Red Sox whirlwind
New manager Valentine leaves an imprint far and wide
FORT MYERS, Fla. - The early-morning fog is thick enough to obscure the six practice fields in the distance as Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine sits on a folding chair and answers questions from a reporter representing a Japanese magazine.
As the interview concludes, Valentine poses for a photographer, arms folded across his chest, his smile wide and his head cocked to the side.
“How was that?’’ he says in fluent Japanese.
It’s 7:51 a.m., and Valentine has been up for nearly three hours, a 15-mile bicycle ride having preceded the interview along with the one cup of coffee he allows himself each morning.
“So,’’ Valentine says, slapping his hands together so loudly that three birds picking at the grass take flight. “What’s next?’’
In a word: everything.
To watch Valentine over the course of a routine spring training day is to understand that bench coach Tim Bogar may not necessarily be joking when he says, “I think there are two or three of them. He’s everywhere all at once. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.’’
Valentine has stood in the batter’s box to gauge how his pitchers are throwing and throws batting practice to young prospects to see up close what kind of swing they have. Outfielders lining up to catch a fly ball have found him a few feet away with advice on how to make a better throw.
Bobby - only his wife calls him Bob - is intent on putting his fingerprints on every aspect of the team’s preparations for the coming season, even lining up extra spring training games to have more time to install his way of doing things. At 61, Valentine is acutely aware that the talented-but-bruised Red Sox represent his best chance to win the World Series after previous stops with the Rangers and Mets.
Comparisons with former manager Terry Francona are almost unfair. Under Francona, who led the team to two championships, the Red Sox treated spring training as a tedious requisite. The general idea was to avoid injury and brush up on fundamentals.
That worked well for the bulk of Francona’s tenure. But consecutive third-place finishes marked by a historic September collapse last season stamped the Red Sox as a team in need of change. Francona was forced out and Valentine arrived two months later after a drawn-out search.
Valentine, a veteran baseball guy who spent six years managing in Japan and two years with ESPN, was not a conventional choice, given that he had been away from the majors for nearly a decade. But if the tone of spring training is any indication, it appears enlightened. The Red Sox work at such a frenetic pace that golf carts are used to ferry the players from one field to another rather than waste precious minutes wading through the crowds.
Valentine trusts his coaches to run the practices and works as a roving instructor, stopping players for a word of advice or to demonstrate a particular technique. The lessons he learned coming up with the well-drilled Dodgers of 40 years ago he passes on now.
Players who had grown accustomed to Francona’s less frenzied style weren’t sure what to expect from Valentine. But he has already won over the team’s longest-tenured player, David Ortiz, with his approach.
“Bobby is watching every little thing and fixing it now,’’ Ortiz says. “So when the season starts you’re on top of your game. He knows what it takes to get ready for the season. He wants to improve things. Trust me, I’m down with that.’’
As the fog lifts, Valentine grabs a bat and heads for an outlying field to work with left fielder Carl Crawford, an expensive free agent whose first season with the Sox was a failure.
Despite his great speed, Crawford did not have a single bunt hit last season and has only 20 in his 10-year career. A speedy infielder in his youth who was a first-round draft pick of the Dodgers, Valentine cannot fathom wasting such a weapon. So Crawford is getting a private lesson.
“Let the angle of the bat work for you. No poking at the ball,’’ Valentine says as Crawford drops a perfect bunt down. “Nice, Carl. Very nice!’’
Valentine’s distinctive voice - he projects to the crowd with the pitch rising and falling as he hits certain words - draws a crowd of fans, and he scribbles autographs on balls, hats, and wrinkled pieces of paper as he walks from field to field.
Robbie Gravel, a 10-year-old from Ocala, Fla., pushes a ball in Valentine’s direction. Along with an autograph, he gets a lecture about how to hit a baseball with the sweet spot of the bat.
“Are you listening?’’ Valentine says to the suddenly bewildered boy. “That’s where you want to hit the ball.’’
On the move again, Valentine heads for the main stadium, where his best players are working on pop-ups. A seemingly routine play requires exact choreography, lest the players crash into each other while looking skyward.
Jose Iglesias, a 22-year-old shortstop from Cuba, is too quick to call for the ball and Valentine pulls him aside to explain his mistake. A Spanish-speaking coach, Alex Ochoa, is alongside to make sure the message is understood.
“There are times when I’m there that, if you can put an exclamation point on something, I think it’s a good thing to do,’’ Valentine says later. “Jose was saying ‘Yes’ to everything but I wanted to make sure. He knows now. He’ll do it right.’’
The players trudge off the field after running the bases. But Valentine takes a shortcut through the clubhouse to another field and works there with outfielder Ryan Kalish, who is coming back from a shoulder injury.
“He looks pretty healthy to me,’’ Valentine says to nobody in particular.
Over the course of the workout, Valentine speaks individually to 23 players.
“He has told me some little things that really helped. You’re not expecting the manager to pull you aside like that,’’ says Josh Kroeger, an itinerant minor league outfielder who will probably be among the first players cut. “His energy is pretty amazing.’’
As he walks back toward the clubhouse, Valentine tries to downplay his influence on the camp.
“I’ve delegated a lot to my coaches,’’ he says. “The rest? That’s just me. I love this stuff. But it’s not about me. It’s about what we can do as a team.’’
After the workout ends, Valentine meets with his coaches and then with reporters for 20 minutes. Two comments he made the previous day about the Yankees caused a stir in New York and he laughs. Valentine enjoyed making headlines when he was with the Mets and having that power back delights him.
As 3 p.m. approaches, Valentine changes into blue shorts and a tan golf shirt for a commitment across the city. As part of the team’s community outreach program, he is scheduled to speak at an after-school program for children of African and Caribbean descent.
His exit from the park was so quick that Valentine is still wearing black sneakers and low-cut red socks.
In an impoverished section of Fort Myers, where spring training baseball and well-manicured golf courses are a world away, Valentine is a hit. He answers questions, poses for photos and at one point takes to the blackboard to teach a group of 9-year-olds how batting average is determined. Even the teachers are charmed by the gleam in his eyes and his desire to leave the kids with something more than an autograph.
One boy, too shy to talk before now, raises his hand.
“Do you work hard being the coach of the Red Sox?’’ he asks.
“I work as hard as I can with my players to make them better,’’ he says. “But I love it. It’s what I do.’’