey, for instance, is tied for second on the team in home runs (14) even though he has started only 71 games—at five positions, including DH. Reserves Manny Alexander and Luis Lopez get semiregular work in the infield, similar to a rotation of NBA guards. Unlike Green, Valentine doesn't keep players in a doghouse, reserving that sort of treatment for those it was intended: Teddy, Bluie, Blaze and Sammy, his beloved lineup of canines.
"This team is amazing," says second baseman Carlos Baerga, who this season has turned around his flagging career. "It's a different guy every night helping us win. We never get down."
Maybe the Mets keep coming back because all but five of their players have been traded, released or sold during their careers. Backup catcher Todd Pratt, for example, spent last season tutoring high school players at a Florida baseball camp after being released by the Seattle Mariners during spring training.
Last Thursday, against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, Valentine asked righthander Rick Reed, a former replacement player who is with his fifth team, how he was feeling after pitching the first seven innings of a scoreless game. Reed replied, "I'm in L.A., in the major leagues. What else would I rather be doing? I feel great." Valentine let Reed lead off the eighth inning, and the Mets went on to win in the ninth, 3-1.
"These guys ask me to talk," Valentine says. "For instance, [last Thursday] Alfonzo asked me if I thought about a hit-and-run when I had him bunting. I said, 'You bet, but this time I had confidence in the guys behind you. Keep that in mind though—we will hit-and-run in that situation.' "
These days you are more likely to see Valentine seated in the dugout than standing on the top step. You are unlikely to hear him berate umpires about balls and strikes the way he used to. "I made a conscious effort to quit that," he says, though last Friday he annoyed home plate ump Terry Tata enough for Tata to rip off his mask and shout, "That's enough!"
"First time all year I've done that," a sheepish Valentine said later.
Mets hitting coach Tom Robson, who first worked with Valentine in '86, says, "I would not use the word mellowed [to describe him], because the intensity is still there. But I've seen changes. He's less animated and less loud. I think it started in Japan. He'd go out to argue, and he had to have an interpreter with him. Things don't seem to bother him as much now."
Valentine's biggest challenge may be manipulating a staff in which only three pitchers have obtained big outs in a meaningful September game: Franco, Mark Clark and Greg McMichael, with the latter the only one to have thrown a playoff pitch. Valentine's résumé is similarly lacking. He has worn a big league uniform in 23 seasons—including 10 as a player with five clubs—but has never appeared in the postseason.