Bobby Valentine’s bicycle seems to spend more time backpedaling than anything else when he’s aboard. And he has no better sense of direction than when he’s trying to pedal forward.
A few days ago, when a reporter had the audacity to ask in which if any areas the Red Sox needed improvement, Valentine delivered yet another remark the kind that has Red Sox Nation and Red Sox critics alike wondering when, not if, Valentine gets pinked. Not because he’s wrong, necessarily, but because he has a need, apparently insatiable, to take the low road, implying he can do nothing much past playing what he’s been dealt.
“Are you kidding?” Valentine replied. “This is the weakest roster we’ve ever had in September in the history of baseball. It could use help everywhere.”
That was Friday past. This is Sunday morning. “The other day when I made a comment about our September roster,” Valentine told reporters, “that wasn’t meant to be a criticism of any players or anything in the organization. It’s a statement of fact because of the injuries and our Triple-A team in the playoffs. This is different. We have less people than most September rosters. We have less positions filled than any September roster I’ve ever seen before. Anybody who thought that to be anything other than a statement of what it was, stand corrected on that.”
All Valentine had to do was say precisely that in the first place, particularly the fourth and fifth sentences. He would have spoken a truth plain enough without implying that he’s got a team somewhere between pathetic and hopeless; that God (and His servant Tom Yawkey?) know he could only do what he could with what he’s got; and, just in case you missed it the first time, it wasn’t and isn’t Bobby V’s fault. But he might have resembled what critics more harsh than Murray Chass would never accuse him of resembling, the diplomat who isn’t a weasel wordsmith.
At the barest minimum Valentine is a baseball historian described charitably as wanting. If you’re a literalist, you can seek and find some September rosters in seasons past that just might make his roster this month resemble a World Series champion in waiting. Hell, you can look around this season’s leagues and discover one or two. (Not the Houston Astros, believe it or not: pathetic as they’ve been all season long, the Astros in September, pending this afternoon’s outcome, are 7-7.) Based upon their wins and losses from September’s opening through today’s date, let’s look at a few, shall we?
1909 Washington Senators: 2-11. The 1909 Senators would finish 42-110. And this was a year Hall of Famer Walter Johnson lost 25 without leading the team or the league in losses: the team and league leader, Bob Groom, lost 26. Both men left the next-highest loser behind by a few. Unfortunately, he was Dolly Gray . . . and he was also a Senator. Johnson, in fairness, probably pitched in a lot of hard luck: he had an ERA (2.22) below the league average (2.47) and a 1.12 average of walks and hits per inning pitched. This, by the way, is the same team that inspired sportswriting legend Charley Dryden, working out of Chicago at the time, to coin the saying that clung to the Old Nats until the day they bolted town: “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”
1939 St. Louis Browns: 4-11. The ’39 Brownies actually had some decent hitters. What they didn’t have was some decent pitchers. Among their seven key pitchers (three starters, four relievers who also laboured as spot starters) the walks/hits per inning pitched came out to 1.79, and their ERA was 5.74. On the other hand, how many teams can claim to have developed a future soap opera legend? (Johnny Berardino, rookie second baseman, who’d drop the second ‘r’ from his surname—he’d added it as a ballplayer—and become General Hospital‘s Dr. Steve Hardy from the show’s birth until his death in 1996.)
1962 New York Mets: 3-9-1. (They played one game against the Houston Colt .45s that was tied at seven when the game was called, one presumes, on account of inclement weather; it was made up as part of a doubleheader later in the month, with the Colts winning both games.) They were on their way to finishing the franchise’s inaugural season with a record 120 losses. The Original Mets may have been perversely colourful, but a roster of mostly washed-up veterans and a few green kids here and there wasn’t likely to win all that many games in the first place.
1987 Cleveland Indians: 5-10. There’ve been worse teams in Cleveland, of course, but I chose this one for my own perverse reason. You want to talk about the Sports Illustrated cover jinx? Joe Carter and Cory Snyder were the spring training cover boys for a story predicting the 1987 Indians would win the American League East. They looked like a solid roster going in, having won 84 in 1986 (their best since 1968) and retooled with a few smart trades (including for Carter, Brett Butler, Julio Franco, and Pat Tabler), but they had an Achilles heel: major pitching trouble. Peter Gammons eventually admitted the SI cover was a cute gag. Their weak pitching—which included two Hall of Famers hanging in by threads (Phil Niekro, Steve Carlton), no starting pitcher with a winning record, and Tom Candiotti leading the starting staff in ERA with 4.78—meant finishing with 101 losses on the year.
2003 Detroit Tigers: 4-11. Bad enough—the previous year’s edition losing 106. Worse—the 2003 edition going on everyone’s watch to see if they’d actually break the 1962 Mets’ record for season’s losses. (Original Mets’ owner Joan Payson puckishly told Jimmy Breslin she demanded improvement enough to get 1963′s losses down to what the 2003 Tigers did lose: 119.) Their most respectable hitter was a DH (Dmitri Young, .909 OPS); they could slug but not much else; three starting pitchers lost 17 or more, led by poor Mike Maroth’s 21); the rotation’s walks/hits per inning pitch average was 1.52; and, the bullpen was allowed to compile about half as many saves as Mariano Rivera had by himself.
Valentine’s Red Sox are 4-9 from 1 September through this morning. This would just about tie them with the 1962 Mets, the 1987 Indians, and the 2003 Tigers for the same calendar span. But it wouldn’t be anywhere close to the worst first-half-of-September team the game has yet known.
The expansion Mets were a sorry lot going in, and even manager Casey Stengel knew it. When Stengel popped off memorably enough about his hapless heroes, he kept heat off his troops and, considering his reputation for bedazzling triplespeak, didn’t seem to mind if anyone thought he was in on the gag, though the sound baseball thinker in him surely chafed. But I don’t really remember either the 1987 Indians or the 2003 Tigers being whipsawed by their own managers or front offices, whether under great expectations exploding like the Hindenburg (the Indians) or no expectations deflating like the stock market (the Tigers).
It might be one thing if Valentine had the sense of humour to take the sting out of his clumsy ejaculations. “Come an’ see my amazin’ Mets,” Stengel famously hectored their paying customers. “I been in this game a hundred years but I see new ways to lose I never knew existed yet.” Coming from Stengel it seemed counterculturally charming. Coming from Valentine about his Red Sox, it would seem as though he were dancing on their graves—and blaming someone else for providing him the shovel with which he buried them.
Lighten up, Bobby V. Your Red Sox aren’t quite the weakest September team in baseball history. That won’t make your pink slip easier to assimilate, but it might make the rest of the month, and the season, go down with a little less of a sore throat when you swallow.