An early Valentine

Hereabouts in this quirky outpost called New England, there are more important jobs, like governor or archbishop, and more prestigious ones too, like Music Director of the BSO, chief of staff at MGH, or Harvard's Lord High Mikado overseeing everything. But is there one that's more coveted than manager of the Boston Red Sox?

Nor are there many men, women or children living between Eastport and Block Island and west to the Berkshires, south to Long Island Sound, north to the Canadian border who haven't vaguely considered themselves as qualified, now and again, as the utter boob currently occupying the chair.

The magic of the thing -- its ineffable gravitas and allure -- has lately and memorably been dramatized in the ponderous process that has yielded Bobby Valentine as the next pigeon to occupy the perch. And the sham and folly of it has been dramatized as well in the inexcusably shabby and mean-spirited treatment of his predecessor, Terry Francona. It has under-scored the remarkable contradiction inherent in the role.

Wanting to be manager of the Red Sox is rather like wanting to be President of the United States in that a yearning for such a nightmare ought to be enough to disqualify a fellow on the grounds of his manifest derangement.

As for the glory of the distinction it rather reminds me of that terrific anecdote Abe Lincoln used to tell about the fellow who got tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail and -- as the gruesome business was proceeding -- was heard to remark, "If it weren't for the honor of this thing, I'd rather walk."

Men who have managed the Red Sox have been driven to suicide. It happened to Chick Stahl on the eve of the 1907 season. He cashed himself out with a swig of carbolic acid at spring training. Others have been driven ruinously to more conventional drink; booze having often been a factor. Joe McCarthy came to town a legend in 1948 and got carried off on his shield in 1950. Some have lasted only a week. That's how long it took Cy Young -- the illustrious pitcher -- to get smart when he succeeded Stahl in '07.

Chick's kid brother Jake Stahl had the best record. He led them brilliantly to a championship in the epic 1912 season, then mysteriously quit just months later and died at age 43. There are few happy endings in these annals. One exception was Joe Cronin; their longest tenured manager with 13 seasons, albeit hardly on the grounds of merit alone. As Tom Yawkey's surrogate son, he ultimately got to graduate to the Presidency of the American League.

Remarkably, eleven Red Sox Managers have been named to the Hall of Fame although only two -- Dick Williams and Bucky Harris -- got there essentially on the strength of their managerial skills while a third, Ed Barrow, won his acclaim mainly as a Yankees' front-office titan. The other Hall of Famers were Lou Boudreau, Frank Chance, Jimmy Collins, Hugh Duffy, and Billy Herman along of course with McCarthy, Young, and Cronin. Immortality guarantees little where this business is concerned. Williams, in the end, got shafted by Yawkey. Harris won the World Series in Washington and New York but finished fourth here. Only two -- Collins and Barrow -- won championships and only three others -- Cronin, McCarthy and Williams -- had winning records.

What seems to me most striking, though, is the sadness the job seems to entail if not downright eventually guarantee. With rare exceptions, it is heartbreak, bitterness and/or rancor that inevitably await baseball managers when they reach the end of the line in this town. Some would argue it's that way everywhere but I insist it's more the case here; much more. Too many have been broken by the job.

Consider just the modern era, stretching from World War II. Cronin as the house pet was spared any grief and moved seamlessly into the general manager's chair in 1947. But every one of his successors over the next 20 years went down in flames. McCarthy's end was pitiful. Steve O'Neil and Lou Boudreau had been highly successful elsewhere, but not here. Billy Jurges departed in a rage; Johnny Pesky in tears. The malevolent Pinky Higgins -- the Iago of this dark tale -- survived on his wits but was actually canned three times. When he was fired in '66, Billy Herman was devastated for he knew his young team was brinking on something big. Like near all the others he never again managed anywhere. More often than not, this job is a dead-end.

Since the ridiculous cashiering in 1969 of Dick Williams -- doubtless the best manager in their history -- I can think of only two who have moved on without significant hard feelings if not downright furor. Eddie Kasko, Williams' successor, slid smoothly into a nice front-office post and ran out the string comfortably. Ralph Houk, Don Zimmer's successor, was simply allowed to retire like a gentleman.

Along the way some mighty good guys were bruised badly and it was not necessary. Zimmy and the equally priceless Joe Morgan experienced needless humiliation and in both instances classical Red Sox intrigues rife with the usual pettiness had a lot to do with it. The last days of Jimy Williams were not very pretty either. And then there was the sad case of Grady Little. He may not have been another John J. McGraw but he didn't deserve the ridicule heaped upon him and still being slung to this day. Neither did Butch Hobson, for that matter.

But it's the case of Terry Francona that may in the end stand out most prominently. It may prove to be the most stunning example of the price a man can pay for managing this baseball team while making the small mistake of failing to meet our collective and irrational expectations. What has happened to Francona is shameful and it is not over.

Into this historical vortex steps Valentine, a notable popinjay. He may be vainglorious and smug but he's also plenty crafty and street-smart. Given his own extraordinary baggage and mercurial makeup, an objective observer (as if there were any) would doubtless suggest that matching him with this volatile franchise at a moment when the neurosis governing the entire subject borders on a state of high dudgeon is sheer madness. The marriage of Bobby Valentine and the Boston Red Sox could give new meaning to the ancient baseball axiom that managers are hired to be fired.

On the other hand, for every savant who tells you this man is an ingrate, a boor and a cad there are as any many who regale you tearfully with tender tales of the immense charities and Renaissance charms that further adorn his alleged baseball brilliance. Does anybody really know Bobby Valentine? Maybe not! But we, for better or worse, are about to get the opportunity.

In the meantime, if I were Valentine I would pay close to attention to what happened to his predecessor. I would be anxious to learn the whole story, if I were him. It hasn't been told yet but it should be. It needs to be.

Somebody ratted on Francona. Somebody set him up and cleaned his clock. Somebody leaked all those nasty details about his personal life and it's impossible to escape the suspicion it came straight from the front office in an effort to make them look good and him look bad and no matter how cleverly management spins their version and how many media apologists they line up to run with it that suspicion is not going to go away.

It was needless and pointless after Francona had accepted the blame and taken the fall and agreed politely to go away quietly. Of all the lousy stuff that's gone down in this town over the years this ranks right at the top.

If I were Valentine I would want to know what happened if only to be able to recognize what is happening when my day comes. And it will. It will!