Valentine gets to the heart of managing

Monday, October 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Sean McAdam / The Providence (R.I.) Journal

NEW YORK -- When the camera catches him -- and when it doesn't, he makes sure it soon does -- he wears an unmistakable look of smugness. It's one part bemusement, one part arrogance.

Either way, the message is the same. Bobby Valentine knows something you don't.

He knows what the other manager is going to do next. He knows how he's going to counter that move. He's a batter, an inning, a game ahead of you, and he's not afraid to say it.

There's just one thing Bobby Valentine doesn't know, and that's where he'll be working next season.

Naturally, this doesn't bother him. Valentine has confidence

and options to spare.

Before the 2000 season began, Mets co-owner Fred Wilpon surprised everyone when he told general manager Steve Phillips and Valentine that they would not be given extensions, and that they would both be evaluated at the end of the season.

That may prove costly for the Mets. After last night's victory in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, Valentine is a win away from taking the Mets to their first World Series since 1986, and as a former first baseman for the Red Sox once said: "The price goes up every day."

All of this is unchartered territory for Valentine. Until last season, Valentine had never taken a team to the postseason in 10 years in the dugout, even though he's had winning records in each of his last full eight seasons.

Valentine has made up for lost post-season opportunities over the last two Octobers, becoming the first manager to direct the Mets to back-to-back post-season appearances. His Mets have specialized in thrilling wins -- extra-inning, heart-stopping, last at-bat wins.

It's not a fall fluke, either. The Mets led the league in one-run wins during the season, more evidence of Valentine's ability to win the battle of the dugout.

It's been said that Joe Torre is the perfect manager for the Yankees -- patient, even-tempered, and calming. Torre knows how to handle all the distractions that come with playing in New York, and he's a master at serving as a buffer between his players and owner George Steinbrenner.

In his own way, Valentine also is the perfect manager for his team, the second of New York's two baseball clubs. Valentine has an oversized ego and an attitude to match, both quintessential traits of a New Yorker.

During his tenure in New York, Valentine has been a magnet for controversy. He once enraged Todd Hundley by suggesting that his catcher was tired, a by-product of an overactive social life. He questioned the heart of some his own players in a Sports Illustrated story last fall.

Earlier this year, while giving a speech at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Valentine made several comments that troubled the front office, prompting Phillips to fly to Pittsburgh to confront the manager.

Valentine can't seem to keep his mouth shut, or himself out of trouble. He wouldn't have it any other way.

Even the media horde which follows the Mets is split. A few reporters are openly contemptuous of him, including one beat writer who boasts that he hasn't had a conversation with Valentine in years.

Others are disciples, referred to disparagingly as "Bobby's Bobos." He's not above leaking information to those who've been favorable to him in their coverage.

In Bobby's world, it's always us vs. them.

He's the manager other managers love to hate -- and beat. Nothing is worse than losing to the Mets and having to read and hear about how Valentine orchestrated the victory.

But the facts are facts, and Valentine has outmanaged a number of his fellow managers this October and last. Last year, his Mets ousted Arizona in the Division Series, then led by Buck Showalter, considered one of the game's better tacticians.

In the Division Series this year, Valentine outclassed San Francisco's Dusty Baker, thought by many to best the best manager in the game. Baker returned to San Francisco last week to hear criticism of his moves; Valentine advanced to his second consecutive NLCS.

Now, he's in the process of besting Tony La Russa, who's taken three different teams to the playoffs, won three pennants and a World Series and whose managerial genius was once fawningly chronicled by political pundit George Will.

Valentine doesn't have the gushing profiles or the undying respect of everyone else in the game. What he does have is his team one win away from a spot in the World Series.

Somewhere, Bobby Valentine is smiling. Of course.