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Leading citizen

The new man at the helm of the Red Sox is a larger-than-life figure in his hometown of Stamford, Conn. - an athletic and civic icon

Now that he’s become manager of the Red Sox, patrons of Bobby Valentine’s bar in Stamford, Conn., will see less of Valentine - for a while, anyway. Now that he’s become manager of the Red Sox, patrons of Bobby Valentine’s bar in Stamford, Conn., will see less of Valentine - for a while, anyway. (File/Paul Desmarais/The Stamford Advocate)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / December 1, 2011
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STAMFORD, Conn. - This is home. This is the place he loves, the place that loves him. This is the place where, no matter what happens, the controversies and failures, the enmity and injuries, Bobby Valentine can be the person, the star, he was always meant to be. The awe still lives here, the wonder, the adulation.

This is home. This is where Bobby Valentine is - and always will be - everything.

He is who he is because of Stamford. Here he is deified, always has been. His star has been bright as long as anyone can remember, from the first days he showed athletic promise, in baseball and football and track. It is the foundation of everything he is, including the parts that don’t win him favor, the brashness, the bluster.

When asked if there’s anything at which Valentine doesn’t excel, if there’s a place where his talents fall short, his friend of 30-plus years, Frank Ramppen, begins to chuckle.

“I’m glad you asked,’’ he said. “He has a terrible sense of direction.’’

And? Could that be it?

It’s not, of course. And yet, here, where the newly named Red Sox manager remains a friend to everyone, where the hands extend to him before the mayor, his place is simple, assured, unchanging. As Stamford Chief of Police Robert Nivakoff said, “He’s iconic here.’’

“I’ve only known him as this big person,’’ said Ramppen, the current president of Bobby Valentine’s Sports Academy in Stamford. “I don’t think he’s arrogant, I think he’s incredibly smart and talented and confident. Is that something that people perceive as arrogance? Probably.

“It’s just where he lives, it’s the life that he’s so used to. I think it’s where he likes being, he’s comfortable there.’’

It is where he can shake off the injuries that cost him his career as a player, the criticisms and mixed opinions of those inside and outside of baseball, the sometimes stormy relationships with those around him.

Here he is Bobby Valentine, bright and shiny, hero and friend, the guy who buses food and tries his hand at cooking at the neighborhood bar - the one that happens to be owned by him - the guy who pushes out stuck motorists during a snowstorm and gives back in time and dollars and 3 a.m. texts to the mayor about communications in the fire department.

“Bobby is Bobby,’’ said that mayor, Mike Pavia. “He’s big as life. He’s out there, and what you see is what you get.’’

Quite an impression

As you drive around the city, every ball field attracts your attention, every one a potential site of the feats that seem to grow to legendary status. Valentine is arguably the best schoolboy athlete ever to come out of the state of Connecticut, a man destined for greatness on a diamond, and even better on the gridiron.

Even the statue of a young ballplayer near City Hall provokes the question: Is that Bobby? Could it be?

(It is not. The statue is of Jackie Robinson, who called Stamford home from his playing days with the Brooklyn Dodgers until his death.)

He was, in some ways, a legend even before anyone had seen him play.

His name came up, over and over, at varsity football practice when he was still on the freshman team at now-closed Rippowam High School. The coach seemed enamored, comparing his varsity players to this Valentine, and they often suffered in the comparison. They didn’t understand. They had never seen him play.

Until he got a chance at a punt return, seven or eight games into that freshman season. He caught the ball on the 20-yard line, ran up the middle, cut right, fast to the outside, and kept going, 80 yards for the touchdown.

“We all look at ourselves and say, ‘So that’s who Valentine is,’ ’’ said Dennis Eveleigh, then a senior on the team, now a Connecticut Supreme Court justice.

“My initial impression was he was the best athlete I’d ever seen and one of the fastest runners I’ve ever seen, who could cut on a dime,’’ Eveleigh said. “He was remarkable.

“He never quit. He was in every game. He never took an at-bat off. He was hustle all the way through. There was only one way he would play the game and that’s all-out.’’

He was good enough to be recruited to play tailback at Southern Cal, good enough to be considered the heir to the spot held by a pretty darn good back, O.J. Simpson. He opted instead for baseball and the Dodgers, for a career that would never quite follow through on all that promise and all that talent, injuries robbing him of what everyone back in Stamford had expected.

The talent, though, is not the enduring image for Eveleigh. It’s something else.

The captain of the baseball team was responsible for bringing all the gear out to the field before practice, responsible for packing it up after. It was his job, and his alone. Valentine, though, was always there, before and after.

“That always struck me,’’ Eveleigh said. “Everybody knew he was going to be a star and most everybody knew he was going to play pro, even at that time. But here he was helping me pack the balls and the bats and lugging the equipment back.’’

And nearly 50 years later, it seems that hasn’t stopped in Stamford.

Valuable and visible

There is so much of him here, in his restaurant, in his sports academy, in his position in the mayor’s cabinet. He is no figurehead. He is the one talking to Little Leagues, attending dinners, tending bar, the one who takes pressure off Pavia in the community.

“Everybody wants you at their event,’’ Pavia said. “They want you at ribbon cutting, they want you at a child’s graduation, they want you at a play. They want to see you.

“Fortunately for me, he likes to be out in the public, so we’ve been double-teaming. He’s doing things for me when I can’t make it. And people are happy - in fact, they’re more happy to see him than they are to see me.’’

And Bobby Valentine always has been happy to be seen.

There will be less time for him here, though, less time to be part of the everyday life of Stamford. The city will have to say goodbye to its director of public safety, health and welfare, a position Valentine has held since January, an appointment that brought with it criticism, as he came without experience in running a police department or a fire department or a health department. And yet, he has won most everyone over, his management abilities smoothing over his lack of relevant experience.

“He makes people who live in Stamford very proud to know him or to have him associated with the city of Stamford,’’ Pavia said. “He’s the kind of guy, he has celebrity status, but yet he’ll walk the streets.’’

They will see less of him at his bar, at Bobby V’s, a place that, like Valentine himself, is hardly of the corporate variety. It’s a little dingy, a little tarnished, a little battered. It is covered in memorabilia - very little of it from Boston - much of which includes Valentine’s face.

It is a place that, as much as any in Stamford, has been home to Valentine, where he has pitched in at just about every job, from bartender to busboy, a place where he has made some of his craziest ideas come true. (Like, for instance, the Super Bowl Sunday when Valentine insisted they move the actual bar from another restaurant he owned in Queens to the one in Stamford. It was installed by the time they opened.)

The bar is home. The ball fields are home. The city is home. Because wherever he goes - Los Angeles, New York, Japan, now Boston - he never stays forever. In the end, he always returns.

“I think Bobby means a tremendous amount to the city of Stamford,’’ Ramppen said. “As big as he’s gotten and as far as his career has taken him, he always came back home.

“There’s no doubt about it that Stamford, Conn., is more vibrant and alive when Bobby’s in town. There’s no doubt.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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