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VALENTINE DAYS
Tom Verducci
August 04, 1997
Prickly manager Bobby Valentine has softened, and his surprising Mets are playing their hearts out
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August 04, 1997

Valentine Days

Prickly manager Bobby Valentine has softened, and his surprising Mets are playing their hearts out

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Getting Defensive
The Mets are in the hunt for a playoff berth, in part because manager Bobby Valentine (above right) has stressed defense. Here are New York's fielding statistics from last year and those projected for this season, based on games through Sunday.

Category

1996

1997 (projected)

Fielding percentage

.974*

.982

Overall ranking

14*

2

Errors

159*

112

Unearned runs allowed

104

53

Double plays

163

173

*League worst

Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether manager Bobby Valentine is talking about his New York Mets or his three collies and his Jack Russell terrier. "I'm proud of them," Valentine says. "It's a good little team." National League clubs don't come much warmer and fuzzier than the Mets, the worst team in baseball over the past six seasons combined but suddenly a playoff contender this summer.

An outfit that lost 91 games a year ago is now on track to win 92 with a patchwork starting rotation in which only one pitcher has ever thrown 200 innings and won more than a dozen games in a season; a backup catcher who was a kids' camp instructor last July; and a roster so packed with second-chance players that it's fitting the Mets had more comeback wins (30) through Sunday than any other team in the majors.

After dropping two out of three games to the San Diego Padres last weekend the Mets (59-45) trailed the Florida Marlins by mere percentage points for the National League wild-card spot. This good little team has established a reputation for being humble, likable and unselfish—in other words, the opposite of its manager's image. "I am one of the easiest targets in baseball," says Valentine. "I understand it." So notorious is Valentine that when Mets co-owner Fred Wilpon told him on July 16 that he was firing general manager Joe McIlvaine, Valentine said, "You know what people are going to say. That I did it."

"You're misreading the situation," Wilpon replied.

The next day's headline in the New York Post read VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE. One National League manager, voicing the typical outsider's verdict, says of Valentine, "He backstabbed [McIlvaine]."

"People have this impression of me that will last forever," Valentine says.

Two years removed from managing in Japan and only one year after riding buses in the minors, Valentine by last Friday had guided the Mets to 16 games better than .500—the franchise's high-water mark since the end of the 1990 season. He is likely to sign a contract extension soon that will keep him in New York through 2000. His players, all of whom are made to feel useful, respond to him. "He's like a movie," reliever John Franco says. "Somebody tells you, 'Aw, that movie sucks.' But you can't take anyone's word for it. You have to see for yourself. He's been great."

This is the season of the metamorphosis of Valentine. Yet as the innuendo surrounding McIlvaine's dismissal proved, Valentine has barely begun to erase the impression he left as manager of the Texas Rangers from 1985 to '92. During that period, in which the team's record was 581-605, Valentine managed more games with one club without winning a title than any man in major league history—and rubbed more people the wrong way than an outbreak of hives. "He comes across like he reinvented the game," another National League manager who requested anonymity says. "I think it's his smile that drives people crazy."

Valentine would stand on the top step of the Texas dugout with folded arms and an oversized smile. He would offer a running commentary on the game; his brilliant baseball mind could spot a player's flaws or break down an opponent's strategy, and he couldn't help broadcasting it. He also would berate opposing players. He would scream into the other dugout at a pitcher who had just dusted one of his hitters, "You're a gutless ass!" He would shout at an opposing slugger, "Swing a little harder, you f———a——-!" He rode umpires mercilessly.

Valentine, who was hired by Texas at 35 without minor league managing experience, quickly became despised. One season, when the Oakland Athletics were battling the California Angels for the American League West title and the Rangers were not a factor, the As followed the Angels into Arlington, Texas, for a series. Someone on the Angels gladly turned over their scouting reports on Texas to the A's. Go ahead and beat him.

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