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VALENTINE'S DAY
S. L. Price
October 11, 1999
HIS LEGION OF CRITICS REVELED IN HIS LATE-SEASON MISERY, BUT METS MANAGER BOBBY VALENTINE, PLAYOFF BOUND, HAD THE LAST LAUGH
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October 11, 1999

Valentine's Day

HIS LEGION OF CRITICS REVELED IN HIS LATE-SEASON MISERY, BUT METS MANAGER BOBBY VALENTINE, PLAYOFF BOUND, HAD THE LAST LAUGH

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The second Valentine, of course, didn't have it so easy. He came back after shattering his right leg to play for six seasons but was never the same. He needed an orthopedic lift in his shoe to help him walk evenly; his first marriage to a Stamford girl fell apart; his golden future transmuted to lead. Bobby V was not an ordinary player who always knew he would have to scrap his way into a lineup; he was a superstar turned role player overnight, an action junkie unable to act. His sense of superiority remained, but now the only outlet was his mouth. "You'll never make it out of the fourth inning!" Valentine screamed at Florida Marlins pitcher Al Leiter from the dugout in 1997. "I looked over and said, 'Is that the manager?' " says Leiter, now a Mets starter and the man Valentine handed the ball for the climactic playoff game in Cincinnati.

The manager held tight the hometown ties, and not just to keep his restaurant humming. During his first few seasons in Texas, in the mid-'80s, Valentine met every few weeks with his "backroom advisers"—former managers Paul Richards and Bobby Bragan—to kick around strategy. In New York he constantly bounced ideas off Robson, but more and more he turned to Mickey Lione, a Stamford coaching legend 11 years Valentine's senior. It was an unorthodox choice. Lione had coached champions in the small-time worlds of Babe Ruth baseball and high school baseball and hockey, and had none of the credentials of the usual old hands who hang around the big leagues. Yet Valentine kept Lione close. He had hired him as a manager at the restaurant a decade earlier, and after a while came to depend on seeing him in his Shea Stadium office after every home game, where the two would toss around questions about tactics, clubhouse politics, coaching.

"Mickey was able to feel situations," Valentine says. "He knew my environment, and he knew me in that environment: He could feel it. He'd feel personalities in the clubhouse, say, 'What's his problem?' and after two days, he'd say, 'You got a situation over there.' That's how I learned. It's intimate stuff, and to share it is rare."

It's as if, to survive in New York, the second Valentine needed the first, needed to see Stamford faces while navigating the boiler-room pressure. Valentine had looked up to Lione since he'd seen him play as a boy. When, last winter, what was supposed to be a routine hernia operation evolved into Lione's losing battle with cancer, Valentine felt something irreplaceable slipping away. For weeks, doctors at Stamford Hospital puzzled over the case. Lione couldn't eat, and yet his body grew bloated. On one visit, after feeding Lione himself by hand, Valentine raged up and down the hospital hallway, screaming, "How can you think this is normal? This is an emergency! I want you to do something!"

Lione died last February, leaving Valentine to navigate this turbulent season alone. "For what Mickey did and what he meant to me, he doesn't have to be here to influence me," Valentine says. "He doesn't have to be here today for me to feel it."

Bobby Valentine is dangling still. This is Sunday evening, and he has now managed a full slate of 162 games, winning four of his last five to erase the late-season gag-tag—-and he still doesn't know if he'll finally make it to the postseason. He doesn't know that in Monday night's playoff, Leiter, the onetime object of his derision, will shut out the Reds on two hits, 5-0. All he knows is that his Mets just beat the Pirates for the third straight time, 2-1, when Brad Clontz bounced a ninth-inning, bases-loaded pitch to the backstop. As Clontz, who had just entered the game, was about to make his first and only delivery to Piazza, Valentine bellowed: Be alive for-the wild pitch! "I do it every time a guy's on third," he says proudly. "And I do it so the pitcher hears me."

He'd come to Shea early this morning, and soon an express-mail package arrived with the return address smudged out. He guessed it was hate mail and almost didn't open it, then figured, What the hell. Out spilled two cards from Bobby Jr. in Texas. "Hang in there!" said one. Not wanting his players to see, Valentine went into the bathroom before allowing himself to cry.

After the game Branca stood in the tunnel outside the clubhouse door. No one expected him. He'd been in New Jersey for an autograph signing with Bobby Thomson; this was Oct. 3, of course, the 48th anniversary of Thomson's homer. The door opened, and Valentine emerged. They embraced. During Valentine's press conference, co-owner Fred Wilpon abruptly glided in and also wrapped him in a hug; and later Phillips reiterated Wilpon's claim that Valentine would be back next season.

Problem is, no one in the Mets organization has bothered to ask Valentine if he wants to be back. In truth those closest to Valentine would be stunned to see him return next season. Some say that he hasn't been himself since Phillips fired his coaches. The Bobby they know is too loyal, too wedded to his own ideas of right and wrong, to have done anything but quit in disgust; many of them feel he is bitter because he didn't. "Having his coaches fired like that is the toughest thing he has ever experienced as a manager," says Mary Valentine, who still wants her husband to quit.

Valentine walks over to his desk and holds up a large, grainy, black-and-white photo: "Isn't this something?" he says. It's a picture of him when he was a Dodger, sometime back in '71 or '72, sitting on the set of the Mets' postgame TV show, Kiner's Korner, with host Ralph Kiner and Dodgers pitcher Jim Brewer, now dead. "He got the save and I got the game-winning hit," Valentine says. "Off Tom Seaver." He grins. His parents, Joe and Grace, snapped the picture off the television screen, capturing in blurry perfection their son when he was a mop-haired star on the rise, until now the closest he ever got to being everything Bobby V was supposed to be.

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