News - Rico’s funny valentine

Brogna owes his old coach, big-time

It took six years and a lot of questions to a lot of people but I finally found someone who has something good to say about New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine: Rico Brogna.

Maybe it’s because the Braves’ new first baseman never played under Valentine in the majors. The manager we love to hate — along with the Cardinals’ Tony LaRussa, and for the same reasons — didn’t become the Mets manager until partway through the 1996 season. By then, Brogna was out for the season with a torn shoulder. Then he was traded to the Phillies. So he never had the pleasure of experiencing Valentine ripping his players by name when the Mets lost and taking all the credit when the Mets won — because he is smarter than his listeners could ever imagine being and lets them know it with every drip of his acid tongue.

“I would never have made it to the big leagues if it hadn’t been for Bobby Valentine,” Brogna said instantly when I asked about Valentine the other day. Valentine was the manager at Norfolk, the Mets Triple-A farm team, in 1994. He totally reconstructed Brogna’s swing. Changed everything about it.

Brogna was originally drafted by the Detroit Tigers, in the first round of the 1988 draft. The Tigers wanted only one thing out of their hitters at Tiger Stadium: home runs. See that short porch in right? Hit it there. Brogna didn’t. So in ‘94, Detroit traded him to the Mets, who assigned him to Norfolk, where it became Valentine’s task to make a hitter out of him.

At the time, Brogna was still using his upper body in an attempt to muscle the ball out of the park. He had been a terrific hitter in high school but that, obviously, was against high school pitching. So Valentine had to revamp Brogna’s swing from the feet up, literally.

“He was standing on his head,” Valentine says, explaining what was wrong with Brogna’s approach. “He was upside-down.” Meaning that Brogna was keeping his feet still and torquing his upper body. Valentine taught him to lift and plant his feet to balance himself as he stepped into an easier swing.

Thinking of the relative slump Tiger Woods went into two years ago when he decided to change his golf swing, I asked Brogna how long it took from the time Valentine got hold of him until the time he saw some results.

“Oh, immediately,” he says. “Right away. The very first game. And the thing is, because of that, I worked even harder. I couldn’t wait to come to the ballpark every day. The harder I worked the better I got.” And that success made him work harder at the rest of his game, too.

There’s been a lot of grousing about the failure of Braves general manager John Schuerholz to sign a player with a big name and big stats (and big contract) in the off season. Instead, he signed Brogna. Before knee surgery and the onset of ankylosing spondylitis (AS), spinal arthritis, Brogna bore the catchy nickname “the Real Deal” — through no fault of his own — which has dogged him ever since.

Funny thing, though, he is the real deal, a sparkling defensive player and a smart, clutch hitter. We got to see both in the second game against the Mets last week: an over-the-dugout-railing catch in the second inning and the double that put the winning run at third base in the bottom of the ninth.

That one-out, one-on double was key in the Mets’ 3-2 loss to the Braves. And the next day, his old coach was beaming with pride from the visitors’ clubhouse. “That was a really good hit,” Valentine said.

I wondered if Valentine missed that part of the minors, the teaching part of baseball. “Yes,” he said softly, thoughtfully. “I do miss it.” He was pensive for a moment, his steely eyes glimmering.

And then a colleague from The Sporting News came up and asked about Timo Perez as a possible lead-off hitter and the moment was gone. “Oh, you just think he should lead off because he’s small,” Valentine said disgustedly. “Little guy, lead-off hitter,” he mocked.

Yes, the moment was most definitely gone.

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