Brian Viner: Valentine feels love as he tries to pull Sox up

The Last Word
  • @vinerbrian

John W Henry has had a busy few days, in which it's reasonable to assume that the interests of Liverpool FC have not loomed particularly large in the American tycoon's mind. Like the guy on The Fast Show, this week he has mostly been thinking Boston Red Sox.

On Thursday, Henry endorsed the appointment of a new Red Sox manager, Bobby Valentine, and if he and his partner Tom Werner do apply the lessons absorbed on one side of the Atlantic to their business practices on the other, then it could be that they have learnt from the Roy Hodgson experience that great sporting institutions and inoffensive grey men don't mix. Valentine's personality is two parts Jose Mourinho to one part Malcolm Allison and one part Brian Clough.

Here in Boston there is almost incontinent excitement about Valentine's arrival, even though he has never won a World Series, and has not worked in Major League Baseball since being fired by the New York Mets in 2002. The city is less like Liverpool, sports-wise, than Newcastle or Leeds, with eyes for only one ball club. And there is no other city in America that feels the pain when its ball club struggles, or the euphoria when it triumphs, quite like Boston.

When Henry took over the Red Sox, also in 2002, he did so with a clear manifesto, pledging as solemnly as any politician ever promises to address health and education issues to break the "Curse of the Bambino" – the long drought endured by the Red Sox since winning a World Series, said to have been started by the 1919 sale of the man nicknamed Bambino, the great Babe Ruth, to the New York Yankees.

In 2004 and again in 2007 Henry delivered on his promise. Moreover, he removed the threat of the wrecking-ball from iconic Fenway Park, America's smallest and most atmospheric big-league ballpark, where the Red Sox took up residence in 1912, in the week the Titanic went down. Henry, the man who made his millions speculating on soya bean futures, has bought himself enduring credit with Bostonians, and yet in the US, as in the UK, sports fans are a fickle bunch. The Red Sox suffered a catastrophic loss of form at the end of last season. At the start of September they led the Tampa Bay Rays by nine games in the wild-card standings, which made them look like certs for the play-offs and solid bets for a third World Series in seven years. In the long, eventful history of Major League Baseball, no such lead had ever been blown. But the Red Sox blew it.

The city of Boston was as traumatised as the city of Newcastle at the end of the "I will love it if we beat them, love it" 1995-96 Premier League season. And in the past couple of months, the radio phone-in brigade have started to challenge Henry's stature as The Man Who Can Do No Wrong. The takeover of Liverpool had worried Red Sox fans, who wondered whether John W could continue to keep his wife in furs and diamonds, having taken a distant mistress. It appears that he can. But in the wake of black September, reports emerged to suggest that the Red Sox players were as ill-disciplined as they were over-indulged, and that the manager Terry Francona had, in football parlance, lost the dressing room. Francona departed, and when Henry stood up for the players, he was shouted down. Bostonians like to refer to the "Red Sox Nation". For the first time during Henry's tenure, unhappiness was the state of the nation.

Then, this week, came Valentine's day. Bobby Valentine has managed the Mets and the Texas Rangers, and has had two mostly successful stints with Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan. It is not a shabby CV but nor does it glitter. On the other hand, the 61-year-old has a reputation as a loud-mouthed disciplinarian. And as a baseball analyst on ESPN he has been savagely critical of some of the players now in his charge. He is either just the person the Red Sox need, or the last person, and at the moment Boston can't afford to contemplate the latter, which is why he has been welcomed like a messiah, not least by The Boston Globe. On Thursday The Globe ran a front-page story presenting the 45th manager of the Red Sox as a humanitarian to make Archbishop Tutu look like a mugger of old ladies. The intro to the story was this: "The next Red Sox manager has a social condition: a charitable impulse he sometimes can't control." I don't use the messiah word lightly. Let me quote directly from The Globe again. "He [Valentine] has described learning about giving from his father, Joseph, a carpenter." I'm not kidding. Christmas has come early to the state of Massachusetts.

Learned view on ignoble side of rugby

Just before I left for the United States I received a letter from an elderly reader called Kathleen Fleming. She had read my description, two weeks ago, of the indignities to which my daughter's friend Ollie was subjected as his initiation into the university rugby club. "I do not believe that I have ever read anything in a newspaper that has shocked me more," Mrs Fleming wrote. "I know we are living in a post-Christian time but this is the behaviour of savages."

Mrs Fleming added that she was brought up in a rugby-playing family, and that her husband played for St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, when the side contained international players. She also mentioned that it was St Mary's where her husband's father discovered penicillin. So there we are. It's nice to know that the daughters-in-law of Nobel laureates read The Independent, though I'm sorry to have caused her to reach for the smelling salts.