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The Straw that Stirs the Hub

Guest Post

By Alex Salta (aka Raging Tartabull)

In the years since 2003 it’s become a popular myth that the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry has always been and will always be some kind of Baseball Forever War. Fans of both teams know better–“The Rivalry” has always had its peaks and valleys, and ever since Manny Ramirez of took his talents to Chavez Ravine we’ve been in a punchless valley .

This rivalry needed a jolt to the system and just got one in the form of one of the most volatile managers this side of Billy Martin. Bobby Valentine was only 35 when he started to make his bones as a major league manager in Texas, guiding bad Rangers teams to decent records in a division dominated by the Bash Brothers A’s. Then, after a brief stopover in Japan, he took good but flawed Mets teams to the playoffs back-to-back years losing in the NLCS and one of the best damn 5 game World Series you’ll likely see.

Valentine always had a little Billy in him. The undeniable tactical acumen, the chip on the shoulder, the paranoia that “they” would take it all away from him if given the chance, the charm and the spite. Anytime you steer a team where Jay Payton and Benny Agbayani are daily outfield fixtures to a pennant, it goes a long way to proving you are more than capable as a manager. Conversely, his years-long public feud with former GM Steve Phillips showed that both men knew how to hold a grudge with the best of them.

He could manage his ass off, and he would make sure you knew about it too. This is a man who once referred to the Mets managerial job as “the highest place in any job in the country, in the world, the thing that I live and breathe and die for every second of my life.” Comments like that either suggest tremendous commitment to the New York Mets, or tremendous commitment to promoting the brand of Bobby Valentine, Inc. What side do you think Fred Wilpon felt it landed on? A month after saying it, Valentine was on his way out the door at Shea.

Like Martin, Valentine knew what it was like to climb to the top of the heap in New York and still feel like you weren’t getting enough credit for it. Billy had Reggie and George, Bobby had Steve Phillips and Saint Joe.

Valentine managed the Mets from 1996 through 2002, the exact timeframe when Joe Torre convinced the town that could turn Bigelow Green Tea into wine; Valentine could never hope to be anything more than second banana, content with whatever scraps of media adoration were left over after the latest Yankee victory.

And Valentine was not one to be content with scraps. Mets fans could tell you that; hell everyone from Phillips to George W. Bush can co-sign that one.

Eventually, it all fell apart in a cloud of bizarre press conferences and whatever Tony Tarasco and Mark Corey had in that limo. The Bobby Act had grown tired in Flushing, someone needed Art Howe to come along and light up a room for a change. Bobby eventually packed his bags for the Far East and joined Buck Showalter in the “Managers Everyone Loves When They Aren’t Actually Managing” Club.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox spent the next decade turning themselves into a latter-day version of that Yankee team with tough pitching, long at-bats, and a manager that columnists loved to compare to some kind of mix between John McGraw and Jonas Salk.

Yankees vs. Red Sox became the dominant baseball storyline of the mid-aughts. It got ratings, it sold papers, kept the chatrooms and blogs humming. Still, the rivalry couldn’t sustain the fevered pitch indefinitely. The games between the two teams got longer and longer, the intensity unmistakably lower, and the atmosphere became almost dull.

Then came September 2011 and the grand collapse in Boston, blown saves and extra crispy thighs for all. The Sox got tired of Francona’s “Keep Calm and Win Ninety” style, Prince Theo left town and took his glow with him. The Red Sox needed someone new to come along and light up the room. They–and that “they” is Larry Lucchino–decided Valentine was their man.

Well now he’s back center stage, in a town where he isn’t going to have any trouble finding attention. He’ll manage against the Yankees 18 times next year, and the Joe in the other dugout may be hugely successful in his own right but no one is nominating him for sainthood either. No, it will probably be Bobby who is center stage for those 18 games. Don’t believe it? Just ask him.

Alex Salta is a New York-based writer, he can be reached at alex.salta@gmail.com.

For more on Bobby V:

Andrew Cohen in the Atlantic

Steven Goldman at Baseball Prospectus

Jonah Keri at Grantland

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver