Valentine and Cherington can work in Boston
If winning is the goal, skipper and GM could make beautiful music
It was between innings of a Sunday night game in Anaheim, July 20, 2008. I was sitting at the end of the visitors' dugout when Terry Francona walked down, looked me in the eye and said, "Manny Ramirez is the worst human being I've ever met." He turned and walked back.
At the time, Ramirez was in the process of shooting his way out of Boston, and Francona had been enduring a nightmare trying to keep Manny playing. The moment just burst out, completely out of character, because Francona internalized so much to spin a cocoon around his players in a market where the Red Sox are life and death and the media takes everything personally. To the end, as frustrated and disappointed as he was in a September collapse of epic disappointments, he did his pregame and postgame news conferences and never chucked anyone under the bus.
That cocoon has been lifted, and the culture that Bobby Valentine will bring to Fenway Park, its clubhouse and the Spring Training facility in Fort Myers, Fla., will be very different. There is an earth-shaking rumbling in the baseball underground that this will be a divisive toppling of an organization that prides itself on continuity, an organization that in less than a decade has produced four general managers, one of whom, Ben Cherington, is viewed inside the downstairs bowling alley that houses the baseball-operations staff as the best-prepared and best-tempered of any of the other GMs out of that basement -- not to mention someone versed in scouting, development and all levels of negotiation who has been known to read The Economist at the Boston Sports Club.
Bobby V hits Beantown
The Bobby Valentine hiring has been skewed as Larry Lucchino's grand return to the seat of baseball power on Yawkey Way, a NESN boost, juice for a market that has Belichick and Brady, a Stanley Cup and a recent NBA championship. But this can turn out to be a tremendous hiring if all the side issues are put away and it isn't about anything but a brilliant -- and Valentine is brilliant -- manager partnering with a highly skilled GM and his assistant, Mike Hazen, who is already on the radar to be among the next line of general managers.
This is going to entail Lucchino, John Henry and Tom Werner completely investing in Cherington. Valentine is not a bauble or a showpiece. He's a really good manager who can bring a precise, winning culture to a team that from the outset of last Spring Training seemed to believe it was entitled to October.
One of the best general manager/manager relationships in memory was the one between Mark Shapiro and Eric Wedge in Cleveland, and one of the reasons why was that Shapiro viewed his manager as "partner." Valentine had that relationship in Texas with Tom Grieve. He did not have it in New York.
"I like that notion," Valentine wrote Tuesday. "I can be a good partner." And that's not because he is an accomplished ballroom dancer, either.
A general manager's job is not what the public sees. Part of his job is managing up, managing his owner(s), something Theo Epstein did very well. Henry and Werner will almost always give Cherington the resources to compete in the American League East, which may become important at the end of July.
It is also the GM's job to manage his manager, so that he best manages the people who play for him. For the media who pine for Lou Gorman and Joe Morgan, Valentine is a perfect match for a front office raised on development, scouting and analytics; Bobby was into computers and talking about Bill James back in the '80s, and he thirsts for information and knowledge and ideas. He has always been a very strong believer in the foundation of on-base percentage, like Ted Williams and Barry Bonds.
Valentine is a New England guy. He played in the Cape Cod League for Lou Lamoriello between his junior and senior years of high school. He knows what it means to win at Fenway Park, and he's read enough about what he said and did or didn't say and do in New York to know offhand comments about his players in a town where words matter more than they did in New York will cause him -- and Cherington -- problems.
He has already found that Cherington is someone with very little ego, someone who doesn't worry about the topic du jour on talk radio; when he's driving, he's probably listening to the music of his sister Molly, who, incidentally, is really good. As someone who has worked with Valentine, I know that if there is an issue, he deals with it honestly and respectfully, and while he has strong opinions, he listens and strongly believes that every day he has a chance to learn something new.
There will be disagreements, as there should be in any business, and as long as the Valentine-Cherington relationship is allowed to flourish, it will work. Bobby will probably have to hit the road to spend some time with his new players. He'll have to visit Carl Crawford, with whom he had a dust-up during the season, and let Carl understand before Spring Training that his manager wants him to be the great player he was in Tampa Bay. He likely will chat with Josh Beckett, in case Beckett is still upset at Bobby's comments on ESPN about the time Beckett took between pitches.
Valentine and Cherington have to find a pitching coach. If David Ortiz returns -- agent Fern Cuza plans to meet with Cherington next week in Dallas -- there isn't going to be a lot of payroll flexibility to fill out the pitching staff and roster. If, as they seem to be leaning, Daniel Bard goes into the rotation, they have to work together on how best to cobble together a bullpen and fill out the staff with either trades for someone like Oakland's Andrew Bailey or Chicago's John Danks, a couple of non-tender signings like Joe Saunders or Scott Kazmir, or whatever. Mike Aviles is playing right field in winter ball and lefty Franklin Morales is reportedly lights-out in Venezuela, but they will explore a lot of options.
Bobby Valentine is not going to internalize everything, as Francona did. He's not going to, as Alex Cora always said, "never say the wrong thing." But if left to develop their relationship, Valentine, Cherington, Hazen, Allard Baird and all of the front office -- especially Brian O'Halloran and Ben Crockett -- can work. They are all very smart. They are detail-oriented. They understand the long, hard process involved in going from prospect to accomplished Major Leaguer. Francona would be the first to admit that in the first month of Dustin Pedroia's career, he didn't think Pedroia would make it.
Cherington does not have an easy job, not if non-baseball people try to make the running of the team a media opportunity. But he also is a person who is very easy to trust, something Valentine already senses, and Bobby also is well aware of the shots he recently took for being one of the leaders in games managed without finishing first.
One of the many great things about Bill Belichick is that it's only about winning, and he doesn't care about the side stuff. If the Red Sox are about The Nation and PR and "Sweet Caroline" and what people say, then so be it. This won't work. Nothing will work.
But if they are focused on what really counts -- winning -- then, left as partners, two very smart people can and will work together very well. Because they are both so smart and so very different and need to win, Ben Cherington and Bobby Valentine can make 2012 really interesting.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.