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What was Bobby Valentine thinking?

04.16.12 at 9:10 am ET

“I don’t think he’s as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason.”Bobby Valentine on Kevin Youkilis

That didn’t take long.

The media has tried awful hard to make a controversy out of all things Bobby Valentine since he was hired last December. But let’s be fair — it’s all been artificial stuff to this point, totally forced. Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford were pissed at him for comments made when Valentine was an ESPN analyst? Yawn. He’s doing a weekly spot on a radio show in New York? Media porn, nothing more and nothing less. He hates Curt Schilling and Curt Schilling hates him? Great, join the club and join the club.

But this is different. No need for context, no need to try and spin it – though Valentine will do everything in his power to blame the media for over blowing this story, I smell some historic backtracking on its way – this is a manager publicly calling out one of his players.

OK. This is exactly what the anti-Francona crowd wanted, right? There was, it seemed to the Francona bashers, an almost comical lack of responsibility in that locker room. John Lackey always had good stuff after giving up eight runs in four innings, David Ortiz bitches about an RBI in front of the press and all it gets is a laugh and shrug, we all know the greatest hits. And after September there was a thirst for accountability, a desire for honesty. Just say what is on your mind and screw the possible consequences and potential fallout.

Well, now we’ve got it. The first home stand of the season isn’t over – the first home series of the season isn’t over – and the manager has already publicly questioned the emotional and physical state of one of his key players. And the people who wanted to see that happen are still unhappy, because Valentine picked the wrong guy, one who doesn’t fit the script. This isn’t Josh Beckett or Carl Crawford or Lackey, this is one of the good guys, right? Right?

I think – as we probably all do – that Youkilis is right in the middle of the decline stage of his career. He’s 33 years old, has been hurt each of the last three seasons (games played from 2009-2011: Youkilis 358, J.D. Drew 357) and in 2011 had his worst year in half a decade. There’s no reason to think he’ll stay healthy this year, and with Will Middlebrooks looming it sure seems to be the final year in Boston for Youkilis (there is a $13 million team option for next year with a $1 million buyout).

All that is true but so it this: I’ve never heard anyone – media, fans, fellow players, anyone – question effort when it comes to Kevin Youkilis. Sure, you hear things (look, he’s not the most popular guy in the locker room from many accounts) but Kevin Youkilis is a guy who has come pretty damn close to maximizing his talents. He’s slowed down physically now, no question about it, but that’s something that happens to every single athlete in every sport. We’ve seen it 10 million times if we’ve seen it once, it’s just happening to Youkilis at an accelerated pace.

You know this, I know this and Kevin Youkilis knows this. Guess who else knows this? Bobby Valentine. So this is where it gets curious: What, exactly, is Valentine’s motivation for questioning Youkilis? And I’m not buying that Valentine can’t help himself or that he needs to be the in the middle of a controversy. This struck me as calculated. Listen, Valentine had plenty of chances to blast Youkilis, was asked about him hundreds of times during spring training (where Youkilis looked putrid). Hell, Valentine benched Youkilis the third game of the season and raised zero concern about possible emotional or physical worries. So why does he decide to go public after Youkilis puts together a couple of productive games for the first time this season and during the first Sox winning streak of his managerial tenure?

We all have theories, so get ready for them over the next couple of days. Maybe Youkilis was the guy feeding Curt Schilling all anti-Valentine stuff, maybe Youkilis was a leak in the Bob Hohler story, maybe Youkilis is plain clubhouse poison. Is Valentine doing the dirty work for ownership? Or is Valentine finally doing exactly what he told us he would do – making things uncomfortable for those feeling comfortable?

This is all total reckless speculation, but that’s what happens when a manager goes off on a player with no known reason or motive. And if I’m in that locker room – even if I hated Youkilis – I’d be plenty pissed off. If my manager is going to suggest that Kevin Youkilis isn’t trying, what happens when I go o-for-12 in a series? And let’s not get weighed down by semantics – “emotionally” is a loaded word that can be interpreted a lot of different ways. If Valentine truly has concerns about Youkilis, he has to do a better job of articulating them.

I’m all for accountability, but Valentine screwed up here. He picked on a guy who has played awfully hard in Boston for a long time. Injury plagued? Sure. The easiest guy to get along with? Guess not. And maybe it’s time for Youkils to move on, I’m OK with that. But if he’s going to question the effort and commitment of Kevin Youkils, he better be sure that he’s right. Because there’s a lot of history to suggest that he’s absolutely wrong.

Call it Bobby Valentine’s first real miss as manager. And somewhere Terry Francona is really enjoying all of this.

Read More: Bobby Valentine, Kevin Youkilis,
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