The Last Mile for a Mismatched Manager

It almost figures. The Boston Red Sox hit a skid that’s a self-immolation by any definition, just about none of which had anything to do with Bobby Valentine and his divide-and-conquer style, and now the Red Sox brass joins the team on the road in an all-but-obvious, on-the-spot evaluation.

Valentine isn’t without his guilt about the toxicity around this year’s Red Sox. Now, you almost feel sorry for him.

It began a week and a half ago when disgruntled pitcher Alfredo Aceves tore off his uniform, and damn near Valentine’s office door, after Valentine bypassed Aceves in favour of returning Andrew Bailey for a save situation. Valentine was justified entirely in his wrath, and in suspending Aceves three games.

It continued apace over Labour Day Weekend’s Oakland swing, which only began with the 20-2 nuking the Athletics dropped on the Red Sox, and merely continued when Aceves on Saturday committed three on-field crimes and two in the Red Sox dugout, the second of which involved Valentine by default.

Even acting strong and decent with a disruptive pitcher, Valentine now seems like a man who might ask his executioners-to-be, “What took you so long?”

First, Aceves waved away catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and first baseman James Loney on a foul pop—and dropped the ball. Aceves may never have received the memo that says on a play like that the pitcher defers to the catcher.

Second, Aceves fumed at the home plate umpire—about having to accept a new baseball following a foul tip. I can’t remember any previous time Aceves was suspected of throwing a non-kosher pitch, but what do I know?

Third, Aceves thought about picking off an A’s runner at second a few times. The only problem was that he caught second baseman Dustin Pedroia entirely by surprise. Usually, there’s a little signal coordination when you’re thinking about killing a runner at second.

Which is probably what Pedroia tried to remind Aceves when the sides changed, the Red Sox were back in the dugout, and the two players got into, shall we say, an animated conversation. It got animated enough to require something from Valentine.

When Aceves left the conversation, apparently at pitching coach Randy Niemann’s urging, Valentine decided to give his man a pat on the rump. Just a kind of “take it easy, brother, we’re all frustrated, too” kind of thing. It may have been one of the most decent gestures of Valentine’s time at the Red Sox bridge.

Except that Aceves wasn’t buying it. He shook Valentine’s pat off with a wave of his hand and an apparent flap of his lips. It could have been taken to mean, politely, “Get lost. You don’t belong here.”

Compared to that, letting the A’s finish what they started earlier in the weekend, then letting the Seattle Mariners kick them to the curb, 4-1 on Labour Day afternoon, was child’s play. “What difference does it make?” Valentine asked aloud Sunday night. He looked and sounded like a man awaiting his purge from a job he probably no longer wants.

You’d think Valentine has had enough trouble in 2012, too much of it his own doing, without having to wade into another troubled pond for no reason better than trying to calm down and cool off a volatile pitcher before his dugout exploded on him. Or, without having to incur his bosses flying to Seattle post-haste to watch their hapless charges in (I use the term somewhat loosely) action.

It’s not that Valentine and Aceves didn’t begin the season on the wrong, or at least on different pages. Valentine had Aceves—one of the Red Sox’s better 2011 pitchers—penciled into his starting rotation until Bailey’s injury came atop Daniel Bard’s misguided rotation promotion, and suddenly he needed Aceves, who has long had a rep for working well out of the pen or out of the rotation, in the pen.

Until a round of blown saves caused the save situation bypass in favour of the freshly-returned Bailey, Aceves seemed to have justified Valentine’s switch.

This is a pitcher who shone for the New York Yankees, helping them win the 2009 World Series and looking like a Yankee fixture in the making. But after he missed most of 2010 with back issues, the Yankees let him walk. The Yankees aren’t exactly disloyal to men who’ve been plagued by the injury bug. (See, among others, Joba Chamberlain.)

Aceves’ physical health wasn’t the deciding issue, as things turned out, but his attitude was. The petulance Aceves has shown with the Red Sox turns out to be the thing that got him no return invitation in New York. The Yankees aren’t exactly prone to suffering too many fools gladly, either, and the Red Sox probably can’t figure a guy going Benedict Arnold on a beleaguered manager whose few shining moments otherwise included putting Aceves into a position to shine, in which the pitcher did just that for a good enough while.

Maybe Valentine shrugged away Aceves’ dugout dismissal Saturday because he’s admitting to himself what his heart of hearts must have known since he questioned Kevin Youklis’s heart unreasonably. He doesn’t belong on the Red Sox bridge. Even if he’s done his own share to toxify it, even Valentine deserves better. All he’s done is champion Aceves, one of his genuinely decent plays this season, and all Aceves gave him for it was a fly act over one move and the back of the hand over a gesture of relief.

Once upon a time, firing Valentine seemed the thing too much needed. If it had to be done, and it did, it seems that it should have been done around the time of the Big Deal, or close enough. The Red Sox brass may have looked sharp in making the Big Deal, but they looked flat and fatuous when they overruled freshman general manager Ben Cherington and all but jammed Valentine down the team’s throat in the first place.

Yes, it was a bad match. And firing Valentine from this day forward may still be the thing too much needed.

But all things considered, it would seem now like a mercy killing.

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