Wednesday, June 16, 2010

SPORTS >> Life in baseball threw Valentine a few curveballs

IN SHORT: Former American League umpire is noted for being fired over efforts to unionize and has witnessed some of baseball’s most tragically memorable moments.

By Todd Traub
Leader sports editor

Notoriety comes the hard way sometimes.

No one knows that better than Bill Valentine.

The former Arkansas Travelers general manager and chief operating officer, who spent close to six years as an American League umpire in the 1960s, has seen firsthand the ways sports figures become household names.

It’s not always a pleasant process.

On June 2, American League umpire Jim Joyce made a safe call at first with one out to go to ruin a perfect game by Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Armando Galarraga. Replay showed Joyce blew the call and the remorseful umpire apologized to Galarraga.

“It was a terrible call,” Valentine said.

But Valentine said Galarraga, who forgave Joyce after the game, probably would be more famous for the classy way he handled his mishap.

If he had completed the perfect game, Galarraga would have been the 19th major leaguer to do so and the third this year, following Oakland’s Dallas Braden and Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay.

Instead of joining an admittedly select crowd, Galarraga, 28, has been on the Today show and cheered by fans and praised by managers and players for his professionalism, though he has said he wants to be remembered for more than a failed bid for perfection.
Valentine is no stranger to unwelcome fame himself.

Former Boston Red Sox manager and then-American League president Joe Cronin fired Valentine and fellow umpire Al Salerno in 1968 for their efforts to unionize the American League umpires.

Valentine is one of two umpires to have ejected Mickey Mantle, he was the youngest in his profession and he worked in Major League baseball’s last great heyday, yet he is still recognized for his being fired, Valentine said.

“I could have stayed in the big leagues 20 years and retired and no one would have ever known in a year or two who I was,” Valentine said. “So later on I started the union and got fired. Just a month or two ago I was in Tampa for a meeting and I was in the restaurant having a drink and someone introduces me and the guy said ‘You’re not the guy that started the umpires union are you?’

“I mean, 50 years later.”

Sometimes people simply find themselves in a marriage with fate that can’t be torn asunder.

If Valentine wasn’t known for being fired for forming a union, he might have been known as the umpire who witnessed one of baseball’s great tragedies.

Two actually.

Valentine was behind the plate in Boston on Aug. 18, 1967, when Los Angeles Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton shattered Tony Conigliaro’s cheekbone with an inside fastball.
The cheekbone healed, but Conigliaro missed all of the next season with a hole in his left retina.

He appeared to be making a miraculous comeback, with solid seasons in 1969 and 1970, before his deteriorating vision eventually forced him from the game in 1975.

Conigliaro died of a heart attack at age 45 in 1982.

“I was behind the plate when Conigliario got hit and two or three years ago ESPN came back on the anniversary or something because I was the guy behind the plate,” Valentine said.

Valentine was in the broadcast booth at North Little Rock’s Dickey-Stephens Park on July 22, 2007, when a foul ball struck and killed Tulsa first-base coach Mike Coolbaugh, leading to the rule that requires all professional base coaches to wear helmets.

The tragedy resurrected memories of Conigliario and in the course of questioning Valentine about Coolbaugh, writers and reporters brought up the Conigliario connection.
But when called on, Valentine doesn’t flinch from answering questions about some of the darker moments in baseball history.

He knows it comes with the territory.

And he is still unflinching in airing his opinions.

When Joyce drew praise for apologizing to Galarraga, Valentine said an umpire in his day would not have done so. And besides, Valentine said, the apology didn’t change anything.

“What good is an apology?” he said. “You shot my wife. ‘I’m sorry Bill, I didn’t know the gun was loaded.’ Okay, thank you but I’m still a widower.”