"You're not dealing with real professionals in the clubhouse," Valentine says. "You're not dealing with real intelligent guys for the most part. A lot can swim, but most of them just float along, looking for something to hold on to. That's why, I'm sure, they're having a players-only meeting. Because there's about five guys in there right now who basically are losers, who are seeing if they can recruit. They actually think there's some accomplishment and some reward in being the BMOC. They don't know that, looking back at it five years from now, that will mean nothing."
His friends, his wife, the guys back home will tell you that Valentine has never been more alone. On June 5, in the midst of another seven-game losing streak, Valentine picked up Newsday and read that pitching coach Bob Apodaca's job was in jeopardy. When he got to the ballpark he denied the report as speculation, then found it to be true and screamed at Phillips in a rage. Gone not only was Apodaca, whom Valentine brought with him from Norfolk, but also longtime confidant and hitting coach Tom Robson and bullpen coach Randy Niemann. Ignoring the custom of allowing a manager to pick his staff, Phillips made Dave Wallace, a player personnel adviser, the new pitching coach (a job he'd held with the Dodgers), and brought in minor-league instructor Mickey Brantley as hitting coach and minor-league pitching coordinator Al Jackson as bullpen coach. Phillips insists to this day that his motives were pure, but many close to Valentine believe the move was designed to embarrass him into resigning.
Valentine believes the world is full of conspiracies, large and small. He's very interested in the next batch of documents the government will release on the Kennedy assassination, and late last month, after a Brewers fan attacked Houston Astros infielder Bill Spiers, Valentine casually said to me, "You see what happened in Milwaukee? First it was kids in school, and now? We're next." On June 9, Valentine got ejected from a game against the Toronto Blue Jays and then showed up in the tunnel to the dugout in a makeshift disguise, wearing a goofy fake mustache and glasses. There was plenty of speculation about his intentions, but you could argue he was just tired of being Bobby V: Target.
In these days of losing streaks and jubilant calls for his head, it's easy for Valentine to wonder whether he should have quit back in June, gotten out before all the conspirators got him at last. "It's not just about my coaches being fired," he says, sitting in front of his hotel in Philly. "It's about never being consulted, never being told, leaking it to the press—how it was done." He mentions Wallace. "My pitching coach now was involved in the decision to fire my hitting coach. If he wasn't part of the solution when he was out of uniform, why wasn't he part of the problem? He was part of the staff."
Valentine is wearing a black leather jacket that seems to swallow him up, make him smaller. He stares out at the hotel driveway. "Half the players probably think I had something to do with it, that I'm totally in agreement with it," he says. "I've had to act like nothing was lost, like we're better for it." He forces a casual shrug. "But what the hey."
At that moment Wallace emerges from the hotel and passes in front of Valentine. The two men exchange pleasantries. Wallace walks off. After a while Valentine says, "I hate surprises."
All controversy stops at the Stamford city line. There is one place left in America where no players question his honesty, where his brashness is a point of pride, where Bobby Valentine is universally loved. It is Saturday night at Mario the Baker on High Ridge Road, the Mets are on TV, and the place is packed with people digging into classic Stamford fare: pizza, lasagna, meatball wedges. "There are two Stamfords," says Al Shanen, Valentine's high school football coach. "The northern part is wealthy, but south of the parkway it has always been blue-collar. And there are two Bobby Valentines: the Bobby who's been thrust into the national limelight, with a personality that maintains stability in the face of his critics. Then there's the other side of Bobby, the good old Italian boy brought up in a small town who never lost sight of his roots. He's a real, honest-to-goodness hometown hero. That will never change in our eyes."
But how well do they really know Valentine? His wife and son, Bobby Jr., live in Arlington, Texas, where Bobby Jr. was born; they plan to stay there until the boy is out of high school. During home-stands Valentine stays in a Westchester County apartment because it's only a 45-minute drive to Shea. Still, he'll show up at the restaurant three times a week, and during lunchtime rushes this season more than one customer has glanced up to find the manager of the Mets bussing his table. He signs autographs endlessly, argues with patrons over his managing moves until they agree. "Stamford is a refueling place—I always get energy from there," Valentine says. "My only real regret in 49 years is that I didn't raise my son there."
Everyone in town speaks of Valentine in glowing terms: He is generous, he is genuine, but most of all, he is loyal. When he heard that Julian Levine, his old doctor, was dying of cancer two summers ago, he called repeatedly and went to sit with him in his hospital room and talk baseball. "Julian was thrilled," says his wife, Carol. "It's a strange thing: Wherever Bobby goes, there's some controversy about his temper or the trouble he gets into. But he's always considerate of the people back here."
Shanen's right: There are two Valentines. The first spent 18 years living without a slump, an injury, or a hostile public—an athletic marvel who also got the lead in the school play and became president of the student council. Valentine grew up in a world that so regularly announced he was more gifted than everyone around him that he took it for granted. "I didn't think I was doing anything special," Valentine says. "I was playing with all the college kids in Cape Cod when I was a high school junior, hitting .300, and thinking, This is easy. I wasn't even trying." In that world, of course, there was never any need for him to deride opponents. "We were rivals, but as far as being malicious or arrogant, he didn't have that reputation growing up," says Rick Robustelli, who quarterbacked the 1967 undefeated Stamford Catholic High football team that crushed Valentine's unbeaten team in what remains the biggest sporting event in city history. "He was always competitive but never hotheaded, never getting on people."