What Baseball Really Needs: Mr. Personality

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Coaches and managers, as a group, have always been pretty straightforward types. We don't think of generals or preachers as humorists — and, after all, that's pretty much what coaches are, a hybrid of the military and the pulpit.

But at least in the past, there were always a fair complement of coaching characters: old cracker-barrel philosophers, feisty wise guys and even a few sardonic intellectuals.

But the oddballs are diminishing. I think much of this has to do with the fact that sports has increasingly come to depend upon statistics, and so more and more coaches aren't skippers, as they've been, colloquially, in the past, but — for goodness sakes — programmers.

Not only that, when these dull guys lose their jobs, they're precisely the ones picked by ESPN so they can then bloviate over the air the same trite truisms that got them fired.

Where is Al McGuire when we need him? Abe Lemons? Duffy Daugherty? Al Davis? But it is in baseball where we most miss the characters at the helm. Baseball, after all, is the national pastime. A lot of time passes in the dugout. It's the most oral of sports. Thank heavens, even if his address has changed to Miami, Ozzie Guillen is still around to shoot his mouth off in the best tradition of Casey Stengel and Earl Weaver.

But all praise and glory go to the Boston Red Sox for bringing Bobby Valentine back to provide some antic charm and irritation. The irony is, too, that the faceless new Boston general manager was determined to bring in another bland button-pusher. But club president Larry Lucchino — who changed the face of baseball by championing the construction of Baltimore's Camden Yards, creating the friendly modern ballpark — pushed for articulation and pizazz, for a man smart enough to have learned Japanese when he was managing in exile over there.

So spring training has hardly started, but here we have Valentine, already having fun in English, teasing, prodding and especially nettling the pompous Yankees, stirring up the best rivalry in the sport. My goodness gracious, Bobby V. even dared criticize the sainted Derek Jeter, and by jabbing at Alex Rodriguez, managed to get A-Rod to say something cute and unscripted.

"I have my new press secretary ... Reggie Jackson, so I'll let him handle that," the erstwhile artless slugger wisecracked.

With such witty repartee, for the first time I could appreciate what Cameron Diaz saw in the guy.

So welcome back to baseball and byplay, Valentine-san. If your team wins, fine, but it's enough to just keep talking a good game. Lord, do we need more of that in sports today.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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