Why Stamford's own native son won the heart of our city
photograph courtesy ESPN
Bobby Valentine is nationally praised for guiding baseball teams to championships. But in Stamford, the former Mets and Rangers manager and current ESPN baseball analyst seems to command just as much respect for his local altruism.
“All you have to do is pick up the papers to see all the charitable things he’s doing,” says Keith Dardis, a Stamford resident, while eating lunch with his family one recent afternoon in Valentine’s eponymous Main Street restaurant.
As Valentine passed by, under the glow of numerous TVs, Dardis tipped off his children about the native son, who’s given back to the city for more than four decades, since donning his first major league uniform for the L.A. Dodgers, to kick off a heralded baseball career. “Hey kids, you know who that is?” Dardis asks as they look up from the table, sensing their father’s reverence. “That’s Bobby Valentine.”
And they aren’t the only ones who are awestruck. The city recently named Valentine its Citizen of the Year for 2010, presenting him with an award sponsored by Fred Robbins Post 142 of the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A. that’s been bestowed to an A List of residents since 1945.
Mayor Michael Pavia surprised Valentine with the honor in a brief early-morning ceremony at the Government Center, where Valentine had been summoned under the pretense of talking about a new city job. “Oh, goodness,” Valentine exclaimed after cries of “Surprise!” from some forty people gathered in the mayor’s conference room. Yet a day later, over a cup of coffee at his restaurant, Valentine had time to be more reflective about his philanthropic record. It includes so many overlapping turns as high school graduation speaker, auctioneer and emcee, plus financial backer of a dozen local nonprofits, it’s a wonder he has time to even keep track of who’s on first.
“You don’t expect to be acknowledged for what you should be doing as a citizen,” says Valentine matter-of-factly.
This month his photo and name will be added to a wall at the Government Center where all past winners are listed, and in May he will be toasted at a dinner at the Italian Center, where the Fred Robbins Post will hand out scholarships to college-bound students who have also made a name for themselves through charity work. That tie-in brings a smile to Valentine’s face. “I think it’s a great feeling to know that we’re all in it to win it,” he says, “and that we’re all in it together.”
For Kurt Zimbler, one of six members of a selection committee that picked Valentine from a list of a dozen nominees, one of Valentine’s key accomplishments was his success in revitalizing downtown. Indeed, before his Bobby Valentine’s Sports Gallery Café opened across from Columbus Park in 1980, the area was plagued by crime, Zimbler says. Today the park stages musical performances and is surrounded by upscale eateries, he points out. “It’s a total transformation.”
Plus, Valentine has remained loyal to Stamford even as his career has taken him around the world. The North Stamford resident has owned a house in the city for most of his life, and since returning to the United States in 2009 after managing Japan’s Chiba Lotte Marines, the city has been his full-time address. “His name has always been associated with Stamford,” Zimbler says. “Wherever he has gone, he has come back.”
Why keep rounding the bases for home? To answer that question, Valentine talks about Aaron Boone, the former Yankee who’s now with ESPN. Boone asked Valentine recently where he should move in Fairfield County. At first Valentine launched into a breakdown of the city’s geography. “Then I realized that Stamford is all about the people. It’s a mixed bag, a diverse group, but we all get along and work together well. And I’m really, really proud of what we have here.”
While Valentine lends his help to national charities, others have strong local connections, especially those focused on getting children to play sports. One such nonprofit is the Mickey Lione Jr. Fund, which honors the former hockey and baseball coach at Trinity Catholic High School.
Lione and Valentine met through Stamford’s tight-knit athletic community, says Jerry Lione, a cousin. In fact, they became so close that Mickey Lione would feel comfortable “putting his feet up on a desk” in Valentine’s office at Shea Stadium after Mets games and sharing his opinions about the team’s performance.
Today the Lione Fund, created after Mickey Lione died in 1999, offers six college scholarships a year to Stamford high school students at $5,000 a pop. Recipients have to keep up their grades for three years before receiving the money at graduation. “We make them walk the walk, and talk the talk,” Valentine says.
The fund, which has distributed about $400,000 so far, also covers the costs of athletic equipment for children who want to play sports but can’t afford to.
To raise money, the Lione Fund relies on an annual party that pro baseball players attend. His ability to draw these kinds of sports celebrities, and thus sell pricey tickets, is a tool that Valentine freely uses to generate money for his causes. But he’s been known to help out people quietly too, by writing checks to individuals, in efforts that largely go unsung, according to Rick Robustelli, a Newfield resident and former Citizen of the Year Award recipient.
But perhaps Robustelli’s greater claim to fame was a long-ago victory over Valentine in a high school football game old-timers still talk about. That game, the 1966 championship match-up between Stamford Catholic and Rippowam at Boyle Stadium before 12,000 people, found Robustelli’s Catholic squad trouncing Rippowam, where Valentine was a halfback, 32–6.
Clearly no bad blood remains. “He has done hundreds of things on a low-key basis, for those needing support or help,” says Robustelli. “He just goes out and does it.”Valentine is not afraid to grab a microphone and entertain crowds if it will generate more buzz for a cause, like he does when he emcees for the Swim Across the Sound benefit, which targets cancer; the Dinner of Champions for multiple sclerosis; or the Dream Ball for Stamford Hospital. “I am kind of entertaining at times,” Valentine jokes.
At the moment, he seems to be sharpening his skills as a diplomat, helping the city try to resolve a long-standing dispute between Stamford’s volunteer and full-time firefighters while making the whole system run more smoothly. In fact, only days after Valentine was named Citizen of the Year, he agreed to become the city’s director of public health and safety, overseeing the police, firefighters, and EMS
services. Valentine will draw only a $10,000 salary, and will most likely donate it to a scholarship fund.
It’s somewhat of a guess what motivates Valentine to give so much back. When asked, he shrugs but soon admits it might have something to do with the examples set by his industrious parents while he was growing up in Waterside.
His dad, Joseph, was a carpenter who “worked half of the time to pay the bills and half of the time for free,” he says, while his mom, Grace, was a corporate secretary. Though now deceased, they would probably not be surprised that their son grew up to be such a one-man force for change in Stamford. “They were givers, to their families and the community,” he says. While not wealthy by any stretch, “they gave time and energy, and they cared about Stamford.”
Other influences were from the neighborhood. When a school or baseball team or St. Clement’s Church, where Valentine went to Mass every Sunday, needed to drum up funds, people would always rise to the occasion, in gestures that might explain Valentine’s current philosophy.
Still, the most significant influence was his brother, Joe, who despite being three years older always let him tag along with the “older guys.” Joe gave Bobby his first car, a 1966 Chevy, money for dates, and even broke the news to his parents when Bobby broke his leg in a collision with a wall during a game when he was with the California Angels in 1973.
“My brother gave me everything I always needed or wanted,” Valentine says. “I hope to pass that on.”