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Dan Shaughnessy

Glowing words all around as Red Sox pass the torch

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / December 2, 2011
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Nine weeks and one day after their season imploded at Camden Yards in Baltimore, the Red Sox finally stopped looking back and started looking ahead when they named Bobby Valentine as the franchise’s 45th manager late yesterday afternoon at Fenway Park.

“One of the best parts of today is that it brings some closure to 2011 and now we can look forward to 2012,’’ said new Sox general manager Ben Cherington. “Now we have a manager in place who is excited to be here and it feels like a fresh start.’’

Valentine, a 61-year-old native of Stamford, Conn., with 40 years of professional baseball experience (15 seasons as a big league manager) is nothing like Terry Francona, Grady Little, or Jimy Williams. He’s a guy who’ll wear eye-black in the dugout. He’ll refer to himself in the third person. He’ll have an opinion on everything and he’ll make opponents try harder to beat the Red Sox. He will never be boring.

Even the number on his back is provocative. Valentine’s the only Red Sox manager bold enough to wear No. 25, a number many old-time fans think should be retired in honor of the late Tony Conigliaro. Valentine’s favorite number (2) belongs to Jacoby Ellsbury, so he said he’ll wear No. 25 and nod to the legacy of Tony C.

“Bobby Valentine is the right man in the right place at the right time with the right team,’’ said Sox CEO Larry Lucchino. “We are optimistic about our future and so are our fans.’’

Valentine’s introductory press conference was cleverly scheduled for 5:30 p.m., allowing every local television station (and ESPN) to carry it live. Clam chowder and sandwich wraps (rumored to have been invented by Valentine himself) were served and Sox employees papered the house, applauding madly when Bobby V was introduced.

“I am honored, I’m humbled, and I’m pretty damn excited,’’ Valentine said after the applause died down. “I understand how difficult this was for the organization. I understand the rich tradition of baseball in this city, of sports in this community. I understand the great rivalries that this team has, and I understand the great talent that has been assembled here.’’

This was a big moment. How big? John Henry, who hadn’t been seen locally since he burst into the 98.5 The Sports Hub studios in October, interrupted his Liverpool duties to sit in on the presser and Heidi Watney came back for one last round of interviews for NESN.

There was plenty of pomp. After Cherington and Valentine spoke, before they broke away for individual interviews, the new GM and manager posed for a “all hands in’’ photo, flanked by Henry and Lucchino.

Swell stuff. So good, so good, so good. Boston baseball’s winter of defection and discord was badly in need of this Sweet Caroline moment.

But these are still the Red Sox, and behind the back slaps, glad-hands, and frozen smiles lurked some awkward truths, many owed to the protracted process that produced Valentine.

In the face of all evidence, the Sox insist that Valentine is Cherington’s choice. Even though Bobby V wasn’t trotted out with the other five candidates, and even though baseball ops sent Dale Sveum to ownership for a stamp of approval in Milwaukee, the Sox want you to think that Bobby V is Ben’s guy. Everyone in the front office went out of his way to remind us that Ben is in charge.

Asked about the widespread notion that he was overruled by ownership in this hire, Cherington said, “That’s just not true. This was a very thorough process. I made this recommendation to ownership on Monday. That’s the truth. This was a collaborative process.’’

Naturally, Lucchino had the same version.

“That’s a misunderstanding of the process,’’ said the CEO. “Ben recommended this. It was spearheaded by Ben. And highly collaborative.’’

All together now . . . key word: collaborative.

It doesn’t really matter now anyway. If the Sox win the World Series in 2012, no one’s going to quarrel with how long it took to name Valentine. Or who made the call. It’s a little bit like the controversial trade of Hanley Ramirez for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, which was made after Theo Epstein quit in the autumn of 2005. When the Sox won the Series in ’07, backed by Lowell and Beckett, nobody cared who was in charge when that deal went down.

Beckett was one of the players Valentine ripped when he worked as a game analyst for ESPN. Ditto for Carl Crawford.

Bobby V didn’t back down when he was reminded of his criticisms of guys who are now in his clubhouse.

“If people took exception, I get that,’’ said Valentine. “Maybe they’ll tell me it’s OK to have an open stance [Crawford], or to take 20 seconds between pitches [Beckett].’’

When he was asked about his reputation as a “polarizing’’ figure, he said, “I am not the genius I have heard people refer to me as, I am not the polarizing figure I have heard people refer to me as, I am not the monster that breathes fire that I’ve heard people refer to me as.’’

In Rickey Henderson fashion, he also said, “The education of Bobby V on this team, if you will, is going to be in Texas [where baseball’s winter meetings start Monday].’’

“Some things happened in September that I wasn’t involved in,’’ he said. “I didn’t see it firsthand. Maybe this group of guys has a reputation that’s not warranted. There might have been a couple of characters that got out of line, but I wasn’t there.’’

Lucky guy.

But now it’s his job to change the culture of the Red Sox clubhouse.

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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