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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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Initial Gains

Though it took Bobby Valentine 12 seasons to reach the playoffs as a manager, his records in Texas and New York compare favorably with those of his immediate predecessors and successors. In the short term here's how Bobby V stacked up:

YEAR

MANAGER

WINNING PCT.

RANGERS

1984

Doug Rader

.429 (69-92)

1985

Rader

.281 (9-23)

1985

Valentine

.411 (53-76)

1986

Valentine

.537 (87-75)

RANGERS

1991

Valentine

.525 (85-77)

1992

Valentine

.523 (45-41)

1992

Toby Harrah

.421 (32-44)

1993

Kevin Kennedy

.531 (86-76)

METS

1995

Dallas Green

.479 (69-75)

1996

Green

.450 (59-72)

1996

Valentine

.387 (12-19)

1997

Valentine

.543 (88-74)

Bobby Valentine is dangling. This is last Saturday night, late, and he has no way of knowing that within 48 hours he will make the playoffs for the first time in his career. He doesn't know yet that the Mets will complete their sweep of the Pirates in the season's final series tonight to set up a playoff against the Reds—a game they will win with absurd ease on Monday night. All he knows tonight is that everything big in his baseball life hangs oddly in the balance: his job, his career, his reputation. Is he on the verge of misery or joy? Will his Mets win or lose? Will he be back next year or never manage again? Who can say?

Valentine is sitting in his office at Shea Stadium. Tonight's 7-0 victory over Pittsburgh has pulled the Mets even with Cincinnati for the wild-card slot, the latest turnaround in a two-week yo-yo ride for the New York fans. Since Sept. 21, the Mets have lost eight out of nine to blow a cushy four-game lead over Cincinnati, but now they're making a dramatic stand against the Pirates that, combined with the Reds' sudden collapse, may land New York a postseason berth. "We're getting closer," Valentine says.

He looks around the room at the faces of those who have rushed in to support him: his wife, Mary, from Texas, and her sister, Patti, from Florida; his older brother, Joe, with the features so much like their father's, and close friend Doug Romano, both from nearby Stamford, Conn. Valentine says that Joe hasn't brought much luck in his two previous visits. On the first one, when Bobby was an outfielder with the California Angels, Joe saw his little brother suffer a dislocated shoulder in an on-field fight. On Joe's second visit, Bobby got fired as manager of the Texas Rangers.

Everybody laughs at this, surprisingly loose, happy. "Joe's always been there," Valentine says. "If ever there's something I need, he bails me out." Bobby's been getting phone calls from Stamford people down the stretch, from guys he hasn't heard from in years, from one friend in Hong Kong. Maybe it's all good karma. Maybe it will all be enough to push the Mets over the top...or maybe not. So Mary checks the manager's ticket list for Sunday. It will be the final scheduled game of the regular season. She scribbles down a name.

"We're putting Mickey on the list," she says to her husband.

"Yeah, we talked about that," he says. "We need Mickey tomorrow." Next to the name, Mary writes a memo for the ticket office: "Don't have to be good seats."

This is how it is before the most important game of Valentine's life. His family is with him, his hometown is with him, and all that's left to say is some kind of prayer. So Bobby Valentine leaves two tickets for a dead man.

A week earlier, as the losses were piling up—three, four, five in a row—Valentine had been reduced to a series of closely watched tics: an eyebrow flicking erratically skyward, a smile growing so tight that it looked as if his face would burst. A 24-hour stretch during the last weekend in September at Philadelphia had been extraordinary: The Phillies shutting down the Mets 4-2; Valentine declaring that he should be fired as manager if his team failed to make the playoffs and then striding through the clubhouse jauntily snapping his fingers and grinning as if delighted by that notion; Valentine awakening to a New York Post column headlined, WHY WAIT? CAN THE PHONY NOW!; and, finally, the Mets losing again to the Phillies, apparently ready to complete a stretch-drive collapse for the second straight year.

New York had a chance to tie or win that game in the ninth: bases loaded, one out, down 3-2. The momentum, it seemed, was finally shifting the Mets' way. Then Rickey Henderson grounded into a double play. "I thought we were going to hit for half an hour," Valentine said to the reporters in the manager's office afterward. Long, awkward silences followed each of his answers. Someone said, "You said you felt good yesterday. How do you feel today?" and Valentine winced. All that odd buoyancy from the day before was gone. Just six games to go now, and next up: a three-game series with the hot and fearless Atlanta Braves. After everyone else drifted out of his office, Valentine looked at me. "Maybe it's your fault," he said. Maybe he was kidding, but he was not smiling.

I had come to Philadelphia by way of Stamford, Valentine's hometown, and mine as well. Like his old teammates and friends there who had been awed by Bobby V over the past 35 years, I hit mid-September sure that the 1999 playoffs would belong to him. Why not? We'd all grown up watching him, the most celebrated schoolboy star ever to come out of the state, and if Valentine hadn't achieved the greatness everyone once expected, we were sure it wasn't because of anything he lacked. Wasn't Valentine batting .302 for the Angels on May 17, 1973, when he suffered a gruesome compound fracture of his right leg in a collision with the centerfield wall at Anaheim Stadium? Didn't everyone concede his baseball knowledge and drive, even while he managed overmatched teams in Texas and New York (chart, page 78)? This time, though, it seemed Valentine finally had all the pieces: baseball's best infield, a decent pitching staff, superstars such as Henderson and catcher Mike Piazza turning in huge years, not to mention the most dramatic turnaround of the baseball season. After a 27-28 start prompted general manager Steve Phillips to fire three of his coaches on June 5, Valentine stated that he should be replaced if the Mets did not dramatically improve over the next 55 games. The team then responded with an amazing 40-15 run. For the first time in his 12-year career as a major league manager, Valentine was heading for the playoffs. At 49, he was going to make it to the top, just the way Bobby V was always supposed to.

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