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The Radioactive Dugout

Is Bobby Valentine really the guy to turn the Red Sox around?

Bobby Valentine needed a coffee.

It was five minutes to seven on a soft spring morning at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Florida, and the 61-year-old manager of the Boston Red Sox had just arrived in his office — a windowless room located on a long cinder-block corridor within a baseball facility built seemingly overnight in a state where high unemployment, low union clout, and Lee County official eagerness resulted in farmland being turned into a state-of-the-art ballyard in stunning speed.

“Forgot we had a night game,” he said. “I could have gotten here a little later if I remembered we were playing a night game today.”

“What time would you come then?” he was asked.

“8 a.m.,” he answered. “Kitchen’s not even open yet. I need a cup of coffee. One cup. That’s all I need in the morning. One cup to get me going.”

There was a coffeemaker on top of a hip-high steel file cabinet along the wall behind his desk. Valentine stood up, placed a coffee cartridge in the coffeemaker, and touched the “on” button with his index finger. Nothing happened.

“Jesus Christ,” he muttered. “Is this thing working?”

He pushed the “on” button again. And again, nothing. Then he moved the file cabinet away from the wall, removed the coffeemaker’s plug from the outlet, and put the plug into a second outlet. Still nothing.

“Goddammit,” he said. “That’s distressing.”

He hit the switch a third time and then hit the coffeemaker. Now he stood staring at it with the same look he’s given countless times to players who failed to hit a cutoff man or missed a bunt sign.

“I’ve got to get this thing working,” he said to himself. “Watch, I’ll get it working.”

“You sound like a know-it-all,” he was told.

“Hey,” he laughed. “That’s probably because I am a know-it-all.”

So, here he was, Bobby V, the pride of Stamford, Connecticut, greatest high school athlete in that state’s history, nine years out of the major league managerial loop, standing in his baseball underwear, cursing a coffeemaker, carrying all the baggage as well as optimism that has clung to him across a lifetime in the game.

“I’ve learned to not dwell on the last loss,” he pointed out. “I now prefer to think of the next win.”

This week he takes a team — the Boston Red Sox — into a season still in the shadow of a disastrous September collapse and a nightmarish offseason; the manager, Tito Francona, departed, followed by the general manager, Theo Epstein, amid a series of news stories that made the club appear more dysfunctional than the cast of Jersey Shore.

He has a permanent smile on his face and an iPad on his desk. There is a stack of unopened mail on a round table. There are several books next to the letters: People Smart by Tony Alessandra and Michael J. O’Connor, The Leader Within: Learning Enough About Yourself to Lead Others, by Drea Zigarmi and Ken Blanchard, and Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.

“Kahneman,” Bobby Valentine notes. “He was awarded the Nobel Prize.”

So who is he in this, the spring of his 61st year, more than 40 of them spent in baseball? Is he, as a critic like Curt Schilling contends, an overmanaging control freak who eventually exhausts both players and the front office with constant tips on how to lay down a bunt, turn a double play, round third, load an equipment truck, make a sandwich, or select a wine? Or is he simply a guy whose high-wattage personality, eternal optimism, endless curiosity about multiple topics, love of the game, and substantial IQ and EQ (emotional intelligence) have him roaming across various facets of life as if each sunrise came with a buffet of big thoughts to be sampled or devoured? A guy who has managed to assemble all his experience into nuptials where instinct finally marries wisdom?

For years — before he was either banished, forgotten, or thought to be too electric to handle — Bobby Valentine played and managed games from eye level. And while he remains unafraid to grade his new club, his absence from the scene — as a true participant with a number on the back of his jersey — seems to have brought a caution about where his rhetoric might lead when conjecturing about the record and road ahead for the 2012 edition of the Red Sox.

Through the time in Texas and New York, he was a man of the moment. Always there with something to say about nearly everything and everyone; 162 games, 162 potential chances for combustion. But life in Japan and working for ESPN did something that probably surprised even him: It broadened his horizons, exposed him to different styles of management and leadership — and Valentine is a sponge for anything he thinks might give him an edge. He absorbed all of it and now takes those lessons to this job, this team, and a town that has been waiting in judgment since Evan Longoria’s home run landed in the left field stands last September, cementing a historic Red Sox collapse. And he is indeed ready to be judged, booed, cheered, second-guessed constantly, and have the F-word used as an adjective before his last name if the Olde Towne Team doesn’t come out of the gate playing .800 baseball.

“I understand expectation and I understand there’s only so much you can do about the perceptions others have about you,” he says. “Actually, there’s not much you can do. But I’m older now; I’m more interested now in building my character and not my reputation. That wasn’t always the case, though.

“I don’t really get concerned or caught up with what people think of me anymore. That’s reputation. I know that sounds like a line, but it’s a fact. I try to do what’s right as often as possible … that’s character.”

First time he got fired, he was about 15. He was working in a clothing store in Stamford called Frank Martin and Sons.

“I was selling clothes,” he recalls. “I guess I wasn’t very good at it, so I got fired. I was surprised, but I wasn’t crushed.

“I got fired in Texas. Got fired in New York. I survived. Got through it. It’s all part of life’s lessons, and I’m still learning. Hopefully, every day.”

Now he finds himself back at work, back in uniform, in a market that can often feel claustrophobic. Since 2004, when the Red Sox beat the Yankees in an earth-shaking, universe-altering, come-from-behind playoff series for the ages and then, seemingly as an afterthought, won the World Series, too, “The Nation” greets each season with high expectations and low patience. Valentine was hired during a winter of chicken-and-beer tales, and each new story and every day only seemed to add to the clamor and anger that came with the collapse.

“I don’t think I was hired to change the culture of the team,” he says. “I don’t think there is a culture that needs to be changed. I see a group of players, very good players, who know how to play the game and play it very well.

“Now, the culture of the game itself,” he continues, “well, I do think there can be some changes, some adjustments if you will, that I’d like to help happen. Maybe a little reversion to Baseball 101.

“Here’s what I mean: I’ve noticed that across the last five or 10 years in the game there seems to be a growing tendency to wait for the home run. And I think that’s dulled the senses a little bit, the baseball senses. And I don’t think that waiting for the home run to occur is fulfilling enough for a baseball player.

“Baseball players know instinctively that there is much more to this game. I walk around the locker room and I see Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury sitting around talking with Dave Magadan, talking about baseball, talking about all the little things that make up the game, the things that help a team win, things other than the home run, and it makes me happy. They get it.”

And Valentine got it, too, got the one thing he thought he might never get again: the chance to manage another major league team, to measure his day by innings instead of by wristwatch, to think of what he might want to do in the top of the eighth during the bottom of the third, to live and breathe every moment from eye level in a dugout instead of off a TV monitor in the press box, to again be the real Bobby V rather than Bobby Valentine, analyst on Baseball Tonight, former manager of this club or that one.

He is semi-fluent in Japanese. He is a gourmet cook, a ballroom dancer, inventor of the wrap sandwich, a consumer of Malcolm Gladwell’s books as well as sheet after sheet of sabermetrics; he has been fired by George W. Bush, worn a disguise in a dugout, colored his hair for TV, and never, not once, missed an opportunity to grab life with both hands each and every day.

He is Bobby Valentine, back in the game, back in the one place where he feels most at home, most comfortable: a dugout, with a lineup card in his grasp, a field in front of him, and a long season of hope and opportunity ahead with one objective, the single item that has driven him through the years.

“The win, baby,” Bobby Valentine said. “The win.”

Mike Barnicle is a columnist/commentator on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

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