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It'll be Valentine's day before you know it

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Bob Klapisch

Bob Klapisch covers baseball for The Record in New Jersey and worked at the New York Post and New York Daily News. The author of five books, he was recently voted a top-five columnist in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

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At some point this season, GMs are going find the game's best non-working manager just by turning on the TV. Bobby Valentine is headed back to ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" studio, where his brains, charisma and, yes, his availability, will be on nightly display.
Bobby Valentine

Bobby Valentine got tossed in the air by his team after his Chiba Lotte Marines won the 2005 Asia Series. TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images)
Toshifumi Kitamura


Is he ready to return to the dugout? Craving is more like it, which is only natural. Valentine belongs in a major-league dugout the way John Wayne belonged on a horse.

For now, Valentine is (wisely) declining the chance to campaign for another job. He said the other day, "now is not the right time" to think about a homecoming with the Mets. Or a rescue operation for the Orioles or Reds. Or perhaps inheriting the mantle from Bobby Cox, who's beginning his final season with the Braves.

The most obvious next step, though, is Flushing, where Jerry Manuel is in the final year of his contract. With the anvil hanging over his head, Manuel has two months, at best, to prove he can reverse the Mets' downward spiral which began all the way back in Game 7 of the 2006 NL Championship Series.

Manuel is counting on a healthy roster to keep his job, but he hasn't gotten much help from the front office. With the exception of Jason Bay, Jeff Wilpon and Omar Minaya have otherwise made no upgrades to a team that lost 92 games last year.

So it wouldn't take a full-blown dark age to oust Manuel; one long losing streak in late May would be enough. Question is, would ownership have the guts to re-hire Valentine?

It's been eight years since he last managed the Mets, 10 since he took them to the World Series, although his empire came crashing down in 2002 when he was axed by then-GM Steve Phillips.

It was a brutal dispute — personal and petty, if not vicious — although one Met official admitted not long ago, "we fired the wrong guy." Valentine found success in Japan, where he led the Chibba Lotte Marines to their first championship in 31 years, increasing attendance and team revenue by 400 percent.

Valentine had a street named after him. A beer. A hamburger. He was also the first foreign manager to ever prevail in the Japanese World Series. Yet, he's back in the U.S. after a six-year run in the Far East, the victim of a personality clash with his bosses.

That's the surcharge of hiring a classic alpha-male. Eventually, inevitably, someone gets intimidated by Valentine's energy. A Marines official all but said Valentine had out-grown the team. "It was best for both parties, he said, that Valentine move on.

So he's back on prime-time TV, where the dividend will be two-fold: Valentine's work in the studio will demonstrate how well he breaks down the game and evaluates talent and otherwise remind viewers why he was able to resurrect the Rangers in the mid '80s and the Mets in the late '90s.

His legacy in New York is still strong. In a poll conducted by Metsblog.com, a popular fan site, Valentine received a 97 percent approval rating. The only obstacle is whether Wilpon and Minaya would consider Valentine too overwhelming.

It's a reasonable question, since Valentine would instantly become the franchise's most dominant figure. Still, if the Mets don't act, some other team will. Here are the managers already on the hot seat for 2010, as Valentine begins warming up in the bullpen (even if he doesn't want to admit it).

Dave Trembley, Orioles: The AL East is hell for the poor and the hungry, everyone knows that. But the O's have at least inched toward on-paper respectability this winter, adding Kevin Millwood, Mike Gonzalez and Garrett Atkins to go along with their promising young players.

It's now up to Trembley to make some sort of move toward the top of the division. He's lost 98 and 93 games, respectively, in his first two seasons, so it's hard to believe another lost summer at Camden Yards will go unnoticed.

Cito Gaston, Blue Jays: It doesn't bode well for Gaston that rookie GM Alex Anthopoulos was uninhibited enough to trade Roy Halladay in his first offseason. If the most popular player in Jays history could be cut loose, what chance does Gaston have if his team is headed toward another sub-.500 season?

Gaston was a fine antidote for the volatile John Gibbons, finishing out 2008 with a 51-37 record. But Toronto finished the second half of the '09 season with a 31-41 mark, as Gaston himself spoke of retirement. He might just get his wish.

Dusty Baker, Reds: Baker has to prove last season's strong finish (27-13 down the stretch) wasn't a fluke. His roster has been bolstered significantly by Orlando Cabrera, Scott Rolen and possibly Aroldis Chapman, the 21-year-old Cuban defector who could bypass the minors and go directly into the Reds' starting rotation.

That's good news for Baker, who's finished fifth and fourth, respectively, since taking over the Reds in 2008. Some believe Baker's luck could turn in 2010; he has the firepower to make it happen. But Baker hasn't won a division title since 2003 with the Cubs, and he needs to prove he's still a winner.

Lou Piniella, Cubs: Piniella would likely quit before he ever got fired, but this is Sweet Lou's 23rd year managing and he has just one championship to show for it. He's returned the Cubs to respectability, winning the Central Division twice in the last three years, but if he can't end the 102-year World Series drought, it's not a stretch to think Piniella would just walk away.
Tagged: Orioles, Blue Jays, Cubs, Reds, Mets

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