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Bobby Valentine (Red Sox),.FEBRUARY 21, 2012 - MLB :.Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine during the Boston Red Sox spring training camp at JetBlue Park at Fenway South in Fort Myers, Florida, United States. (Photo by Thomas Anderson/AFLO) (JAPANESE NEWSPAPER OUT) (Credit Image: © Thomas Anderson/AFLO/ZUMAPRESS.com)
Monday, April 2, 2012

Valentine may be leading man in Sox’ soap opera

Alan Greenwood

Every Major League Baseball team plays out a not-so-private soap opera during the course of a season. Hell, any business in which a relatively small number of people are locked away in close quarters for seven or more months will conjure its share of melodrama, and some of it will come to a boil.

Considering the combination of age, wealth and celebrity in any modern clubhouse, particularly the one beneath the first-base grandstand at Fenway Park, it is astounding that any man would want to make a career out of managing such casts of characters.

Even with Manny Ramirez, whose petulance would’ve driven veritable saints to the dark side, Terry Francona did as good a job as anyone could expect at minimizing the damage done by big-league egos stretching their leashes to the point of snapping. To those who are convinced that Francona stayed one year too long, please don’t pass off the September collapse as the inevitable fallout of fried chicken and beer socials run by clubhouse party planners Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey.

A purely clinical post-mortem of the 2011 Red Sox would reveal plenty of baseball ills as the cause of their premature demise, and Francona certainly deserves a share of the blame for them. Still, while it wasn’t the best managerial performance of Francona’s eight seasons in Boston, he didn’t mysteriously morph into Pinky Higgins.

Francona is better off without the Red Sox, and they are probably better off without him. Which brings us to Bobby Valentine, who has done everything he could this spring to let his clubhouse know that he is, if nothing else, the anti-Francona.

Valentine has not been shy about publicly criticizing players, but has been wise enough (at least this spring) to save his barbs for those who lack the service time, salary and popular support to return fire. Can he actually maintain that sense of decorum through six months of relentless, daily media inquiries?

Even if he does, there has already been some evidence that Valentine’s desire to instill a heretofore unseen sense of discipline could be chafing players who, perhaps, grew a little too content under Francona.

Curt Schilling (for the record, a longtime Francona loyalist) has already lobbed a few salvos at Valentine. Last week, he told anyone who cared to listen (and in these parts, that’s a hefty audience) that Valentine hasn’t changed his managerial style since leaving the Mets in 2002, putting him on the fast track to disaster in Boston.

“It’s going bad quicker than I thought it would,’’ Schilling said on WEEI radio. Of course, in true Schill fashion, he quickly embroidered his assessment with double talk – “I’ve always liked Bobby,’’ he cooed – but he had already succeeded in making Valentine’s methods the main course for public debate as Opening Day beckons.

Considering Schilling’s friendships with Beckett and Lester, it isn’t difficult to tell who is fueling his fodder.

Those of us whose earliest baseball memories include managers in the Dick Williams mold might be inspired to wax nostalgic upon hearing that Valentine is fully prepared to maintain a doghouse and unafraid to lock his best players inside.

The reality is, it doesn’t work anymore. Fame and fortune have robbed managers of the leverage needed for dictatorial control of a clubhouse.

And then there is the relationship, or lack of same, between Valentine and general manager Ben Cherington.

Schilling may well be right. The 2012 Red Sox soap opera may already be at center stage before they climb aboard their chartered jet for Thursday’s opener in Detroit.

Alan Greenwood can be reached at 594-6427 or agreenwood@nashuatelegraph.com.