Valentine is, obviously, the most controversial manager in the game today, and though there is a large part of him that relishes the title—he occasionally introduces himself as the Most Hated Man in Baseball—he monitors all criticism with the meticulous-ness of a medieval scholar. Valentine's father-in-law, Ralph Branca, the former Dodgers pitcher immortalized for serving up the pitch that Bobby Thomson hit for a pennant-winning home run in 1951, helps by scanning the Internet. "People just feel the need to tell you about these awful articles," says Mary Valentine. "I tell Dad I really don't want to know."
A few hours before game time, Valentine is lying on the dugout steps doing a series of leg lifts. He has recently had arthroscopic surgery to repair ligament damage in his left knee, but even 26 years after the crash it is his right leg that catches your eye. The broken bone was set wrong, throwing off Valentine's stride so drastically that during his comeback he would sometimes trip and fall while trying to run to first. "When I saw that," says Branca, "I cried." Even now the right calf remains shrunken, and there's a baseball-sized mass of bone protruding off the shin. He gasps lightly each time he raises his leg.
I have spoken to him a couple of times over the years but only casually, so I sit in the dugout and mention all the people we have in common. I work the Stamford connection hard because I know he is worried and suspicious, and because I know he will give in. Everyone in baseball says so: No matter how embattled, Valentine is incapable of saying no to someone from home. So I tell him of the people I've talked to there, and when I say that Salvatore was fair in his comments about him, Valentine lifts an eyebrow and says, "Probably overly fair. Because he doesn't know me."
I've never seen anyone find fault with fair remarks, but Valentine has a point. No matter how much they support him, the people in Stamford don't have to live with the Bobby Valentine who runs the Mets, a man whose abrasiveness inspires personal attacks from former players such as Pete Harnisch and Todd Hundley. They have never stood on the mound and heard Valentine sneer at their courage, which makes many teams want to beat New York if only to wipe that smirk off his face. Some players, such as current Mets benchwarmer Bobby Bonilla, even want to pummel him. But to the folks back home Valentine will always be the high school hero made good. They weren't there when he alienated Alston by openly politicking for Tommy Lasorda to take over as manager and got himself traded from the Dodgers; or when he roved around as an instructor for the Padres and the Mets; or, after managing the Rangers for seven years, when he spent the mid-1990s eating crow in two minor league managerial stints for the Mets in Norfolk, Va., and, in between, one season in Japan.
Valentine came back to the majors from Triple A Norfolk in August 1996, replacing Dallas Green as New York skipper. When I walked into the Veterans Stadium pressroom, I bumped into Green, the manager of the 1980 world champion Phillies whose four seasons running the Mets were undistinguished. Green, now an adviser with the Phils, said, "I don't want to talk about Bobby Valentine. I wouldn't waste my time. Besides, it wouldn't be printable." His loathing stems from his belief that Valentine undermined him. When I ask Valentine about this the next morning, he dismisses the idea—and then he dismisses Green.
"Dallas is counterfeit," Valentine says. "He looks good, and it stops there. I was in spring training with Dallas, and he didn't know a relay play from a relay race. It's that simple. He went around yelling at players and saying how bad they were. In meetings he would berate guys and his coaches...ah, I don't want to go into that. But he has a lot of allies in the game."
Valentine, of course, has few allies in baseball—and the number is shrinking fast. He is not, as he says, a member of the managing "fraternity," and he doesn't really care. Few in baseball work as hard at getting the edge on opponents, at studying videotape, and Valentine's grating personality and competitive fury are conducive to rumors about the Mets' stealing signs or even bugging the opponent's dugout at Shea Stadium. Valentine is up front about the signs; he personally designed a remote-control three-camera system that was installed at the stadium in 1997. "They're teaching tools, but if there's anything else you can see on those cameras, after the game I look for it," he says. "I do that every day that I manage. I'd do anything I could to steal signs. We had a little thing where someone on my team thought Chipper Jones was catching signs. My feeling is, shame on us, not shame on him. It's part of the game. Any way you can do it." As for bugs in the dugout, Valentine says, "No, that's silly." Then he adds cryptically, "I mean, I don't think so."
Even when he pays someone a compliment, it comes out snarky; recently Valentine said he thought Atlanta's Bobby Cox should be named National League Manager of the Year "because he's had to manage this year." It doesn't matter that until Monday, Valentine had managed 1,703 games without making the playoffs. He says what he thinks, and the subtext tends to be: The only genius in this game is me. "I don't need my competition to like me," he says. "But a lot of them just absolutely fear that someday they're going to have to be on a panel with me or something, and they'll just be exposed. That's a bad statement. I know that. But I think it's absolutely true.
"I don't know what arrogant means. I don't appreciate people who cover or coach baseball not knowing what they're talking about. It's not that tough. It's not like I have any secret answers; it's just that I have worked a little harder than most to grasp the simple ideas of baseball. People say I'm arrogant when someone who's a newspaperman or sportscaster or someone in uniform says something really dumb, and I'm supposed to accept it? I don't accept that."
His players are a different story. He has to live and the with them, so Valentine is ever conscious of where the lines fall, how the factions form. In this clubhouse he loves Piazza, outfielder Darryl Hamilton, first baseman John Olerud, third baseman Robin Ventura and pitchers Orel Hershiser, Puck Reed and Masato Yoshii—"Not just good guys, good stock," Valentine says—and worries about the influence someone like Bonilla can wield. The 36-year-old Bonilla has had an awful year in 1999; virtually untradable because of his two-year, $11.8 million contract, injured and overweight, he has produced little, refused to pinch-hit at least once and challenged Valentine to fight him in the dugout during a July win over the Yankees. "Get your ass back in the clubhouse where you've been the past two weeks!" Valentine said then, and most private and public opinion ran in his favor. But when his season looked as if it was coming apart, Valentine wasn't sure that Bonilla wouldn't somehow undermine him. As we speak at the Vet, a players-only meeting is under way in the Mets' clubhouse. Valentine is sure that if the losing continues, Bonilla's influence will only grow.