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Bobby Valentine

February 14, 2012

Between the two of them, Maury Wills and Bill Russell handled the great majority of the shortstop duties for the Los Angeles Dodgers franchise over the first two and a half decades of its existence. Wills arrived in 1959, the team’s second year in Los Angeles, and captained the infield until being traded away before the 1967 season; he returned to the Dodgers in 1969 and remained the starter until 1972, when Bill Russell took over the job for the next twelve years.

Before the 1971 season, the player pictured here arrived in Dodgers camp with the conviction that he would shoulder aside fellow up and comer Russell while wrestling the starting job away from the aging Wills. He mentions both players by name in a February 23, 1971, article titled “Valentine Confident”:

I realize you don’t just step in and move out a star like Maury Wills, but I suspect one of us will be moving to another position. I’m aware that the Dodgers want to make a shortstop out of Bill Russell and move me to third base. Well, no way. I intend to be the Dodgers shortstop for many years.

He can’t be faulted for being confident. He’d been a legendary multisport high school athlete and had just come off a spectacular season at the Dodgers Triple A affiliate where he’d batted .340 with 39 doubles, 16 triples, 14 home runs, and 29 stolen bases. He had also bounced back from two horrific injuries, first from a beaning that came within a quarter inch of killing him and next from an injury to his leg that had doctors seriously wondering whether he’d ever play again. These things didn’t stop him. What chance did Maury Wills or Bill Russell have?

This card from the dusky latter stages of the 1970s makes plain that Valentine’s day never arrived. He’s not wearing Dodgers blue, for one thing, and the “OF” position indicator inside the little baseball icon dangling like a washed-out Christmas ornament from his bat shows that he ended up getting moved as far from shortstop as is humanly possible in baseball without moving a player entirely off the diamond. That latter move is not far away, either, at least going on the diminishing playing time suggested by the meager stream of numbers on the back of the card. The numbers are framed above by personal info, including that Valentine was drafted #1 by the Dodgers, and below by some space-filling prose that has nothing to do with Valentine’s on-field accomplishments: “Bobby’s father-in-law is Ralph Branca, former big league pitcher, 1944–1956.” You might think this gap between great expectations and (at least in terms of his own bold estimations at the start of the career now about end) trivial accomplishment would gnaw at a guy from inside. Valentine does look a little worn on the front of the card, but despite his somewhat forlorn and abandoned surroundings he doesn’t look beaten. By now he knows the drill, so the photographer probably didn’t even have to tell him to pretend he’s waiting for a pitch. He takes his stance and glares out at nothing as if it’s not nothing.

5 comments

  1. hard to not admire the kind of intensity you desribe through valentine’s look on the card
    and what an amazing way you close this post “glares out at nothing as if it’s not nothing.”
    very inspiring
    and no mention of valentine appearing on valentine’s day.
    even more inspiring.


  2. Nice observation of a guy who literally throws himself into whatever he’s doing. He really embodied the role of Mets manager like no one I’ve ever seen. You never felt like you’d lose because the other manager outsmarted him. It doesn’t seem like much until you compare the level of confidence in that regard you’d surrender to Art Howe or Jerry Manuel.

    Red Sox fans are luckier than they know.


  3. Yeah, I’m psyched he’s with the Bosox now. I lived in NYC during Valentine’s tenure with the Mets, so I know that even if things don’t work out it’ll at least be highly entertaining.


  4. … On May 12, 1973, the California Angels, managed by Bobby Winkles, were trying to right their ship after five consecutive defeats. Before the losing streak started, the Angels were 13-8, in third place but just two games out of first. After it, California had fallen to 13-13, and dropped to fourth place, six games out.

    Winkles was a first-year manager in the major leagues. He was plucked from the college ranks the year before, after serving as Arizona State’s legendary head baseball coach; Winkles was the man who christened the strong ASU baseball program. Because of his exclusively collegiate background, there were questions about the level of respect he would command in a major league dugout, particularly from one 37-year-old veteran player named Frank Robinson. Robinson was headed for the Hall of Fame, and naturally commanded tremendous respect among his peers. Before long, the rumours were that the Angels had split themselves into two factions – “Bobby’s guys” and “Robby’s guys”.

    So, with the Angels falling off of their strong pace to start the season, perhaps Winkles was feeling the pressure on that May 12 in Anaheim. His ace pitcher, Nolan Ryan, had lost the day before, and it was up to the Angels’ number two starter, Clyde Wright, to … well … right the ship. California took a 2-1 lead into the top of the fourth, but Wright gave up three runs (one of them scoring on a throwing error from the outfield) and the Angels found themselves behind, 4-2. Winkles, perhaps showing panic and a quick hook, pulled Wright from the game and replaced him with Dave Sells.

    The Angels fought back to tie the game in the bottom of the fourth, and later went back ahead. The score was 6-4 in the top of the seventh with Dick Allen on first. Bill Melton hit a grounder to Bobby Valentine at short. Valentine fielded the ball and promptly threw it away, so far away that Allen scored from first, turning the game into a one-run affair. It was Valentine’s sixth error in 25 games. Bobby’s last error had come three days before, on the ninth, and it had caused a run to score as well.

    The Angels went on to win the May 12 game, 6-5, ending their losing streak.

    On May 13, Valentine got the start in center field for the first time in 1973. Rudy Meoli was at short. The Angels won the game, 3-0, committing no errors. They won again on the 14th. On the 15th, Ryan tossed a no-hitter. On the 16th, the Angels won again. They had won four errorless games in a row, and fought their way back to second place and two games out of first. Winkles’ move seemed to be working.

    On May 17, playing center field, Valentine suffered the terrible injury to his leg that would ruin his career. The Angels lost, lowering their record to four games above .500, at 18-14. The Angels would finish 1973 at four games under .500, at 79-83. Valentine and Winkles returned for 1974, but Winkles was fired before the halfway point with the Angels in last place.

    Did Winkles overreact back in May of 1973? Who knows. That’s baseball.


  5. Josh,

    You have been on quite a roll these past few weeks! Thank you for all the great posts. Maybe Bobby is looking at nothing but it still doesn’t phase him. Just watched the movie wall street this past week and a great line from Hal holbrook’s character applies here to your post and to Bobby:
    “Man looks into the Abyss, and there’s nothin’ staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character, and that’s what keeps him out of the Abyss.” You can say a lot about Bobby but one thing you can’t say is his doesn’t have character.

    Dave



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