BOSTON — Bobby Valentine took over as manager of the Boston Red Sox on Thursday, promising to be hardworking, open-minded and even humble as he tries to help the franchise return to the playoffs and forget the disappointment of this season’s unprecedented September collapse.
“It’s more than a special day. It’s the beginning of a life that’s going to extend beyond anything I thought of doing,” Valentine said. “The talent level of the players we have in this organization is a gift to anyone, and I think I’m a receiver of this gift.
“I think we’re going to do this, man,” he said, smiling and turning to shake hands with general manager Ben Cherington. “And I really and truly appreciate this opportunity.”
The 61-year-old Valentine agreed to a two-year deal with club options for 2014 and 2015 that was announced in a Fenway Park premium club during a news conference attended by owner John Henry and his wife, by Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, by an entourage of friends from Stamford, Conn., by dozens of team employees and by about 100 members of the media, many of them from New York outlets that covered Valentine in his days with the Mets.
“There is a buzz,” Lucchino said, acknowledging that Valentine’s personality and his history in New York could enhance an already intense AL East rivalry with the Yankees. “I think it does add a little bit of kerosene to the fire.”
Valentine, who also managed the Texas Rangers and who guided the Chiba Lotte Marines to the 2005 championship, greeted one reporter in Japanese.
“Bobby’s a big personality,” Henry said. “I think that’s a plus.”
Valentine said he got a taste of a Yankees rivalry with the Mets. But they only played six times a season in interleague play; the division opponents play 18 times in 2012.
“I’m really excited,” Valentine said. “I know the Yankees always have a team where you have to put your best foot forward when you’re playing them. … I think we’re going to be able to match them. It’s not going to be the best team that wins, but the team that plays the best.”
Valentine brings to Boston a reputation as a polarizing figure who wasn’t afraid to criticize his players publicly — something former Red Sox manager Terry Francona never did — and who bickered with his boss at the Mets. But he takes over a team with a bit of a reputation problem of its own: After going 7-20 in September to miss the playoffs by one game, the Red Sox have been hounded by reports that players drank beer and ate fried chicken in the clubhouse during games instead of sitting in the dugout to support their teammates.
“I didn’t see it first hand,” Valentine cautioned, before saying about the team what he could have said in his own defense: “Reputation is something other people think about you. Right now maybe this group of guys has a reputation that is not warranted. … I can tell you I look forward to working with this group and establishing a culture of excellence.”
Vowing to get to know the players personally first, Valentine said there was no single way to restore discipline to a clubhouse. “I don’t have a Ten Commandments of Baseball that I’m going to recite to them,” he said.
Valentine took the Mets to the 2000 World Series but he was fired after a last-place finish led to clubhouse turmoil two years later. Depending on whom you believe, he was either a relentless self-promoter or honest to a fault.
“I think people who take the time to get to know me understand I have some qualities in my character that are OK,” he said. “I’m not a monster who breathes fire who some people refer to me as. I’m a guy, a regular human being with regular feelings.”
Valentine said that he had learned from his previous managerial jobs.
But one thing won’t change.
“I’m still going to get frustrated when things aren’t done in an excellent way,” he said. “I’m still going to get out early to try to fix everything in the world.”
Valentine was a late entry in Boston’s managerial search — at least publicly, as the Red Sox left him off of their initial short list because he was in a visible position as an ESPN analyst at the time. Pete Mackanin, Sandy Alomar Jr., Dale Sveum, Torey Lovullo and Gene Lamont were also interviewed; Lamont was also a finalist.
“It was not a tightly ordered, linear process,” Lucchino said. “It never is.”
Cherington denied reports that Valentine was forced on him by Lucchino and Henry.
“It’s just not true,” said the new GM, who was promoted when Theo Epstein left to become president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs. “I feel very strongly we found the right person in Bobby Valentine.”
Valentine said he didn’t allow himself to believe he could get the job until he received a text message from Cherington — pulling out his cellphone to read reporters the time: 8:37 a.m. on Nov. 29. “I would wake up at night thinking there’s a chance and then say, “Don’t go there. You’re going to get your heart broken,” said Valentine, who was in Japan on a goodwill visit when he got the news.
Valentine paid homage to the team’s tradition by selecting the uniform No. 25, which was worn by his one-time roommate Tony Conigliaro. The former Red Sox outfielder’s career was cut short after he was hit in the face by Jack Hamilton’s fastball in 1967.
“I would gladly take it off to put it up on that wall,” Valentine said, pointing to the facade where the Red Sox retired numbers hang.
“I understand the rich tradition of baseball in this city, of sports in this community. I understand the rivalries this team has. And I understand the great talent on this team.”