In Boston, words carry great deal of weight
Valentine's remark might just be part of Red Sox growing pains
It was Sunday morning, close to 10 o'clock, and Bobby Valentine was doing his weekly Sunday hit with the local NBC affiliate that runs each Sunday evening. It was Valentine, television journalist Joe Amorosino and a cameraman.
Amorosino asked a simple question about Kevin Youkilis' .200 start, referring to it as "un-Youk-like." Valentine's off-the-cuff answer included, "I don't think he is physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past."
By the time Valentine and Youkilis arrived at Fenway Park for the annual 11 a.m. Patriots' Day game with the Rays, no one cared about presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney's expected arrival, the individual mandate or the Buffett rule. This is New England, where the Red Sox matter more than taxes, health care or presidential politics, where words are dissected like Supreme Court decisions.
At 7:45, Valentine was getting dressed in his office when he realized the microburst that he had caused. Youkilis had already spoken with him, not to update his manager on the groin pull that bothered him at the end of Sunday's game but to let Valentine know that friends had called him late the previous night to tell him about what they perceived as the manager's swipe at the All-Star third baseman.
"All I was saying is that I can tell that he's struggling to find his swing," Valentine said, "and that he wasn't reacting as emotionally as what I'd seen in the past, throwing his helmet, whatever. Which, by the way, may not be a bad thing."
Coming off a difficult winter of injury rehabilitation, Youkilis has been working tirelessly with hitting coach Dave Magadan to simplify his swing, trying to eliminate a slight hitch that sometimes creates a loop. He'd had two exceptional, key at-bats against David Price on Friday and a couple of good at-bats Saturday. In discussing his work, the often-emotional Youkilis was calmly academic and confident that he would find his timing, which, when off, doesn't allow him the time to look at pitches in the manner that made him the "Greek God of Walks."
Before Valentine got to address the media in his daily briefing, players were barraged with questions about the manager "calling out" Youkilis. Dustin Pedroia, who has emerged as the leader of the team, said, "Maybe that works in Japan, but that's not the way we do things around here."
Now, cynics and ownership could reply that the way the Red Sox have done things "around here" has left the game's second-highest-paid team out of the playoffs the past two years and without a postseason series win since 2008. But that's too simple. Pedroia knows how Valentine regards him. Pedroia also is a great believer in players supporting each other, saying, "We want Youk to know we have his back."
Pedroia gets it. He knows that there was a time when the Red Sox were "25 guys, 25 cabs." He knows what happened two years ago when Jacoby Ellsbury suffered a painful injury, cracking and breaking his ribs, and because of the medical explanations, was unfairly hammered on talk radio and in the media, and that Youkilis suggested Ellsbury should "be here with the team" when, in fact, general manager Theo Epstein had sent Ellsbury to rehab in Arizona to get away from the situation. Youklis had no idea the GM had sent Ellsbury to Arizona, felt badly about it, but the comment had the shelf life of "CSI."
The new GM, Ben Cherington, tried to diffuse the situation by saying that Valentine's words had a different context in print than in the setting of a dugout interview at 10 a.m., but he acknowledged that the manager probably wished his media life were on videotape, so he could go back and erase portions. Valentine was clearly shaken by the firestorm, far more than he was at pointed post-game questions about leaving Daniel Bard in to walk in the winning run in a 1-0 game, or being booed as he walked off the field after removing Bard. That's about managing and tough decisions and accepting the consequences of those decisions.
The other is about the fact that in Boston, every comment, every parenthetical clause, every word is bronzed for evaluation. Yes, more so than in New York. There are several concurrent factors in place with the Red Sox. They are getting used to a manager whose answers are more reactive than the measured tones of predecessor Terry Francona. They are dealing with the scars of last September's fall, of which they are reminded each and every day, from a Popeye's fried chicken promotion two blocks from Fenway to the taunts they should have expected after a slow start to the underlying but pervasive disconnect and distrust between the players and the New England media.
Valentine is right when he says, "We're all big boys." He knows how hard Youkilis has fought and worked to become an All-Star-level player. He knows how passionately Pedroia cares about his team winning and how important it is that the players bond and have their teammates' backs, especially with Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Rich Hill on Boston's $60 million disabled list for the next month or three.
The Red Sox came off a 1-5 road trip and won three straight against a Tampa Bay team that not only has extraordinary pitching but has tormented them since September 2008. Boston's starting pitchers went at least seven innings in three straight games for the first time since June. All weekend, players made sarcastic comments about media speculation of a "dysfunctional clubhouse" -- one former Red Sox player who remains close to several of his friends said, "I haven't heard one negative thing about Bobby, only that they're getting used to him."
So, as they prepare for the Rangers and Yankees, capping off their opening five series against the four 2011 AL playoff teams and arguably the most improved club in the Major Leagues (Toronto), what Cherington and the administration hopes is that Valentine's Sunday-morning, off-the-cuff remark will serve as a reminder that in Red Sox Nation, every sentence counts, and that, in the long run, it will further galvanize his players in a growing us-against-them camaraderie that fuels them until the team gets healthy, the bullpen is fully configured and everyone gets from whence Bobby V. is coming and why winning in Boston is as important to him as it is to anyone else in the clubhouse.
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.