No love for this Valentine

by Matthew B. Burgess | 10/12/00 5:00am

Remember that kid in fifth grade who thought he was smarter than everyone else? The one that got straight-A's without ever studying, that sat in the back of the class with his feet propped up on the desk and made smart-aleck comments. The smug little snot that all the kids hated and the teachers secretly detested.

Well that kid, all grown up with salt-and-pepper hair and a Cheshire grin is New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine, the most hated man in baseball.

He has managed to alienate the New York tabloids. For instance, the New York Post ran the headline, "Why Wait? Can the Phony Now!" Valentine has caught the ire of former players Pete Harnisch, Todd Hundley and Brian McRae. Bobby Bonilla so detested playing under Valentine that he refused to pinch hit in a June game last year. Opposing managers Bobby Cox and Don Baylor are outspoken in their dislike for "Broadway Bobby." Baylor went as far as to refuse to shake Valentine's hand before the start of this year's opening series in Japan.

Valentine likewise has his enemies in the Mets' front office, which has been noncommittal about extending Valentine's contract past this year. (There's been talk of Valentine heading west and replacing recently fired Los Angeles Dodgers manager Davey Johnson).

He heckles opposing pitchers, criticizes players and basically says whatever pops into his mind. He's been called smug, abrasive and obnoxious.

Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Examiner dubbed Valentine "a relentless self-promoter who thinks he's smarter than everyone else."

At the same time, it's hard to argue with Valentine's results in the win-loss column. The Mets have thrived under Valentine, winning 88, 88, 97 and 94 games since he came aboard in 1997. Valentine steered the Mets into the playoffs last year, ending a 12-year drought, before losing a heart-breaker to the Atlanta Braves in Game Six of the National League Championship Series.

The Mets, captured the wild card berth again this year, reaching the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time in franchise history. After beating the Giants last Sunday, Valentine and the Mets once again find themselves in the NLCS, vying for a pennant against Jim Edmonds and the St. Louis Cardinals.

"He'll do things that will leave you scratching your head at times," Mets reliever John Franco recently told reporters. "But then again, most of the things he does usually work."

Valentine's behavior certainly hasn't caused a shortage of head-scratching throughout his tenure in New York. After getting ejected from a game last year, Valentine was caught by television cameras sneaking back into the dugout in a fake mustache and glasses. But maybe irrational behavior is a prerequisite for managing under the media spotlight in The Big Apple.

"He's crazy, man, he's crazier than hell," said Mets center fielder Darryl Hamilton. "It's weird; I'm sure from the visitor's dugout, the guys over there want to kill him. But this is New York. You have to be crazy to manage here. And the one thing about Bobby is that he relies so much on hunches and, even though he knows he's going to get second-guessed when things don't work, he really doesn't care."

More often than not, however, Valentine's big mouth gets him in more trouble then either he, or his team, needs.

Todd Hundley was quoted last year as saying, "The more Bobby Valentine speaks, the more people will realize why he has the reputation he has in the game."

Last year in the midst of the divisional series against the Diamondbacks, an article in Sports Illustrated was published that quoted Valentine as criticizing his players during their annual September swoon.

"You're not dealing with real professionals in the clubhouse," Valentine said in the article. "You're not dealing with real intelligent guys for the most part. A lot can swim, but most of them just float along, looking for something to hold on to. That's why, I'm sure, they're having a players-only meeting. Because there's about five guys in there right now who basically are losers, who are seeing if they can recruit."

Valentine also received flak earlier this year for criticizing off-season front-office decisions while addressing graduate students at the Wharton School of Business. Players often find themselves making excuses for Valentine's behavior and outlandish comments.

"You just have to realize people say things or do things they wish they could take back," Mike Piazza told reporters after the "Wharton-gate" incident. "Nobody's perfect. It happens. You just have to be prepared to do your job."

It has become an annual tradition that Valentine threatens his job security with two weeks left in the season.

"If we don't make the playoffs I should be fired," Bobby V. has declared the last two years.

And the result of Valentine's self-imposed ultimatums? The Mets have made the playoffs the last two years, playing well enough to reach the NLCS. Valentine's critics claim that the function of these ultimatums is, as Ray Ratto says, "to put his team's struggles in a context he knows best -- himself."

Valentine's supporters claim that his loud-mouth remarks dominate the headlines, and subsequently draw the media glare away from his team, allowing his players to concentrate on winning baseball games.

"Sometimes you have to take extra punches for whatever reason," Valentine said. "I've been knocked down plenty of times and have gotten up plenty of times. My team has, too. And we will again."

Do the Mets win despite their manager's bizarre behavior or because of his shrewd managerial skills? While the answer's up in the air, one thing's for sure: New Yorkers love nothing more than controversy, except perhaps a winning baseball team. And Bobby Valentine, big mouth and all, has his club one step away from the Fall Classic.

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