Why It Seems Like Old Times: The Red Sox Are a Mess

[sidebar]BASEBALL IS DIFFERENT. It’s a strange, weird world with its own social structures and habits of business. It’s a place where overweight pitchers, instead of humbly copping to indulging in midgame fried-chicken banquets, bellyache about clubhouse snitches (ahem, Mr. Beckett). It’s also a world where grown men frequently undress in front of total strangers. And really, those were the two main things that led to me standing in Bobby Valentine’s office one day this past February while he was stripping down (he’s a briefs man, ladies).

The Red Sox’s beer-and-Popeye’s-fueled September collapse, you might have heard, led to the ouster of manager Terry Francona and then the departure of general manager and local hero/Christ figure Theo Epstein. Ben Cherington, Theo’s longtime apprentice, slid quickly into his old boss’s place, but trouble ensued when ownership rejected his apparent preferred candidate for manager. Soon after, Valentine, an old favorite of team president and CEO Larry Lucchino, surfaced as the leading contender for the job. When Valentine was finally hired, the Red Sox brass insisted that the whole thing had been Cherington’s decision, not Lucchino’s. A few dozen small children even accepted that argument uncritically.

Call me crazy, but as a lifelong Red Sox fan, I loved it. All of it — including the collapse itself. Unless you happen to be the kind of fan who gets jazzed by Adrian Gonzalez’s prayer circles (and who didn’t love last year’s inaugural Faith Day at Fenway Park?), the club by last year had gotten boring with a red, capital B. Then the Sox blew a nine-game wild-card lead in a single month, and suddenly, chaos and intrigue — once the hallmark of the Red Sox — were back again. And just when it seemed impossible for the team to top that spectacular flameout and all the controversy that followed, they hired Bobby Valentine. This was a guy who, despite a universally acclaimed baseball mind, was heretofore best known for making outrageous statements, often about his own team. Oh, and also for that time he was kicked out of a game while managing the Mets, only to slap on a fake mustache and sneak back into his dugout.

“Only the terminally naive believe they can hire Bobby Valentine and then live a stress-free life,” Globe columnist Bob Ryan wrote the day after the hire became public, imagining management waking up to headlines such as “Bobby V blasts Beckett.” The consensus on Valentine, in other words, was that he’s something like an active volcano: on most days, a great attraction and a wonder to behold, but also capable of spewing lava and burning down the entire village.

OF COURSE, Valentine hasn’t melted down yet (as of press time!). And if nothing else, he’s been pure energy since coming to town. He’s been everywhere and done everything, including a photo shoot for this magazine at Fenway Park. When he came down the ballpark concourse to meet us, he was practically bouncing. I’d tagged along for an interview, so when he sat down to get his makeup done, I asked him how he’d spent the off-season. He said he’d been getting to know people, flying all over to fulfill charitable commitments, watching video, and “devouring a lot of statistical analysis.” So rest easy, any of you who worried he wasn’t a Moneyball acolyte.

As the shoot began, he could hardly stay still. While sitting on a stool for a portrait, he swung his leg back and forth restlessly, like that kid stuck in class dying to be on the ballfield instead. During a short break, while everyone else was breaking, he picked up the camera and examined it. After a while, he seemed to grow bored with just sitting there in front of the camera. So he started loudly singing notes to himself and then yelled, “Okay!”