Nearly all his athletic life, or so it must seem, people have been underrating the recuperative powers of Bobby Valentine, the California Angels' courageous young leftfielder. With a history of injuries severe and varied enough to make the all-time Marcus Welby guest list, Valentine has been advised by fretful friends to sit out a game, a week, a season and, most recently, the rest of his career. Just as often he has disdained those warnings. This spring Valentine's tenacity of spirit has made him a cinch bet for comeback-player-of-the-year honors. Comeback player of the century might be closer to the mark.
By all that is medically reasonable, the 24-year-old Valentine should not be playing baseball or any other game more taxing than whist this season, let alone stealing bases, hitting .301 or diving after sinking line drives. Mere walking would have been marvel enough for the doctors who treated the injury he suffered last May in Anaheim Stadium and the disability he has endured since.
Chasing a home-run ball hit by Oakland's Dick Green, Valentine fractured both bones in his lower right leg when his pursuit ended in a freakish collision with the tarp serving as an outfield fence in the Angels' park. To this day no one can describe precisely what happened when Valentine ran into the vinyl barrier, thereby ending his season at 32 games in which he hit .302.
"Not spending another thousand bucks for a solid fence was the worst mistake of my life," said Angels General Manager Harry Dalton.
"Because the fence was vinyl," Valentine says, "I wasn't hesitant about running into it." He should have been. The ball missed Valentine's glove by an inch, and his leg drove into the vinyl between two support poles so that the tarp first yielded, then ensheathed his calf like a vise before flinging him back to the ground with a grotesque bend in the middle of his shin.
Ironically, Valentine was hurt because he had been shifted from shortstop, the position he prefers to play, to center field for the injured Ken Berry. "I was scheduled to be moved back to short the next day," he recalls, a thought that was particularly frustrating during the four months and 25 days he spent hobbling in a full-length cast. After another month a smaller cast was removed, and Valentine discovered that atrophy had taken 5¾ inches from his thigh and three inches from his calf.
Valentine had done the cast bit two years before because of a torn knee cartilage suffered in a touch-football game, but while the withered muscle was familiar, the X rays were frightening. They revealed his leg had knit with an inexplicable, 18-degree bend between the knee and ankle.
"The doctors said the condition would restrict my running." Valentine says, "and to really correct it would require a 13-to-16-month project with surgery, plates and screws and another cast, and that after two years my leg would be good as new." To Valentine this promise sounded like a death sentence for his career. "In my mind," he says, "to go with their plan meant not to be a ballplayer. That was the low point in my life—worse than the day I broke the leg. But one of my doctors, Donald Ball, said, 'Let's wait until January before we do any kind of surgery. If you're running or jogging by then, we won't go in there." That instilled some confidence, which I really needed at the time."
Valentine went back to his home in Stamford, Conn., where he worked on a conditioning program with his high school football coach, and by January he was able to jog. "I had a limp," Valentine says, "but I ran a little for Dr. Ball and I didn't really tell him when it hurt. Then I worked on weights and tried to get my speed back. The weights—that's a story in itself. Those four walls in the weight room, without even a skylight. Almost always I was in there by myself, doing that drudgery because I knew I had to do it.
"In the spring I had so much pain in my leg I couldn't run on it. I still have the pain and will for a long time. I went through all the painkillers, I used whirlpool, and when acupuncture didn't help I just resigned myself. I'm not a person who talks this way often, but I put it in God's hands. All the human help didn't do anything for me, so I left it up to Him."
With a fist-sized calcium lump grown over the fracture site, Valentine's bent shin has taken on the appearance of a shillelagh, and his gutty, limping gait is that of a wounded rabbit. The bend prevents his right heel from resting flat on the ground, so he toes in at the plate, building a small mound of dirt under his heel to approximate a normal stance. His weight-training program, augmented by isometrics in 400 pounds of sand, continues almost daily, yet Valentine realizes he won't get a lot of leg hits this year.
"The disability has taken my speed away, and that was so much a part of my game," he says. "Hopefully, with the hot summer days, it will come back. My success basically depends on my mental attitude. I was going pretty well, then lately I hit the skids with the bat. I think it's the mental stress. I can't give full concentration to my game when I'm worried about stopping on my left foot instead of my right. Little things annoy me. Favoring my right leg, I've pulled my left thigh, left groin and left ankle. I see a ball and know where I have to run to, and I'm an inch and a half short. But if I start thinking about every play and what I might have done with my old speed, that's when I'll start hitting .220."
That Valentine is determined to maintain his career at a high performance level is not surprising considering his past. "I've always prided myself on having a strong will," he says. "I want to hit .300 this year and contribute to the team the best I can. There have been a lot of other times I had to come back. I was told to sit out my junior year in high school when I had a dislocated shoulder. I was told to sit out when I got beaned."
The latter accident occurred in the final game of Valentine's 1969 season at Spokane, when he was a member of the Dodger organization and heir apparent to Maury Wills. His cheekbone was pushed down 2½ inches after he was hit by the ball, but by December he was busy playing winter ball.
Valentine scoffs at the idea that his athletic history, bruised and bandaged though it may be, has been cursed by the number 13, which he requested upon joining the Angels last year. Valentine was born May 13, 1950, wore the number through Little League, Babe Ruth and high school competition and married his wife Roxana on Feb. 13, 1972. He admits he may be flying in the face of fate, but points out, "I got beaned wearing No. 2, so I'm not convinced that bad luck follows number 13."
Nor has Valentine given up the hope of becoming a shortstop again. Playing left field, he says, "is like being a grave-digger waiting for the hearse to arrive. And left field is a demanding position on my leg. You don't get up to full speed that often in the infield. My quickness is still there, even if my speed isn't. I'm looking toward a career at shortstop. It's just another little bridge I have to cross."
Through it all Valentine has been innocent of bitterness or self-pity. In fact, he has been notably good-natured and friendly, a cheerleader to his teammates and an inspiration to others.
"Right now I'm counseling a couple of kids who are going through this same kind of thing," he says. "I've told them the first thing is to believe that in a certain amount of time, you'll be as good as ever. The second is it's not an easy road and you'll only get as much out of any program as you put into it, like everything else in life. Those are really the only things: hard work and a positive frame of mind. And finally, never feel sorry for yourself."
With that philosophy, no one is going to argue.
ROUNDING THIRD, Valentine strides out despite bad right leg, whose misshapen contours he displays in the dressing room.