By Don Laible – Utica OD
Bobby Valentine made the four-hour drive (222 miles) from his home in Stamford,Connecticut on Saturday to wish the Mohawk Valley Diamond Dawgs well in their upcoming season.
Baseball fever wasn’t difficult to catch at 20 Albany Street in Little Falls. The Travel Lodge was ground zero. Advertising a 5:30pm start of their annual Mohawk Valley Baseball Hall of Fame dinner, anticipation clearly was building, well before that. One hour prior to the event, team owner Travis Heiser exits his car in the Lodge’s parking lot. He walks through the motel’s lobby,no turns needed, as Heiser pulls open a door labeled – banquet. This is where all the stories will be told this evening. Major league,minor league, high school, and in-between, memories will reappear after decades being in storage.
By 4:50pm, 3 ticket holders have found their position at the sign-in desks set near the quiet (for now) front registration area. You can hear baseball chatter building among them. Any time a former big-leaguer with the pedigree of Bobby Valentine comes to town, especially Little Falls with a population of less than 5,000 and the only city in Herkimer County, folks come out. Heiser and his staff have been doing this; putting on a well planned, “hotstove” dinner for nearly a decade. There are no signs of forgotten last-minute details. The room will have 217 ticket-holders shortly finding their seats.
Napkins at each place setting are green, in following Diamond Dawgs’ color motif . At 5:30pm, most of the action in the lobby’s tight quarters will take place about ten feet from the banquet room. Across from the men’s room is a two-phone-booth-size area that on normal days and nights houses a candy machine, and to its left an ice machine. The rules are different for the next couple of hours. A sign has been taped on the wall – autographs $5.00. A chair has been placed behind a desk. There are three piles of 8X10 pictures of Valentine, two in Boston Red Sox garb (he managed them in 2012), and one taken as a New York Met skipper at Shea Stadium.
Heiser tells of Valentine’s arrival. For eight years now, Heiser, an elementary school teacher with the St. Johnsville Central District, has been steering the summer entertainment ship at Vets Park. Dave Dittman, the Dawgs former owner, who Heiser purchased the club from and has been his mentor in baseball management, is scheduled to attend tonight’s banquet. For Heiser, for a couple hours, he will get to have a seat and not have to work the event. “During the season, between Monday and Wednesday, we (Dawgs) draw between 500-600 fans,”Heiser recalls. “Thursday through Sunday, it’s about 1,000.”
Consistency is a word the Dawgs’ owner uses often, when describing community support towards his club. Sponsorship remains loyal. As a coach,general manager, and owner, building relationships with area businesses are crucial for Heiser’s baseball business. “I take the Reading Phillies approach,”Heiser explains. “I take a half-hour radius from (Little Falls), and that’s my audience.”
As staffers put finishing touches on the room’s set-up before opening up to ticket holders, Heiser, gives impressive attendance statistics. Pride is evident in his voice as he proclaims the Dawgs coming in at third place at the gate in the Perfect Game League last summer.
At 5:10, entering the lobby doors, making his way through the now growing number of baseball fans wanting to meet the keynote speaker on the night, comes Bobby Valentine. He and Travis meet for the first time. Carrying on a hanger his clothes for the evening on one hand, and pulling a suit case with the other, Valentine’s smile and pleasant demeanor appears to be money in the bank. This is what fans are hoping for, an interested and interesting hero looking to meet them will be delivered.
Before finding his way to his room, Valentine, the top draft pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1968 (5th overall,Thurman Munson was 4th),takes questions from the media. Not in a rush, no one sentence answers, Valentine is in the perfect mode for what is promised – a no pressured evening.
Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda, the man who scouted and later managed Valentine in the minors, recently was the subject of a book on his career – “My Way”. The former Dodger skipper dedicated several pages on “Bobby V”, as Valentine is often addressed. When asked to tell something about Lasorda that might not be known by others, Valentine obliged. Dressed in a t-shirt and cap, looking years younger than his soon-to-be 65-years (May 13), in no rush, Valentine takes what appears to be 15 seconds, searching for what had been asked for.
“I’ve known him for 40-years. He’s (Lasorda) the greatest person I’ve ever been around,”says Valentine,who began his big-league managing career in 1985 with the Texas Rangers. “His love for the game is super-natural.”
Valentine finds his groove, and has no difficulties remembering his early years in the Dodgers organization. Making his Los Angeles debut on September 2,1969, Valentine found himself in five games, as a call-up. By the ’71 and ’72 seasons, Valentine cracked manager Walter Alston’s line-up as a regular. The back of teammate jerseys read Grabarkewitz,Buckner,Cey,Russell, and Davis. He played alongside the infamous and notorious Dick Allen. Future hall of famers Frank Robinson,Hoyt Wilhelm,Don Sutton, Alston, and Lasorda were in his shadows.
The one constant for Valentine was the support demonstrated by Lasorda. “I think Tommy threw more pitches than anyone in the history of baseball. And he threw from 60 feet; off the rubber. He was tireless. What a great curve ball he had.”
As he is reminiscing about his mentor, now about 20 minutes from officially needing to be seated at the desk next to the ice and candy machines, you sense Valentine is genuinely enjoying going down memory lane about clearly one of the most important people in his life. Amazingly, without a heads up, Valentine rattles off details on why Lasorda is special to the game, and to him. He tells of Tommy striking out 25 batters in an extra-inning game, while in the minors. Then, there are the 20 games the future hall of famer won while pitching in Montreal (then Dodgers Triple-A affiliate). After a stellar season in Montreal, Alston informed Lasorda of news he neither was expecting or hoping for – he wouldn’t be part of the Brooklyn Dodgers 1955 roster.
“Back then, there was a rule in baseball that if you signed a player for $5,000. (think bonus baby), he had to be on the major league roster,”Valentine informs. “Tommy was mad. He said that kid can’t get anyone out.” That “kid” Lasorda referred to was Sandy Koufax.
With the popularity of the 2011 release Moneyball, and as someone who has managed three MLB clubs, and for seven seasons in Japanese pro ball (Chiba Lotte Marines), surely, Valentine would have a minute to offer his opinion on the growing use of analytics. Valentine, still treating the local media with every bit the respect as he would in any big-league town, reminisced when he first was exposed to “number crunchers” in baseball.
“When I was coaching with the Mets from ’83-’85, Davey Johnson was our manager. He used to have notebooks filled with information on players around the league. By ’86, they (Mets) had full-time employees doing that SABR research,”Valentine explains.
“Earl Weaver and Billy Martin always had numbers marked on 3×5 cards, on each player. That’s how they made their decisions. Metrics are a great way to predict the past, and add information for the future.”
With time winding down before meeting his public, Valentine takes one more question. One question that he must have heard ad nauseam. But, one that shouldn’t keep him from finding his room shortly. As a player for 10 big-league seasons,Valentine clearly had seen and experienced many highs. Retiring at 29-years-old, it was a game on May 17, 1973 that saw Valentine suffer a compound leg fracture, due to his spikes getting caught in the outfield chain linked fence, while attempting to steal away a home run. Bobby’s level of play was never the same, after what occurred while with the California Angels that fateful day.
So, when asked if he had ever had a private conversion with his father-in-law about his place in major league baseball history, the answer was easy, and short, for Valentine. Ralph Branca, Bobby’s wife Mary Valentine’s father, has his place in baseball history as a Brooklyn Dodger. It was Branca who threw THE pitch to New York Giant Bobby Thomson, and the most famous game-winning homer of all-time. That homer allowed New York to win the National League pennant in 1951; labeled the “shot heard around the world”. What did Branca reveal? “My production company (formed in 2010 Makuhari Media) did a documentary (on Branca). “Branca’s Pitch” will be shown on SNY (Mets cable TV outlet),”Valentine said. “He (Branca) certainly has his place in baseball history.”
With 15-minutes to spare, Valentine, takes a couple pictures with fans now standing in a semi-circle, as he wraps up his interview session. Handshakes are exchanged, and off goes “Bobby V”, to prepare for what promises to be a charmed and enthusiastic baseball public in the Mohawk Valley. The line near the ice and candy machines has begun to form, and with good reason – a pro is in town.