Well, it's official: Bobby Valentine will be the next manager of the Boston Red Sox. Lost amidst the stories of fake mustaches and real candor is the reality of just how long it's been since Valentine filled out a major league lineup card: ten years.
That may be surprising, given the extent to which Valentine stayed in the national conversation, but even more odd is how infrequently a Major League manager waited longer than Valentine's ten years between gigs. By my unofficial count, this has happened just seven times, not including Rip Van Winkle, who managed the Washington Catskills to uninspiring finishes, with a 20-year pause between them.
A closer look at the seven gap-happy managers provides insight into the challenge Valentine faces. Let's examine them for signs of a foot-long beard, shall we?
The first manager to experience a decade-plus time off was Burt Shotton, and he certainly managed to trade up in terms of talent. He finished his sixth year as the Philadelphia Phillies' manager in 1933, with a team that posted just a 60-92 record. Outside of Chuck Klein's typical Hall of Fame season, and outstanding offense from outfielder Wes Schulmerich and catcher Spud Davis, Shotton didn't have much to work with. The Phillies fired Shotton, traded Klein… and finished 56-93 in 1934.
Other than a single game in charge of the Cincinnati Reds in 1934, Shotton didn't manage again until taking over the 1947 Dodgers. As gigs go, this wasn't the most typical opening. The job was only available because incumbent manager Leo Durocher was suspended by Major League Baseball for consorting with known gamblers. And Shotton's roster included Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier and incited a possible mutiny among some on the roster. All Shotton did was lead Brooklyn to the 1947 National League pennant before, as was the style at the time, losing to the Yankees in the 1947 World Series.
Shotton took over permanently in 1948, after Brooklyn fired Durocher for getting off to a 35-37 start. Shotton held his own in 1948, took Brooklyn back to the World Series in 1949, and came full circle on the final day of the 1950 season, losing the NL pennant to the Phillies. Clearly, if Valentine's tenure matches that of Shotton, it will be a successful time in Boston.
As for Durocher, he went on to have quite the long rest himself. Not from Brooklyn, however — he quickly joined the rival New York Giants, leading them to two NL pennants and the 1954 World Series title — but once the Giants fired him in 1955. Not until the Cubs came calling in 1966 did Durocher take another team's helm. By the Cubs' standards, Durocher was a success.
He finished 59-103 in 1966, well beneath the 80-74 with the 1955 Giants that got him fired. But while Durocher's final Giants team had Willie Mays, pitcher Johnny Antonelli and little else, his Cubs team had peak Ron Santo and Billy Williams, and decline-phase Ernie Banks (the Cubs had absolutely no pitching besides Ken Holtzman in '66). A year later, the team added Ferguson Jenkins and Joe Niekro to the staff and finished 87-74. By 1969, the Cubs finished 92-70, spent 156 days in first place, and lost the inaugural National League East race to a New York Mets team that won 38 of its final 49 games.
That would be as close as Durocher would come to Chicago glory. After another two-and-a-half seasons hovering just above .500, the Cubs fired Durocher in 1972. If Valentine merely comes close in Boston but fails to make the postseason, it is unlikely that Red Sox fans will think of him fondly. If he fails as Paul Richards did — a 64-97, one-season stint with the 1976 White Sox fifteen years after quitting as Baltimore manager to assume the role of General Manager with the newly-formed Houston Colt .45s — Boston sportswriters should have enough material for a lifetime of books.
Two more recent examples are less encouraging models for Valentine. Frank Robinson, fired after a 13-24 start with the 1991 Orioles, took over the 2002 Montreal Expos. In five years in Montreal, Robinson's Expos finished second, fourth and, for the final three seasons, last in the NL East. Then again, his Orioles only finished higher than fifth once in his three-plus seasons in Baltimore. Hard to blame him for that — he took over a Baltimore team that started 0-21 in 1988, and left a team in 1991 that would go on to see just one starter top 130 innings pitched or pitch to below a 4.84 ERA — the immortal Bob Milacki.
As for Cito Gaston, manager of a pair of World Series winners in Toronto, it is clear he never read much Thomas Wolfe. Fired in 1997, Gaston returned to the Blue Jays' dugout in 2008. Three consecutive fourth-place finishes followed, though when talent drops from Roberto Alomar, Tony Fernandez and Pat Hentgen to Joe Inglett, David Eckstein and A.J. Burnett, one should adjust expectations accordingly.
Two more current managers join Bobby Valentine in the extended time off category: Terry Collins of the Mets, who took over in 2011 after getting fired by the 1999 Angels, and Davey Johnson of the Nationals, who left the Dodgers after 2000, then jumped in for the departing Jim Riggleman midway through the 2011 season. The jury is still out on these two.
So with fully ten percent of current managers in a category occupied by so few in baseball history, what follows will be fascinating. Will they wander into town, unsure of why everyone looks so different? Or will they find acceptance and respect as Rip Van Winkle did, celebrated for his innovative way of avoiding his shrewish wife? History suggests the answer will be similar to how all managers throughout time have been evaluated — it depends, to a huge extent, upon the players on the field.