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But then a seven-game losing streak during the last week of September—even more horrific than the Mets' 0-5 finish last season, when they blew a shot at the wild card—brought all the doubts about Valentine's character and his ability to manage a ball club bubbling to the surface. He had long been accused of over-managing, and now nearly every move he made, no matter how firmly grounded, backfired. He had long been accused of manipulating the truth, and now nothing he said was taken at face value. He had long been accused of exhibiting a Nixonian paranoia, and in Philadelphia that, too, began to surface in his running battle with the New York press.
After the 3-2 loss to the Phillies, Valentine sits at his desk, cutting a solitary figure amid furniture stained by dirt and sweat. A harsh fluorescent light washes over his head. Valentine talks a little about the coming day off he'll spend with family and friends in Connecticut. But it's difficult to just chitchat; no one knows better than he that few managers can survive such disastrous finishes two years running. Suddenly he blurts out, "How about that f——— asshole that comes in here and says, 'You said you felt good yesterday. How do you feel today?'—and looks at his buddy and laughs?" Valentine stands up, grinning. "I could stand up and say, As soon as I whack you and see you on the ground, I'll feel really good,' " he says. "They wait until the end, wait until you get to a breaking point and your guard's a little down, and then they throw it out there." Valentine sits again, bows his head over the desk and shakes it hard. In a raspy voice, barely audible, he says, "God, what a game. What a stupid game."
This wasn't the first time I'd seen Valentine hit a wall. Stamford is no one's idea of a glamorous town, so 19 years ago, when its biggest celebrity opened a restaurant and bar, Bobby Valentine's Sports Gallery Cafe, the place became an instant happening. Never mind that there were bums cadging money in the nearby park and a porn theater across the street and hookers in the neighborhood who serviced the truckers exiting I-95; Bobby V's was a big lunchtime draw and did huge business on weekends. The bar's combination of sports memorabilia, good food and lax doormen brought in the high school and college crowds (the drinking age in Connecticut was 18 then, and so was I), and Valentine was always there, 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., clambering up ladders, emptying ashtrays, pouring drinks.
He had retired a year earlier after a 62-game season with the Seattle Mariners, just 30 years old, and I remember watching him flirt with the girls, smother one minor flare-up after another, and thinking it was sad to see him back in town. The idea that you could get out of Stamford and become famous and still end up slinging drinks in a grungy neighborhood left a nagging discomfort. If even Bobby Valentine couldn't get away for good, what hope was there for the rest of us?
He had been, simply, the town's gold standard. Sitting just 40 minutes from New York, Stamford has long been perceived by outsiders as a rich and leafy suburb on the order of Greenwich or New Canaan, an enclave dominated by the executives of its dozens of corporate headquarters. But in Valentine's time, from the 1960s (when TIME described it as "a dingy factory town") to the '90s (when Rolling Stone dubbed it the Big Empty), much of Stamford was actually working class, its most famous product the 5'10" son of a carpenter. From the time he was a teenager, Valentine was seen as a civic treasure, something to be protected; when, one night, crosstown high school rival Bennett Salvatore, now an NBA referee, was horsing around with the 16-year-old Valentine and accidentally hit him in the eye, all he could think was, I just hurt Bobby Valentine. I just ended Mr. Baseball's career.
Everything came easy: Valentine won a national ballroom dancing title at 14, a pancake-eating contest at 18, and in the downtime between making himself a baseball legend and winning the state's 60-yard dash title he also became one of the most sought-after football players in Connecticut history. He scored 53 touchdowns for Rippowam High and was named all-state three times—a distinction still unmatched. "If anyone has a chance to be the next O.J. Simpson," USC coach John McKay said at the time, "it's Valentine."
Valentine chose instead to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who picked him fifth in the 1968 draft and gave him a $65,000 signing bonus. In spring training general manager Al Campanis would point him out as the future captain of the team that would include Ron Cey, Steve Garvey and Davey Lopes. It didn't matter that injuries would soon diminish his talent or that Dodgers manager Walter Alston had no use for his cockiness or that some teammates couldn't stand his popping off; in Stamford, Valentine could do no wrong. His father covered the lights outside his house with globes painted to look like baseballs, and the young men who would later buy drinks from Bobby V were just larger versions of the boys who made their parents drive slowly past the house on Stillwater Road, slow enough so they could stare at the lights.
"The basketball coach at Rip got annoyed at me once and said, 'Who do you think you are, Bobby Valentine?' " says Frank Ramp-pen, a baseball star at Rippowam in the mid-'70s who went on to play Double A ball for the Minnesota Twins. "I said, 'I'd like to be.' " Ramppen settled for the next best thing: He now manages Valentine's restaurant. It's an easier job today than it used to be. In 1983 Valentine was arrested for disturbing the peace when he tried to chase a pair of prostitutes away from the restaurant door; Keith Hernandez had been propositioned that night, and Valentine lost control. The police came, let the girls walk and hauled Valentine off to jail. He paced his cell for an hour, bellowing, "Oh, you've got a lot of f——— nerve!" before realizing at 4 a.m. that it wasn't getting him anywhere. He asked for the phone and—with his wife, Mary, at home and beginning to worry—used his one call to wake up the mayor, Louis Clapes. "You're going to have a situation," Valentine told him. Valentine was released almost immediately, and the charges were later dismissed.
"There's been a real comeback in that part of town the last six years," Salvatore says. "Bobby helped spearhead the movement to clean it up. I can't tell you how much this town is wrapped up in the Mets right now because of Bobby, because he never forgot where he came from. My father's 85 years old and doesn't see very well. He waits all day long to sit in front of the TV and listen to Bobby Valentine's games, and he's not the only guy in Stamford who does that."
Three days later, on Sept. 24, I take a train to Philly to catch up with Valentine as the Mets open their series at Veterans Stadium. It is, according to media relations director Jay Horwitz, a horrible time to try to talk to him. Aside from the three-game spanking the Mets just took from Atlanta, there's also a cover story in the current Sporting News asking, WHY DOES EVERYONE HATE BOBBY V?