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A Major League Success - John Valentin
03/04/2010 - By Chad A. Safran
Photo: McKay Imaging (mckayimaging.com)
Whether on the baseball diamond or at his restaurant, John Valentin brings resiliency to the field
Many kids dream of becoming a Major League Baseball player. John Valentin got to do that. The Jersey City native played for 11 seasons in the big leagues, including 10 with the Boston Red Sox. John may have not seemed destined for the majors but made the most of his opportunities, including walking on and starting as a freshman at Seton Hall, where he played with future Major League All-Stars Craig Biggio and Mo Vaughn, who was also later his teammate with the Red Sox. After being drafted in the fifth round in 1988 by Boston and some time in the minors, John made a memorable debut with the team in 1992 when he got the game-winning hit against the Texas Rangers on July 27.
During his time in Boston, he was an integral part of the Red Soxs re-emergence as one of the perennial powers in the game, which included helping to lead the club to three post-season appearances. He won a Silver Slugger Award as the best hitting shortstop in the American League in 1995 on his way to a top-10 finish in Most Valuable Player voting as the club won its first division title since 1990. Two years later, he led the AL in doubles with 47. He currently ranks in the top 25 all-time in five different offensive categories for the franchise, including doubles, runs, and RBIs.
After finishing his career with the Mets in 2002, John opened up Julias in Atlantic Highlands in the Spring of 2005. He has also continued on in baseball as a Minor League coach and manager, first for the Mets organization and currently as part of the Los Angeles Dodgers Minor League system, where he will work as the hitting coach for the AA-level Chattanooga Lookouts during the 2010 season.
Out of the restaurant and off the field, he spends some time on the golf course or with his wife of 18 years, Marie, whom he met in high school, and his two children, Justin, who will be 15 in March, and Kendall, 13. Recently, Living In Holmdel caught up with John to discuss his life in baseball and as a restaurateur.
LIH: When did you know you wanted to be a professional baseball player?
JV: Once you get to Little League, watching big league players on TV, its something you try to emulate. For me it started a little bit younger than that actually. The first time I touched a baseball it was really something that grabbed my attention really quickly. Being able to catch the baseball, and be one of the youngest kids to do so since I hung around with my brother, who was two years older, and his friends was a great start for me.
LIH: Who was your favorite team and player as a kid?
JV: I was a Yankee fan. I grew up watching the 78-79 Yankees. From Willie Randolph to Don Mattingly to Chris Chambliss, who one day was going to be my hitting coach. To play for the Red Sox for so many years and go into Yankee Stadium and play third base and have Willie Randolph as the third base coach, being able to talk to him every other inning, was fantastic. To get drafted by the Red Sox, you are a complete enemy right away. I didnt really grasp the rivalry until I made it to the big leagues. I was drafted in 1988 and got to the big leagues in 92 and the rest was fantasy land.
LIH: When did you know you had the talent to make it to the pros?
JV: You really never know until you get to college to see how you compare to college athletes. When you play big schools and you compete against the top players in the country you see how you stack up against the rest of these guys.
LIH: You did not get drafted out of St. Anthony High School in Jersey City. How then did you end up at Seton Hall?
JV: The baseball program at St. Anthony was not very good but the basketball program was totally different. Its led the nation for many years. My junior and senior years I was on the basketball team. I played with David Rivers, who went to Notre Dame. As a high school baseball player you tend to go to different college camps to gain some knowledge as well as gain some notoriety across the country. I went to Old Dominion, Duke and the North Carolina area where they had baseball camps. I was able to get a little attention from Oral Roberts University (in Tulsa, Oklahoma) and James Madison (in Virginia) but never anything big. They werent offering me a scholarship but said if I came I would probably be on the baseball team. I didnt want to do that. I really didnt get recruited. Seton Hall came to watch me play at St. Anthony but told me I was too small. My brother was going to Seton Hall for criminal justice and I followed. I knew I wasnt getting recruited for a scholarship so I said lets see what happens if I walk on. I ended up being the starting shortstop my freshman year.
LIH: How did you actually end up on the team?
JV: They have tryouts every year (in the fall). I was one of 50 or 60 kids my freshman year. They wean you out in the fall program very quickly. Mike Sheppard (the Seton Hall head coach) knew of me. I played very well and by the end of the fall they had me practicing with the varsity. Made the varsity, batted ninth and ended up hitting .327. It was a very surprising but great freshman year.
LIH: What impact did college baseball have on you?
JV: What actually prepared me for the travel in college baseball was actually being in a basketball program like St. Anthony had, traveling everywhere.As a junior and senior, as a basketball sub, I learned how to travel. So going to a college, traveling by myself and being on a sports team was not overwhelming, which for some people it is. When you reached the majors could you tell the difference between the players who had some college experience and those who had entered professional baseball straight out of high school. A lot of players who come out of high school and get into the minor leagues tend to fail. The percentages are a lot higher because they dont have that three-year period in college where they are facing big-time college programs; they dont face adversity and they dont grow as a person. When they are put in the limelight at a young age it can be very overwhelming. What helped me also was that I grew up in Jersey City.
LIH: You played four years in the minors before finally joining the Red Sox during the 1992 season. How would you describe life in the Minor Leagues?
JV: Its a battle. Its like a little war you have to win, unfortunately. You are away from home, not making a lot of money, not eating great meals, traveling on buses 12-13 hours and performing the next day. Doing it day in and day out for 140 games is a battle. Most guys dont succeed.
LIH: What do you remember from your first big league game and at bat?
JV: My first Major League game, my manager was Butch Hobson, who I had as a manager in AA and a little bit in AAA before he became the manager of the Red Sox. I didnt know I was going to get the call that night. I was actually late for batting practice because my travel was from Scranton, Pa., to Boston the next day. My flight was delayed, and I didnt get there in time. He told me I was in the lineup and I didnt even practice. He had a lot of confidence in me. I faced Kevin Brown. Very tough pitcher. I just didnt want to strike out against him. The first at bat, I hit a chopper back to him, thought Great, and ran down to first base. The second one I rolled over to the shortstop. The next one I popped up to second. Seventh inning comes, were down 5-4 when I come up with men on second and third against a relief pitcher, and I get the game winning hit on my fourth at bat in my first game, at Fenway Park. It was a great day for me.
LIH: You have a place in Major League history as one of only 15 players to have performed an unassisted triple play. What were the circumstances behind that?
JV: I was just in the right place at the right time. We were playing the Seattle Mariners. Lou was the manager - there were runners at first and second - and he puts on a bunt. The batters fouls it off. Pinella ends up putting on a hit and run on the next pitch. I believe Mark Newfield was hitting. I was playing shortstop. He hits a line drive to my left. I catch it right at the end of my glove, shoestring catch on a line drive that I almost fall down on. I am right in front of second base. I catch, I step on second (doubling off Mike Blowers), and I tag the runner (Keith Mitchell). I didnt even know what the hell I was doing. I threw the ball to the mound. I had no idea what I had done. I lead off the next inning and I hit a home run.
LIH: Your career really came together with in 1995 season, then in 1996 you had another solid year before you were forced to change positions when Nomar Garciaparra arrived to take over shortstop. What kind of impact did this have on your career?
JV: Toward the end of the 1995 season, I went up to my general manager and said, This kids a first-round pick. I know hes in AAA, lighting the world on fire. I know hes coming up. What are you going to do with him and myself? Is he going to move to a different position? Am I going to move to a different position? I would move just let me know what you want me to do. Do you want me to move to second? He said no, that I was their shortstop and that he was in AAA. You just hit 27 home runs and had 102 RBIs, you are our shortstop. I asked him if I was going to move because I wanted to go home and practice playing second base, turning double plays. I come to spring training in 1997, and after eight days they said I am the second baseman. Just like that. I told (General Manager Dan Duquette), You lied to me.Youre going to put this guy at short. Hes never played a game in the big leagues. Youre moving me to second base. Why? He was putting me at a disadvantage. I had never played the position before. I told him the year before that I was willing to make a change for the team. It was a big stink. I ended up moving over to second base anyway. Nomar has a great year, hits 30 home runs, was rookie of the year. What could I do now? At that point I wanted to be traded. I said I didnt want to play for them at that point. It turns out I went to play second for the first half, then our third baseman got hurt. Our backup infielder was a natural second baseman. Jimy Williams (the Red Sox manager at the time) comes up to me and says, Will you move to third? I was going to make the All-Star team as a second baseman. So the second half of that season I played third base. If I look back, and I am able to stay at one position and hit 20-25 home runs, I cant tell you where my career would have gone.
LIH: After that 1997 season, and five solid, consistent seasons, things began to go in the wrong direction for you. What happened?
JV: I got hurt. Actually in 1996, I tore my left shoulder and had a tear in my wrist I didnt know about. I played the whole year like that. The shoulder injury came on a dive up the middle. I was out for a week and came back. I had cortisone shots. In 1998 and 1999, I had four cortisone shots. Shouldnt of had it. It made my tendons brittle. My patellar tendon just snapped. Carlos Beltran (then with Kansas City) hit a chop down the line. It bounces. I try to field it on the fly but I cant get there, so I let it bounce and when I pulled up, Poof. That was 2000, and in 2001 I played 20 games, then in 2002 I played 10 games with the Mets after the Red Sox didnt want to pick up my option since I was making too much money. After I ruptured my patellar I wasnt the same player anymore. In 1996 I was hurt, in 1997 I was hurt. In 1998-99, it was my knee. Youre talking about being drugged up half the time with cortisone, antibiotics, Advil, painkillers. You are just trying to play. If I wasnt hurt I definitely would have continued to put up the numbers. Its part of the game, unfortunately.
LIH: What was it like being a member of the Red Sox, especially at that time when The Curse still hung over the team? Was it a positive experience on the whole?
JV: Being in the Major Leagues on any team is fantastic for any player. To play in a sports town, like Boston, is just another special thing. Its like playing in New York. Boston is a bit more blue collar, but the fans are very passionate, and its very special. I consider myself a true, true Red Sox. Although I enjoyed playing for the Mets for one year, I wasnt a starter. I was older, just trying to hang on, in a sense. Is playing in Boston tough? Yeah, its tough.You are talking about playing in the 1990s when the Yankees won three world titles.We were always right there, but they were just that much better. The series were always pretty even in a sense, but playing in Yankee Stadium, you always felt like they had an edge for some reason. To beat them at Yankee Stadium was very difficult.
LIH: What is the one thing that you have taken away from professional baseball that is still part of you today?
JV: The adversity that I have encountered throughout my whole career, having to perform in front of the Boston media and the Boston fans. Being on the East Coast and playing the American League East has molded me into some sort of resilient character in a sense. I pride myself in what I teach the kids now is that you have to be tough minded to overcome bad situations. Thats who I am in a sense right now and proud of it.
LIH: If you had not played baseball, what would you have done?
JV: I went to school for accounting, and I was so far from being an accountant. I was a pretty good math student in high school, even in college. Failed my accounting class, only because I missed some classes. Being on the team, sometimes you had to miss class. If you fall behind in accounting, you were done. I became a communications major. I might have become a cop since my brother went in that direction. I have always respected state troopers and the way they go about their business.
LIH: Over the past few seasons you have been involved with the Los Angeles Dodgers Minor League system. How did you get a job with them?
JV: After retiring in 2002, I figured I would try the civilian life and stay at home, be a dad with my family as much as I could. In 2004, I took a job with the Toronto Blue Jays to be their AA hitting coach. Somehow, I knew for some reason I wasnt ready. When I went to spring training to teach, I felt like I could still play and I took it tough. I wasnt ready to teach at that point so I came back home and ended up opening Julias. After spending one season at the restaurant, I knew I wanted to coach. I ended up getting hired by Omar Minaya and the Mets and spent 2006 in Binghamton (as the hitting coach). The restaurant was struggling in a sense. My wife did not want to run it and I basically did not know what to do. The business needed to be watched over. So I ended up leaving the Mets for the 2007 season. I stayed here for the year. I got my brothers wife to come in and to basically take over the restaurant. I had some friends in the industry who had some contacts in the Dodger organization. I was supposed to be the A hitting coach at Inland Empire (California), but the manager didnt come back that year (2008) because he had some family problems. They offered me the position to be the manager. I told them someday I wanted to manage so it was a great opportunity for me.
LIH: How did your first season as a manager go?
JV: It was good, just different. What was difficult for me was I couldnt be hands on.You have a hitting coach doing the hitting, you have a pitching coach doing the pitching, and you have to manage themas well as the players. The fun part of managing is managing the game, which is fantastic. Trying to teach the players how to hit when you have a hitting coach can be difficult. You can have two different thought processes and you dont want to get the guy confused. So its hard from a player who loves hitting and loves infield and wants to be a part of it to now manage the game.We did OK.We ended up finding our way into the playoffs in the second half. They ended up giving me the AA team in Chattanooga the next year. Again, I found my difficulties in wanting to teach. They (the Dodgers organization) noticed that, and they asked me if I wanted to teach hitting instead of manage. I told them I really wanted to manage, I wanted to grow into the position, but I also wanted to get the big leagues as soon as possible. After some thought, I realized I can manage when I am 50. Thats why I am going back to the hitting position (for 2010), where I am a lot more comfortable at this point in my career.
LIH: What are your future baseball goals?
JV: I would like someday to be a Major League manager. But if I dont get it, will I be somewhat disappointed? Not really. I am basically enjoying the ride at this point. I am taking it as it comes.
LIH: How did you end up living in Holmdel?
JV: My brother moved to Hazlet. Coming back to visit my brother, you see the towns around here. Holmdel was the next town over.The houses are beautiful around here. I just felt like I could settle in here. We are happy here.
LIH: How did the idea for Julias come about?
JV: When I was playing I had a chef who would cook me some meals and I thought that it might be nice to open a place some day when I retired. The year we opened I didnt know what to name it. My grandmother - her name was Julia - had just passed away and I wanted to honor her name.
LIH: How did you find the location?
JV: I traveled around. Its not too far from Red Bank. It has an old school feel to it. The water is right there with the ferry boat to New York City. Atlantic Highlands was an up and coming town. I just liked the space. It used to be an old bank. It just evolved.
LIH: What did you know about opening a restaurant before starting Julias?
JV: Its pretty similar to baseball in that you have to perform every day. You have to bring your A game. People who want to dine want good food, good service. You have to try to be consistent with that as much as possible. Thats my goal.
LIH: What made you think the restaurant would be successful?
JV: I still don't know if we are or are not to be honest, but we are still here. Staying power is the test to let you know if you are successful. Repeat customers feel like this is their place.We get a lot of that.We still get a lot of new customers by word of mouth, and customers having good experiences, telling other people that you have to go to this place, they've got good food, they've got good service, you get a good experience.
LIH: What did you learn about the restaurant business that surprised you?
JV: I didn't realize it was as tough as it is! It's tougher than baseball. I could control myself on a baseball field. Whether or not I am feeling good, I still squeak out a hit or a bunt. I can control the effort. But, managing people is probably the hardest thing I have ever experienced on or off the field.
LIH: What's the best part of being in the restaurant business?
JV: When I first started the business, the atmosphere of a good crowd and people enjoying themselves is somewhat similar to the excitement of being on a baseball field. It's another analogy to playing shortstop or third base and seeing 50,000 fans in the crowd. It's a good feeling to have a successful night.
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