It has been almost 15 years since Bobby Valentine has managed the Mets, and because of how history works, the enduring image we have of Bobby V is the time he came back into the dugout with sunglasses and a fake mustache made with eye back after he had been thrown out of a game. Bobby V was much more than that.
After a disappointing player career that included two forgettable seasons with the Mets, Valentine became a coach. In 1983, he was named the third base coach for the George Bamberger led Mets. Despite Bamberger not lasting the season, and General Manager Frank Cashen cleaning house, the Mets decided to keep Valentine when Davey Johnson was hired. From 1983 – 1985, Valentine was generally regarded as a very good third base coach, who helped in the development of a young Mets team from cellar dwellers to contenders. He would be hired as the Texas Rangers manager, and he would miss all of the 1986 season.
After his stint in Texas, a brief stop in Norfolk, and one in Japan, the Mets brought Bobby V back to the organization for the 1996 season. Initially, he was named as the manager of the Tides. However, after Dallas Green had finally run through all of the young arms on the team, Valentine was named the interim manager for the final 31 games of the season. In the offseason, the interim tag would be removed, and he would start the 1997 season as the Mets manager.
The 1997 Mets were THE surprise team in all of baseball. Despite a starting rotation that was comprised of Rick Reed, Dave Mlicki, Bobby Jones, Mark Clark, Brian Bohanon, and Armando Reynoso, the Mets would go from a 71 win team to an 88 win team. Now, there were good seasons for the turnaround. There was the acquisition of John Olerud. There was also another strong season from Lance Johnson, and Todd Hundley proved his record setting 41 home run 1996 season was no fluke. However, there were other factors at play, and they were directly related to the manger.
First, Edgardo Alfonzo was made the everyday third baseman instead of the utility player he was under Green. Also, while Reed had started the season coming out of the bullpen, Bobby V moved him into the rotation. Additionally, whereas Green’s calling card was to abuse his starters’ arms, Valentine protected his starters’ arms (his starters averaged six innings per start and less), and he used the bullpen to his advantage. On a more subjective note, this was a team that played harder and was more sound fundamentally. It was a team that probably played over their heads for much of the season.
One important note from this season, Mlicki threw a complete game shut-out against the Yankees in the first ever Subway Series game. While the Mets were overmatched in terms of talent in that three game series, Bobby V had that group ready to play, and they very nearly took the three game set from the Yankees.
With the Mets having overachieved, the front office led by General Manager Steve Phillips gave his manager some reinforcements. The team would acquire Al Leiter and Dennis Cook from the Marlins. The Mets would also add Japanese pitcher Masato Yoshii from Japan. However, this team was struggling due to Hundley’s elbow injury and Bernard Gilkey and Carlos Baerga having yet another disappointing season. Bobby V and the Mets kept the team above .500 and competitive long enough to allow the front office to make the bold move to add Mike Piazza.
From there, the Mets took off, and they would actually be in the thick of the Wild Card race. They were in it despite the Hundley LF experiment not working. They were in it despite getting nothing offensively from left field and their middle infield. They were in it despite the fact the Mets effectively had a three man bullpen. The latter (I’m looking at you Mel Rojas) coupled with the Braves dominance of the Mets led to a late season collapse and the team barely missing out on the Wild Card.
The Mets re-loaded in 1999 with Rickey Henderson, Robin Ventura, Roger Cedeno, Armando Benitez, and Orel Hershiser (no, Bobby Bonilla is not getting lumped in here). Things do not initially go as planned. After blowing a late lead, the Yankees beat the Mets, and the Mets found themselves a game under .500. Phillips responded by firing almost all of Bobby V’s coaching staff.
The Mets and Bobby V responded by becoming the hottest team in baseball. From that point forward, the Mets were 70-37. At points during the season, they even held onto first place for a few days. The Mets were helped by Bobby V being judicious with Henderson’s playing time to help keep him fresh. Like in year’s past, Bobby V moved on from a veteran not performing to give Cedeno a chance to play everyday, and he was rewarded. Again, like in previous seasons, Bobby V had to handle a less than stellar starting rotation.
In what was a fun and tumultuous season, the Mets won 97 games. The team nearly avoided disaster again by forcing a one game playoff against the Reds for the Wild Card. Not only did the Mets take that game, but they upset the Diamondbacks in the NLDS. The NLDS performance is all the more impressive when you consider Piazza was forced to miss the last two games due to injury. In the NLCS, they just met a Braves team that had their number for the past three seasons. Still, even with the Braves jumping all over the Mets and getting a 3-0 series lead, we saw the Mets fight back.
In Game 4, it was an eighth inning two run go-ahead Olerud RBI single off John Rocker. In Game 5, it was a 15 inning game that was waiting for the other team to blink first. While, the Mets blinked in the top of the 15th with a Keith Lockhart RBI triple, the Mets responded in the bottom of the 15th with Ventura’s Grand Slam single to send the series back to Atlanta. The Mets would be ever so close in Game 6. They fought back from a 5-0 and 7-3 deficit. Unforutnately, neither John Franco nor Benitez could hold a lead to force a Game 7. Then Kenny Rogers couldn’t navigate his way around a lead-off double and bases loaded one out situation in the 11th.
In 2000, Bobby V finally got the rotation he needed with the trade acquiring Mike Hampton and the emergence of Glendon Rusch. However, even with the much improved rotation, it still was not an easy year for the Mets. It rarely ever was during Bobby V’s tenure.
First, the Mets had to deal with the Henderson and Darryl Hamilton situations. Henderson became a malcontent that wanted a new contract. Hamilton lost his starting job due to a toe injury and had become a part time player. The result was the complete transformation of the outfield with Benny Agbayani and Jay Payton becoming everyday players. In the infield, the Mets lost Olerud to free agency and had to convert free agent third baseman Todd Zeile into a first baseman. Additionally, the Mets lost Gold Glove shortstop Rey Ordonez to injury leading the team to have to rely on Melvin Mora as their shortstop for much of the season. In what was perhaps Bobby V’s finest managing job with the Mets, the team made the postseason for the second straight year. It was the first time in Mets history they had gone to consecutive playoff games.
In the postseason, the team showed the same toughness and grit as they had in prior years. In the first game of the NLDS, they overcame an injury to Derek Bell and saw Timo Perez become a folk hero. The Mets outlasted the Giants in Game 2 despite a Benitez blown save. In Game 3, Agbayani hit a walk-off homer in the 13th, and Game 4 saw the Jones one-hitter. With the Mets not having to face the Braves in the NLCS, they steamrolled through the Cardinals en route to their first World Series since 1986. While the team never gave in, the balls did not bounce in their favor. That was no more apparent than when Zeile’s fly ball hit the top of the left field wall and bounced back into play.
From there, Phillips lost his magic touch. The team started to get old in 2001, and by 2002, everything fell apart. After what was his first season under .500 with the Mets, Bobby V was fired after the 2002 season. With one exception, it was the end of a forgettable and disappointing two seasons for the Mets.
One thing that cannot be lost with the 2001 season was how the Mets dealt with the aftermath of 9/11. Every player did their part. So did their manager. After 9/11 happened, Bobby V was a visible face of the Mets franchise visiting firehouses and helping relief aid at Shea Stadium. When it was time to return to playing games, he was able to get his players in a mindset to play baseball games. That is no small feat when your captain was a local guy who lost a friend on 9/11. Also, while it was the players who spearheaded wearing the First Responders’ caps, it was their manager who stood by their side and encouraged them to wear them despite requests to take them off from the Commissioner’s Office.
Through the roller coaster ride that was the 1,003 games of the Bobby V Era, the Mets were 536-437. During that span, Bobby V managed the second most games in Mets history while earning the second most wins in Mets history. His .534 winning percentage is the third best in Mets history just behind Johnson and Willie Randolph. In all but his final season as Mets manager, the Mets either met or exceed their expected (Pythagorean) record.
Bobby V stands as just one of two managers to go to consecutive postseasons. His 13 postseason wins are the most by any manager in Mets history. He’s the only Mets manager to win a postseason series in consecutive postseasons. He’s managed in more postseason series than any other Mets manager.
Overall, Bobby V is an important part of Mets history. Out of all the managers in Mets history, it is fair to say the Bobby V consistently did more with the talent given to him by his front office. For some, he is the best manager in Mets history. Most will certainly agree he is at least the third best manager in Mets history. For all of this, and how he represented the Mets organization during 9/11 and the aftermath, Bobby V should be inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame.