- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN Insider
NEW YORK -- Before his final game as the Boston Red Sox manager Wednesday, Bobby Valentine walked around the field during batting practice to speak to each of his players, starting at third base and moving to shortstop and eventually making his way to the outfield. He offered handshakes and hugs in what they all certainly understood was a goodbye.
It may have been his best moment with the Red Sox, and it's unfortunate that it came at the very end, long after his future as manager had been decided. Typically, Valentine had mitigated any good feelings earlier in the day by saying on radio that his coaches undermined him -- an honest answer and completely unnecessary and senseless, because it changed nothing other than to slime people who could be looking for jobs in the days ahead.
We can all wonder why Valentine would say what he said, and join the legions of employees in the Red Sox organization -- those in uniform and those out of uniform -- who have asked the same question time and again, since the very first days of spring training. That's when Valentine's tenure as an effective leader of this team ended just as it began, on a practice field at the team's spring training facility.
The Red Sox players had not been happy about the hiring of Valentine, who had a reputation of being exceedingly critical, and as he took over the job, that was a perception he had to work against.
He's not the first, however. Terry Collins was known for an explosive intensity before he was picked as manager of the Mets. He worked hard to adjust -- and as he tempered that part of his personality, the players responded to him, with respect and hard play. Buck Showalter had a reputation among players as an overbearing manager, someone who was difficult to play for, and now the Orioles swear by him, deeply respecting his preparation and loving his humor and love for the game.
Valentine is very smart and, like Collins and Showalter, has a bottomless passion for baseball; maybe, if everything had played out differently, the players would have come to see that. Instead, right away, Valentine reinforced their preconceived notions.
According to sources within the organization, Valentine had asked for a change in the way cutoff plays were run, and when he walked onto a field early in spring training, what he saw almost immediately was that shortstop Mike Aviles was not where he wanted him. Valentine loudly and profanely questioned Aviles' aptitude, others in the organization say. What Valentine did not know at that moment was that the Red Sox players hadn't yet been instructed on where to go in the new cutoff alignment.
Aviles is highly respected, a grinder, and other players were bothered enough by the exchange that three leaders on the team -- Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez -- went to Valentine to express concern and provide context for Aviles' mistake.
Gonzalez, sources say, asked Valentine that if he wanted to get on a player verbally, the first baseman would be OK with being a target, because he could take it.
It was a moment that others in the organization now look back on as a crossroad in Valentine's year as manager, because in that instant, he could have gone one of two ways.
He could have listened to the players, embraced what they were saying, called a team meeting the next day and built on the incident. He could have apologized to Aviles and then told all of them, in so many words, Mike, you should know that these three guys over here -- Ortiz, Pedroia and Gonzalez -- have your back and are really good teammates, and that's a great thing. And I'm really feeling good about what we have in this room.
"But it didn't go that way," a member of the organization said.
Valentine did express regret to Aviles. But the players perceived Valentine as being miffed by the situation, as if the players had overreacted to something he believed was innocuous. The players perceived that Valentine thought his authority was being challenged.
Right away, this incident badly damaged the fragile connection between him and the players, and was probably destroyed once and for all by his comments about Kevin Youkilis in April. At the time, Valentine didn't believe his remarks were all that meaningful, and were taken the wrong way by players.
But Pedroia responded forcefully, with words that were designed to support a teammate but effectively ended any chance Valentine could repair his relationship with his clubhouse, because the words defined the wall that existed: "I know Youk plays as hard as anyone I've ever seen in my life and I have his back and his teammates have his back ... I don't really understand what Bobby's trying to do, but that's not the way we go about our stuff around here. I'm sure he'll figure that out soon ... Maybe in Japan or something, but over here in the U.S. we're on a three-game winning streak and we want to feel good and keep it rolling."
It all went downhill from there, through Boston's joyless season, with stories of dysfunction and feuds reaching other clubhouses, like daily reviews of a Kardashian reality show.
In speaking with reporters Wednesday at Yankee Stadium, Valentine indicated he had two regrets from the season -- first, his comments about Youkilis, and second, how he hadn't gotten a handle on the team's bullpen issues in a more timely fashion. There were several instances in which he spoke in the past tense, tellingly.
Then Valentine reached out to his players, for the last time, connecting with them on the field. It was too little and far too late.
The Red Sox again will ask about the availability of Toronto Blue Jays manager John Farrell. The last days of the Blue Jays' season have been brutal, with the players talking about the lack of leadership.
Ben Cherington took responsibility for what happened.
• Ozzie Guillen's time in Miami may end quickly, as well; the Marlins have been aggressively searching for a replacement for him.
• During one of the first days that Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder were teammates, back in spring training, Cabrera got into the batting cage and with swing after swing, he blasted line drives to right-center field. Fielder, an accomplished All-Star, watched in amazement. When batting practice ended, Fielder walked over to Cabrera and asked him -- sounding like a fan more than a peer, filled with awe -- "How do you do what you do?"
This is how Cabrera is viewed within the sport, never more than now, when Cabrera is the first player in 45 years to win the Triple Crown.
• As our colleague Orel Hershiser said, watching the Oakland Athletics is like watching a college team, in how much fun they have and how cohesive they are. They have won 68 of their past 101 games, and the end to their season was classic A's, writes Susan Slusser.
The Rangers' collapse is complete, and now, they'll have to take the road through the wild-card game. Josh Hamilton talked about the fly ball he dropped. Yu Darvish will start the wild-card game against the Baltimore Orioles.
The Rangers lost seven of their last nine games to finish the regular season second in the AL West.
From Elias Sports Bureau: The Rangers spent the most days in first place (178) without winning the division title during the divisional era (since 1969). The '09 Tigers are second with 164, followed by the '07 Mets with 159.
• The New York Yankees are rolling into the playoffs, as healthy as they've been all season, with CC Sabathia throwing well and Robinson Cano crushing the ball -- he's got 24 hits in nine games. The Yankees are a very dangerous team right now because of the way their lineup has come together.
• Rush hour will be really crazy in Atlanta Friday, as David O'Brien writes.
The Reds finished with 97 wins.
From ESPN Stats and Info, some notes on the season:
• Jeter is the second-oldest player to lead the majors in hits and sixth-oldest with 200-plus hits in a season.
• Bryce Harper's 22 homers are the second-most in a season by a teenager (Tony Conigliaro had 24 in 1964).
• Adam Dunn's 222 strikeouts are the most in AL history and second-most in MLB history.
• R.A. Dickey (20-6) is the first knuckleballer with 20 wins since Joe Niekro in 1980 and first Mets pitcher since Frank Viola in 1990.
• Cliff Lee is the first pitcher in the modern era to strike out 200-plus batters and have six or fewer wins in a season (Elias).
• Gio Gonzalez (21-8) sets the Nationals/Expos franchise record in wins.
• Jim Johnson's 51 saves are tied for third in AL history and an Orioles' record.
• Craig Kimbrel's 16.7 K per 9 innings is the highest in MLB history (min. 50 IP).
• Fernando Rodney's 0.60 ERA is the lowest in MLB history (min. 50 IP).
• Boston's .436 winning percentage is the club's lowest since 1965.
• The Pirates had their 20th consecutive losing season (longest streak ever among the four major sports).
• The Phillies finish the season with a non-winning record for first time since 2002.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. As Terry Francona gets interviewed by the Cleveland Indians, his personal relationship with the folks in that organization -- Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro, specifically -- is a significant factor. After years in Boston working for owners with whom he was not close, Francona may get the opportunity to work with people he really knows well.
Will Francona go to an organization that will have one of the lowest payrolls in the majors for years to come? Will the Indians pay him a salary suitable for someone who was among the best-paid managers in the game? We'll see.
Sandy Alomar, Jr. will have his interview today.
2. The Blue Jays say they're prepared to overpay. We've heard this time and again, and over and over, their club ownership has pulled the proverbial rug from underneath the front office. The club ownership has been miserly, writes Cathal Kelly.
Dings and dents
• The Indians had a terrible finish to what was a very frustrating season.
• The Twins' attention now turns to offseason fixes.
By The Numbers
From ESPN Stats and Info
5: Hits for the Orioles in their final two games of the season combined.
6: Home runs in four career season finales for Evan Longoria (DNP in 2010 finale).
9: Consecutive multi-hit games to end the season for Robinson Cano, the longest multi-hit streak in the majors this season.
10: Different players to win the Triple Crown since 1920 (when runs batted in became official), inluding Cabrera this season.
25: Home runs for Ryan Zimmerman, the third time he's reached that number in the past four seasons.
42: Saves for Craig Kimbrel, tied for first in the NL for the second straight year. He's the first pitcher in Braves history with multiple seasons leading the league in saves.
• Teddy Roosevelt won a race for the first time.
And today will be better than yesterday.