NEW YORK -- Alex Rodriguez found Bobby Valentine behind the batting cage, the same Bobby Valentine who had mocked him in spring training, and the injured New York Yankees star gave the beleaguered Boston Red Sox manager a pregame pep talk.
It wasn't Knute Rockne revisited Sunday night, but it went something like this:
Keep your chin up. … You're great for the game. … Don't let the B.S. drag you down.
"I think Alex is a terrific guy," Valentine said as he walked away from an exchange that unfolded only six months after he gleefully reminded the world that A-Rod had once been pummeled -- sort of -- by Jason Varitek.
The manager paid little attention to this larger point the scene hammered home: If Alex Rodriguez is the one trying to talk you through a tabloid feeding frenzy, things must be really, really bad.
As it turns out, things are really, really bad for Valentine, whose Red Sox lost a 4-1 game in Yankee Stadium to fall 13½ games behind the home team and 7½ games off the wild-card pace. Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki, with a combined age of 76 and a combined hit total (including Ichiro's time in Japan) of 7,090, blasted Josh Beckett all over the yard.
So no, the Red Sox aren't going to make an improbable playoff push. They aren't going to reverse the curse of last September, when select pitchers converted Terry Francona's clubhouse into a sports bar and choked on everything but the chicken wings.
Only the easiest available target, Valentine, shouldn't be fired for failing to reach the postseason with a team that has been a physical wreck all year, a team that still suffers from the self-inflicted psychological wounds of 2011. In fact, it would be an injustice if Boston doesn't give Valentine a second season, or at least the first three months of a second season, to tweak his approach and program in an attempt to stanch the internal bleeding.
"I've done a lot of work; I couldn't do any more," Valentine said in a private moment outside his clubhouse. "I don't think I could've worked any harder. I probably could've done some things differently, I guess, but I don't know what they are. I'll appraise it and I'll look back on it."
As he spoke, Valentine, 62, appeared worn to the nub from the non-stop noise around him.
"I've had two days off since Dec. 3 and that's my fault, since I didn't take them off," he said. "But this is as tough a job as you can have."
Valentine was asked if this rebuilding job was tougher than the New York Mets' rebuilding job he took over in 1996.
"I came from the minor leagues with the Mets, so I already knew faces and names," he answered. "I knew nothing here, and I like to know everything. I don't know the stadium ops people that come out on the field, and it's uncomfortable sometimes.
"But I've done the best I can do here, and that's all I can ask of myself. I would do anything to change the numbers. I'd sell my soul."
Soon enough, Valentine's boss, Ben Cherington, appeared before a circle of scribes in the dugout. The Boston GM has made all sorts of rookie mistakes this year, none more conspicuous than his decision to allow members of Valentine's coaching staff -- members Valentine wouldn't have hired on his own -- to remain on non-speaking terms with the manager.
Cherington offered a weak take on Boston's unhealthy work environment, talking about a "process to get to know each other and work together in a more synergized way" and his belief that all parties involved were working on the relationships.
Of greater consequence, the GM maintained, was the fact the Red Sox have played hard for Valentine all season.
So the injuries have been catastrophic, the aces haven't pitched at all like aces, the owners have continued to enable the same players babied under Francona, and yet the team still finds a way to give Valentine its all.
Not exactly an air-tight case for making Bobby V.'s stay in Boston a one-and-done proposition.
"This is my fault," Valentine maintained of a 59-62 record that was hours away from becoming a 59-63 record. "We haven't won enough games, and I'm the manager."
He should stay the manager, too, if only because the Boston ownership underestimated the devastating impact last September had on the franchise. Collapses don't get wished away on a whim, and the Yankees could tell the Red Sox a thing or three about that.
After their historic meltdown in the 2004 ALCS, the Yanks lost in the first playoff round in 2005, lost in the first playoff round in 2006, lost in the first playoff round in 2007, and missed the playoffs in 2008. Joe Torre was bum-rushed out the door along the way, leaving an overmatched Joe Girardi to endure a first year in the Bronx turbulent enough to rival Bobby V.'s first year in Boston.
In 2008, Jorge Posada wasn't the only Yankee who couldn't stand Girardi in a clubhouse gripped by enough A-Rod-Jeter tension to alarm free agent-to-be CC Sabathia, who had to be convinced by Brian Cashman to sign on as a highly compensated bridge-builder.
Girardi was making enough players and media members miserable that Cashman and team PR man Jason Zillo had to plead with him to loosen up. The manager had once made the mistake of assembling his uninspired players and racing around a clubhouse table at a cartoonish speed to show them what real hustle looks and sounds like, a spectacle that one witness labeled "Bobby Valentine-esque."
Instead of firing Girardi, Cashman celebrated a World Series title with him in 2009.
This isn't to say Valentine will win the championship in 2013 that he lost to the Yankees as the Mets' manager in 2000. This is to say the Red Sox should draw up one of those empty one-year extensions, attach it to Valentine's existing two-year contract for the sake of appearances, and give him a fair-and-square chance to succeed next April.
Asked whether he felt good about his chances to return next year, Valentine said, "That's the vibe I'm getting from my owners and my boss."
But Bobby V. has been around long enough to know that August vibes don't mean a damn thing in a playoff-free October. Way back when, Fred Wilpon fired Valentine after swearing up and down that his man was safe.
Now Carl Crawford appears to be headed for surgery, leaving Valentine with yet another gaping hole to plug in his lineup. The Red Sox are done. Their season is over before it's over, even Yogi Berra would agree with that.
Hours before their demise became semi-official, A-Rod, of all people, did what he could to cheer up the Boston manager. "I can't talk about that," Rodriguez said on his way to the Yankee Stadium exits. "But yeah, it was great."
Valentine told Rodriguez, "We're two big targets," though only one polarizing figure is wearing the bull's-eye now.
A-Rod's in the clear for the time being. But just because Bobby V. is heavily favored to lose his job in October doesn't mean that it's right, or even remotely fair.