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By Scott Benjamin
STAMFORD, CT – Twenty years ago, S.L. (Scott) Price wrote in Sports Illustrated that from the time he was a teenager, Bobby Valentine “was seen as a civic treasure” in a city that in the 1960s Time magazine called “a dingy factory town.”
Stamford, where Valentine and later Price grew up, is now called “The City That Works” and over the last 15 years has jumped over Waterbury and Hartford to become the state’s third most populated city.
The signs near Interstate-95 on the high-rise buildings for Henkel, Indeed, WWE, UBS, NBC Sports and Thomson-Reuters make you think, “This isn’t Connecticut.”
“Over the last 25 years we did what successes do, and that is we were able to adjust,” said Valentine. “If you’re not going to adjust, you’re going to fail. Now Stamford is one of the finest little cities between Philadelphia and Boston.”
It has attracted the millennials, who usually flock to the big cities.
“That’s mainly because we adjusted from the corporate model to the residential model,” Valentine said. “We have as many apartments downtown as Williamsburg (in Brooklyn) or Jersey City does. A millennial can live in Stamford and get to New York City in 40 minutes, get to Boston in a couple of hours and get to the beach in 15 minutes and get to the country in 20 minutes.”
In 1999 when he was managing the New York Mets, Valentine’s cockiness led The Sporting News to write a cover story with the headline: “Why Does Everyone Hate Bobby V?”
In Stamford, though, he is still considered “a civic treasure” 51 years after he graduated from now-defunct Rippowam High School and opted not to play halfback for USC and instead accept a $65.000 bonus from the Los Angeles Dodgers after being drafted as the fifth player in the first round.
So what if NPR sports commentator Stefan Fatsis has stated, “I’d pay to read a grocery list if Scott Price wrote it.” In The City That Works, even after 14 years as mayor and eight years as governor, Dannel Malloy can’t match Bobby V’s name recognition.
Last year he moved his 39-year-old sports gallery café in Stamford from the location where in 1987 they filmed the television commercial of him with relief pitcher Terry Forster ordering from the menu while selling subscriptions for Sports Illustrated. The new, larger location on Atlantic Street includes off track betting.
In 2017 the Bobby Valentine Sports Academy, which had opened in 2005, moved to a larger, 40,000-square-foot facility on Largo Drive.
Although he managed Nolan Ryan when he could break the radar gun and Rickey Henderson while he ran faster than a quarter horse, Valentine thrives in a setting that relates to the days before he earned his Rippowam letter vest.
In 1992, he told New Haven native Leigh Montville, then with Sports Illustrated, “I was the kid who got everyone to come out and play. I was the one outside the window yelling, ‘Hey, Joey, let’s play baseball.’ ”
Valentine said they annually instruct “as many as 3,000 kids” and about 200 college players combined in baseball, softball, lacrosse and soccer. There is a 16,000-square-foot artificial turf and six batting cages.
In 1992, former NFL defensive back Beasley Reece told The Newtown Bee that his family loved living in West Hartford after he became a sportscaster at WVIT Channel 30 and moved from Tampa. But in Florida, his two sons were playing sports outside 12 months a year. In Connecticut it was eight months.
“I didn’t know how big a void there was until we opened this kind of facility,” Valentine said regarding the volume during the cold weather seasons.
Frank Ramppen, a Rippowam High alumnus and former Minnesota Twins minor leaguer and Valentine’s bench coach in Japan, is the managing partner at the sports academy.
It is state-of-the-art, with video, analytical-capture and velocity devices.
“We don’t want to be a place where you read out of a manual and that is the instruction that you get,” Valentine said in an interview. “We can capture all the data and match it with the video. Sometimes that allows it to be a self-teach with young athletes.”
The staff includes several coaches from Fairfield County.
“We have a coaching curriculum,” said Valentine. “We have them take a test. We make sure that they have the right idea and understand not only the fundamentals of the game they’re teaching, but they learn how to inform, instruct and inspire. They learn to listen as well as talk.”
The baseball alumni include Reds catcher Curt Casali and Pirates third baseman Colin Moran, as well as a host of minor leaguers and college players.
Outtake One: Is the late New York Giants defense end Andy Robustelli, who was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame in 1971, partly responsible for Stamford’s impressive athletic heritage?
“Andy paved the road,” Valentine said. “And it was a brand new road. It was outside of Stamford. Prior to that it was a pretty good little sports community. But it was within our town. The only time we would leave was to play in national [youth baseball tournaments. Stamford won the Little League World Series in 1951.] As far as the individual was concerned, most of the success was in the framework of Stamford. Andy paved the road outside.”
Oh, we forgot to mention that Valentine sometimes ventures outside The City That Works.
He has a second restaurant in Windsor Locks and a video production company called Makuhari Media.
And he is the executive director of athletics at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.
In August the university will open the $21.8 million, 57,400-square-foot Bobby Valentine Health & Fitness Center, which has been funded in part through donations from people in his “orbit,” according to a university news release.
Valentine – who began at Sacred Heart in 2013, less than a year after being dismissed as the Red Sox’ manager – and a staff of seven other athletic administrators oversees more than 90 coaches and more than 800 Division I athletes.
In 2012, he told The Stamford Advocate that when he was recruited out of Rippowam, where he ran for 53 touchdowns as a football halfback, he was flown in a private plane, was told he could have the use of Corvettes and jobs where he only would have to punch a clock.
“Recruiting is much more regulated than it was 50 years ago when it was the wild, wild West,” said Valentine.
“It’s also much more difficult to navigate” for high school athletes and their parents, he exclaimed. “Recruiting dollars at the universities have dried up, not totally, but they’ve gone down.”
Tim Kurkjian wrote in a 2011 ESPN.com column that Valentine had told him 25 years earlier, when he was managing the Texas Rangers and Kurkjian was writing for The Dallas Morning News, that “sleep is overrated.”
“I still don’t sleep much,” he said with a laugh, conceding that he now takes a 20-minute nap in the afternoon.
“I think as an athlete you need more sleep than I thought you did,” Valentine added. “At least studies show that. I think as a businessman you do too.”
“But I can’t wait to get up the next day,” he continued. “I go to sleep quickly and I sleep quickly.”
USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale recently stated that Major League Baseball is at a crossroads.
“Does it want to remain this nightly edition of home-run derby with players swinging for the fences every time they step to the plate, with home runs, strike outs and walks accounting for 40 percent of the action?”
“Or does it want to return to the game it was designed to be, with teams manufacturing runs, managers employing hit-and run and players bunting and stealing bases,” wrote Nightengale.
Valentine said, “If you can hit a home run, you’re doing something pretty spectacular,” he said. “If you’re going to hit hard, then you should hit it as far as you can.”
“Let’s remember that Babe Ruth made the game what it is today,” he added.
“He, as well as Ted Williams, understood what took people so long to adopt as the norm,” Valentine said. “You have to go with the laws of physics. You have to swing up if you’re going to swing efficiently. They understood without having analyzed in a biomechanical 3D environment that that was the case. I was always baffled as I spoke on ESPN, MLB, SNY and the radio and talk about having to swing up at the ball and was looked at as the village idiot. College researchers finally did enough analysis finally to show that you have to swing up on the ball.”
Interestingly, New Arena has rated Williams as the best major league hitter of all time and Ruth as the second best.
“Now that the mystery of swinging is out of the box, the natural swing allows good contact to hit home runs,” Valentine said. “But also the ball is a different ball and the bat a different bat than three to five years ago.”
Outtake Two: Speaking of home run hitters, Al Downing – who gave up Hank Aaron’s 715 th homer, the one that broke Ruth’s record – told Sports Illustrated in 1992 that he didn’t think Aaron had ever gotten his due recognition.
He is first in career runs batted in and second in home runs.
People sometimes forget that he is third all-time in base hits.
It is an obscure point, but if you eliminate his 755 home runs, he still is over 3,000 base hits. He retired 43 years ago and the only player to surpass him in hits since then is Pete Rose.
Valentine said that part of the lack of recognition is probably due to Aaron’s quiet personality.
“However, he played in markets something other than baseball markets,” he added. “[Milwaukee and Atlanta] were both football markets.”
“If Hank had played in New York, Hank would have been as acclaimed at Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays,” said Valentine.
“Players would watch Aaron take batting practice and fielding practice,” he continued. “”He ran the bases well. No doubt with people in the game, he was a revered player.”
It’s been reported that owners now want the A.J. Hinch, Alex Cora or Dave Roberts model of manager, who is less intense.
ABC News reported that when the Yankees dismissed Joe Girardi after directing them to Game Seven of the American League Championship Series in 2017, general manager Brian Cashman said in a telephone news conference that it was due to his “connectivity and communication” with the players.
“I don’t think that’s a new thought,” said Valentine. “When that became a new thought was when Tommy Lasorda [Valentine’s friend and mentor] became a major league manager in 1977 for the Dodgers and [then-Reds manager] Sparky Anderson said that the stuff he does with hugging the players, of getting to know the wives names and kissing the babies as they arrived at the ballpark; it might work in the minor leagues but it will not work in the major leagues.”
“That’s when that trend began,” he continued. ” ‘My way or the highway’ and the militaristic style of manager began to leave baseball and corporate America. It didn’t start with Alex Cora. But it took a while for it to become mainstream.”
“The problem that Joe Girardi had was that he was making too much money,” Valentine said. “We all know that. Anything other than that is fake news. People who run a baseball organization look at the organizational structure and said if we look at all of the management and the field manager is lowest on the organizational chart then he should make less than those above him.”
“It’s just smart business,” he explained. “I managed 4,000 games and there were probably 1,000 of these games where I hardly did anything. My wife could have done what I did. You’re up by six runs in the first inning so you just sit back and watch.”
Valentine said management is taking a similar approach with starting pitchers.
“Why have a pitcher who plays once a week make the most money on your team?” he said. “Let’s keep him from getting those credentials. Let’s lessen his work load.”
In 1995, Valentine became the first non-native manager in the Pacific League of Japan with the Chiba Lotte Marines.
That same season pitcher Hideo Nomo became only the second Japanese-born player and the first in more than 30 years to play in Major League Baseball. Wikipedia reports that to date there have now been 58 Japanese-born players in the majors.
“I got on my soap box [that year] and said they should stay there,” said Valentine. “The owners of the teams should make their league a competitive league and not a league that just supplies players to the major leagues.”
“I hope the players stay in Japan and play for their teams in Japan and make their fans proud of what they do and make their league as prominent as it can be,” he explained.
Valentine had a second stint with Chiba Lotte from 2004-2009, directing them in 2005 to both their both the Japan Series and Asia Series championships.
He said the SoftBank Hawks could become the “best baseball organization in the world someday. I think the others should follow suit.”
In the lobby of the sports academy there are a raft of framed photographs including one of Valentine in 2001 at the White House with the only president to be the managing general partner of a major league team
“George W. Bush was one of the best guys I’ve ever been around,” he said of their three years together with the Texas Rangers. “He had a wonderful combination of humor, understanding and youthful exuberance about the game that was refreshing.”
W. Bush was campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination eight years after he fired Valentine, and discovered that he was in the same Pittsburgh hotel where the Mets were staying, and he and Valentine had breakfast together and worked out in the fitness center.
Valentine declared, “If he ran again I would vote for him and campaign for him.”
Outtake Three: What do Valentine and W. Bush have in common other than their association with the Texas Rangers?
Throughout a recent 47-minute- 49-second interview, Valentine had his feet on his desk at the sports academy.
“George sat like this with his feet on my desk almost every day that I came to the ballpark and then he would get up and let me sit at my desk,” he said with a laugh.
Kurkjian wrote at ESPN.com that Valentine started having his shirts dry-cleaned when he was 16.
Wasn’t this the late 1960s when tie-dye and Nehru shirts were popular?
Valentine said his mother started sending his dress shirts to Wolfe’s Dry Cleaners, which is still operating in downtown Stamford, because he always wore dress pants to high school.
“I didn’t wear jeans until I was 20,” he said.
W. Bush did not mention in “Decision Points,” his 2010 memoir, if he began dry-cleaning his shirts at age 16.
He also didn’t state whether he sat with his feet on his desk in the Oval Office.
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