Bobby ValentineJune 10, 2009
The major league baseball amateur draft occurred yesterday, the forty-first such draft I’ve lived through, not that I’ve ever paid much attention to any of them. Certainly I was least equipped to fathom the one that occurred in June 1968, when I was a two-month-old blob, so I didn’t understand then or for many years afterward that 1968 first round draft pick Bobby Valentine was, for a while at least, a superstar in the making.
From what I have read about him not only as a baseball player but as an all-around athlete (I think he was particularly good at basketball), the player from baseball history he seems to have most resembled in his golden early years was Pete Reiser, the legendary ambidextrous line-drive smashing speedsteer from the 1940s, whose probable Hall of Fame career was derailed by his penchant for smashing into outfield walls. Like Reiser, Valentine’s athletic ability seemed to suggest he was capable of playing any position on the diamond. Also as in the case of Reiser, it seems in retrospect that it would have been wise to confine Valentine to a position that would keep him away from walls—in 1973, while still in the formative stage of his career, Valentine wrecked his leg in a collision and entanglement with a chain-link fence while trying to catch a ball hit by Dick Green.
After that, Valentine settled into benchwarming utility-man duty for the rest of his career as he drifted from the Angels (who had acquired him from his first team, the Dodgers) to the Padres to the Mets. By the time this 1979 card came out, his playing days were numbered, a fact he seems to be grappling with in a moment that seems emblematic of the general somber tone of the 1979 card set. In 1979, everything was ending. The Three Mile Island nuclear plant melted down, Skylab fell out of the sky, Americans were taken hostage in Iran, disco died a fiery ridiculous death, Jimmy Carter looked weary, and Bobby Valentine wondered who, if not a superstar, he could possibly be. The putrid 1979 Mets let him go in the spring, and he joined the laughably bad Seattle Mariners, for whom he completed his comprehensive career tour of all the fielding positions on the diamond by catching in two games, among other things, none of which ended up staving off the end of his playing days.
In the 1960s he had been a Young Superstar To Be, a perfect representative of the youth-driven, hope-laced times. In the 1970s he was damaged goods, a dream coming up short, a perfect representative of the sullen decade of aftermath. And so in the 1980s, he was reborn a brash, driven yuppie renegade bent on success by any means necessary, his quick rise to managerial success on the major league level like some baseball version of Wall Street meets Top Gun. Such a movie would have to have been called Top Step, after the name by which Valentine was known throughout baseball, a disparaging moniker referring to his gung ho habit of managing games while perched as conspicuously close to the action as he could be while still being nominally within the confines of the dugout.
I don’t feel capable of characterizing the muddy 1990s, but I suppose Valentine could be said to have been in synch with that decade as well as he experienced spotty employment, losing his job in the early 1990s and regaining one in the late 1990s. And if I had to choose an emblematic moment for that era I could do worse than picking the time, ten years ago yesterday, that Bobby Valentine was tossed out of a game and then returned, in disguise, with a blatantly fake mustache and shades, one of the most hilarious baseball moments I’ve ever lived to see.
What is your face before you were born? If any Cardboard God knows the answer to that Zen koan, it would be Bobby Valentine, and not just because he has become a beloved figure in Japan, where perhaps he has begun dabbling in Zen. All his life, Bobby Valentine has put on and taken off face after face. The exile, the iconoclast, the journeyman, the golden boy. The one who keeps getting cast out of the game. The one who keeps finding new ways to come back.