In the 1999 baseball season, New York Yankees manager Joe Torre has endured cancer; the near-firing of his No. 2 man, Don Zimmer; the lousy performance of his supposed ace pitcher, Roger Clemens; a changing of the guard in George Steinbrenner’s front office; and, in Chuck Knoblauch, a second baseman who sometimes forgets how to throw the ball to first-and yet he has maintained his quiet confidence, his strength, while leading his team to another first-place finish in the American League East.
Meanwhile, in another borough that might as well be galaxies away from Yankee Stadium, there is another manager in this baseball town, the Goofus to Mr. Torre’s Gallant-ladies and gentlemen, Bobby V.! In his 1999 season, New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine has seen fit to tell the world, once in June and once again in September, that he should be fired if his team does not perform up to expectations; along the way, after the umpires threw him out of a game soon after three Mets coaches were fired, Mr. Valentine disguised himself in a fake mustache and goofy glasses and poked his head back into the dugout, thereby earning himself some major air time on the sports-highlight shows and a two-game suspension. Now the Mets find themselves on the verge of one of the most dramatic collapses in baseball history.
“Joe Torre seems to be almost laconic, and you see a Valentine, and he appears to be a lip biter,” said former minor league ballplayer Mario Cuomo.
Dr. Stephen Greyser, a Harvard Business School professor, was asked to assess both men as bosses: “Bobby Valentine is more overtly intense than Torre,” he said. “With that intense style of management, either players will get more tense themselves or be energized by it.”
Political columnist and sometime baseball writer George Will took a darker view: “Looking at Torre in the dugout, he’s comfortable in there. Valentine looks like a caged animal. The hardest thing for people who are not in uniform to understand is how the rhythm of 162 games during the season contributes to a team’s success. Torre knows this. I think having to live with Valentine for 162 games is a testing experience.”
Tim McCarver, former announcer with the Mets and now an announcer for the Yankees, believes the main difference between the two men has not less to do with character than with experience: “The thing about Joe is that 20 years ago he was a good manager, and everyone else knew it, but he didn’t know it. Now he knows it, and he has that confidence. With Bobby, because of his not being in the postseason, I think you have to do it first to gain that confidence, to get that serenity. Bobby is a very good manager between the lines, but he hasn’t done it in the postseason. Once he does, he will change as a manager.”
For much of the season, Mr. Valentine was playing it cool. The lineup was fairly constant. Despite the disguise stunt, he seemed different, changed, calmer. The team looked steadier than the ’98 Mets-a team that lost its last six games and with them their shot at the postseason-with the acquisition of veteran free agents Rickey Henderson and Robin Ventura. The team had grit, too. In the ninth inning of one game early on, they scored five runs against one of the best pitchers in the league-Curt Schilling of the Philadelphia Phillies-for an unlikely win. This odd collection of superstars (Mike Piazza), kooks (Rey Ordonez, Turk Wendell, Armando Benitez), quiet types (John Olerud, Mr. Ventura) and quatrogenarians (Orel Hershiser, Mr. Henderson) seemed like they could get it done, maybe even prove worthy of facing the Yankees in a dream World Series. Then came the September swoon, with the Mets, incredibly, losing three games to the mighty Atlanta Braves and three more to the not-so-mighty Philadelphia Phillies. And there was Mr. Valentine in the middle of it all: “If we don’t go to the playoffs, I shouldn’t be back next year,” he told reporters.
Mets co-owner Fred Wilpon begged to differ with his manager, saying his man would be back next season no matter what. At the same time, crazed Mets fans and at least one radio host were calling for Mr. Valentine’s ouster on WFAN-AM, the sports radio station. Mr. Valentine was bleeding and baseball columnist Tom Keegan of the New York Post moved in for the kill, writing a piece bluntly titled: “Why Wait? Can the Phony Now!” Which brings to mind another difference between Mr. Torre and Mr. Valentine: one knows how to stroke the media, the other doesn’t.
Mr. Torre has managed to be affable and friendly with the beat reporters who follow his team’s every move while at the same time not giving them the kind of fodder they really need for juicy stories. Mr. Valentine, on the other hand, goes about things differently, offering himself up to the media wolves.
This goes against the Torre theory of management as laid out in his new book, Joe Torre’s Ground Rules for Winners . “In the New York sports world,” writes Mr. Torre, “a team controversy is an opportunity for a media free-for-all. I could avoid trouble for myself and my team by being careful not to react rashly to event or stories in the press. My advice to managers: You can reduce tensions for your employees by maintaining your own serenity and control to the best of your ability. This, in turn, reduces outside pressures on your team, whether from other departments in the company, upper management, clients or the media. As a result, your employees will have the breathing room they need to achieve peak performance.”
Paul Pupo, a longtime friend who played minor league ball with Mr. Valentine and manages his restaurants, wasn’t surprised by the Mets manager’s offering to put his own head on the chopping block. “Bobby always takes the heat,” he said. “Bobby would rather have the wrong happen to him rather than his players or his friends, and I guarantee you there are people that would step in front of a train for him. And he would do that for other people. He goes to social and mental extremes that you could never ask a friend to do, and he has friends in every city who feel he is their best friend and the best friend they will ever have.”
Tom Grieve, former general manager of the Texas Rangers, where the Mets manager worked for eight years, is a friend and neighbor of Mr. Valentine’s. “This guy has never sat still for a minute of his life,” he said. “There are times where I’ll jog right by his house in the morning, and he’ll tell me to jog around one more time, and he’ll be out there in front waiting to go jogging. If he has nothing do, he’ll say, ‘Let’s go on a skiing vacation.’ Or ‘Let’s go build a deck.’ Then he’ll go build a deck. And he will tackle the job without knowing how to nail a piece of wood. And this is not a plain old deck he’s building; he’s got these winding stairs and elaborate fences. He’ll try anything. That’s why the guy’s so much fun to be around.”
With the Mets sliding far below peak performance in recent weeks, Mr. Valentine has made some try-anything managerial moves, suggesting that a nervousness has crept into the way he runs the ball club the later it gets in the season. This is certainly not the man who, a bit cavalierly, early in the season rested his No. 3 and No. 4 hitters (Mr. Olerud and Mr. Piazza) on the same day (they lost); this is not the man who seemed to have a devil-may-care attitude early on in allowing the hobbled Bobby Bonilla to patrol the outfield with always disastrous results.
Whether it’s because he craves the spotlight, as his critics claim, or because he’ll do anything to end this ugly swan dive, he has lately become even more active than usual. He’s pinch-hitting more, pulling his pitchers more, using more pinch-runners. In the six-game losing streak, Mr. Valentine made 49 substitutions, compared to 32 by the opposing managers.
On Sept. 26, his players entered the visitors’ locker room at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium in a dour mood. On a plastic lineup board pasted near the entrance, Edgardo Alfonzo’s name, written in black marker, and normally the second name down, occupied the sixth slot. This was the latest Valentine innovation. It made some sense, strategically-Mr. Alfonzo, who bats right-handed, is slumping at the plate, so why not stick Roger Cedeno, the speedy switch-hitting outfielder who bats better from the left side, in his slot?-but the move may have seemed panicky.
“D-E-A-D,” said one beat reporter hanging around the lineup board, running his finger under Mr. Alfonzo’s name. “That’s what this means.”
Like nearly every move Mr. Valentine makes these days, this one held a faint air of conspiracy: Did Mr. Alfonzo really come up to Mr. Valentine before the game and suggest that he be moved down in the order, as the manager later claimed? Anyone who saw Mr. Alfonzo enter the locker room, his face flushed, his mouth in a frown, and kick aside a laundry basket on the way to his locker might have thought otherwise.
A small group of Mets clustered around a large-screen TV. On it, the U.S. Ryder Cup golf team was beginning its improbable comeback, the kind of comeback the Mets will need if they are to make it into the playoffs.
“Mandatory chapel, 11:15!” Mr. Hershiser shouted across the room.
A few of his teammates laughed. The veteran relief pitcher, Brooklyn-born John Franco, began humming the tune to that Burt Bacharach song, “I Say a Little Prayer for You.”
In the center of the locker room, Mr. Cedeno and fellow outfielder Darryl Hamilton silently stared at the plates of bacon and eggs in front of them.
Mr. Franco looked up at the TV screen. “Yeah, let’s watch this golf,” he muttered to no one in particular. “That’s going to get us to that place we’ve got to go.”
Beneath the lineup card, Mr. Henderson and Mr. Bonilla, comrades in complaint, sat in silence. Mr. Valentine walked by and put his hand meaningfully on Mr. Henderson’s shoulder, then moved on. Mr. Henderson and Mr. Bonilla exchanged “what’s-up-with-that?” looks.
“Are we nervous?” Mr. Franco asked rhetorically.
Back to the business-school experts. Richard Freedman, a professor of management at the New York University’s Stern School of Business, assessed both Mr. Valentine and Mr. Torre: “Torre has been incredibly successful in getting inside the heads of his players, understanding them, and my impression is that Bobby Valentine has not,” he said.
“Torre is what I would call a ‘servant leader,’” said Ken Blanchard, a management expert and author of One Minute Manager and Everyone’s a Coach . “He sublimated his ego to the team; he even seems to be able to handle Steinbrenner. Steinbrenner doesn’t scare him because he knows who he is. Torre seems to be very peaceful with who he is as a human being, and therefore he doesn’t have to win. Valentine seems to like to win with his interactions with people. For a collapsing team, the question you ask is, what’s he doing to calm them down?”
There are a few games to go. The Mets can still pull ahead of either the upstart, low-salary Cincinnati Reds or the Houston Astros for the wild-card playoff berth. Mario Cuomo believes that, for all their surface differences, Bobby V. might have that inner resolve necessary to get that job done.
“I suspect a guy like Joe Torre is tough,” said Mr. Cuomo. “He seems-listen, my name is Mario Cuomo, I know Joe Torre. He’s a guy from Brooklyn who played stickball in the street, he has a sister who’s a nun. He’s a real human being who’s tough, and he’s not about to be pushed around. Bobby Valentine is a similar type. They may behave differently, but Bobby Valentine was not born with a silver bat in his mouth. He’s tough, too.”