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Mudville: August 17, 2022 8:45 am PDT
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Valentine’s Days

There is no telling where Ellis Valentine’s career would have taken him had he gotten out of the way of that Roy Thomas pitch.

The cannon-armed right fielder was part of a baseball renaissance in Montreal as the 1970s drew to a close, a budding star in town still in its Major League Baseball infancy. He was an All-Star at 22 and a Gold Glover at 23, possessing one of the most dangerous arms in baseball. However, by the time he turned 26, that fastball and the struggles that ensued following his devastating injury proved to be Valentine’s undoing.

Valentine joined Hall-of-Famer Andre Dawson and Warren Cromartie to form one of the most mesmerizing outfields of the 1970s. And in a blink, it was gone. The Expos gave up on him, the Mets didn’t know what to do with him and the Angels and Rangers were simply afterthoughts in what could have been a very special career.

“You can play the what-if game 24-7,” Valentine, 67, said. “My wife says it all the time. She knows my ability. She’s been with me since the early 70s. What if? I’d have been a Hall-of-Fame guy. I had Hall-of-Fame numbers. Look at my numbers and Andre’s over four years, they were the same. Andre had more time. Hall-of-Famers play for a long time and are able to put together a lot of numbers and didn’t have career ending injuries.”

Instead of working his way towards Cooperstown, Valentine joined the likes of Tony Conigliaro, Dickie Thon and David Wright, three other players whose Hall-of-Fame potential was taken from them by a wayward fastball.

The image of Valentine throwing rockets from right field in Olympic Stadium, however, remain as bright and vivid as they were in the mid-to-late 70s. His 24 outfield assists in 1978 tied him with Cromartie for the Major League lead. Valentine and Cromartie remain just two of seven people to collect as many as 24 outfield assists in one season since Carden Gillenwater had 24 assists in 1945 for the Boston Braves. Roberto Clemente had 27 for the Pirates [1961], Carl Furillo had 24 for Brooklyn [1951], Johnny Callison had 24/26 for the Phillies [1962/63], Dave Parker had 26 for the Pirates [1977] and Gary Ward had 24 for the Twins [1983].

“It [throwing] is an art the game doesn’t have anymore,” Valentine said. “Even Dave Parker talked about my arm even though he was pretty damn good himself. He used to give me a lot of confidence. That was a blessing and a gift.”

Valentine certainly took that artform to greater level, one that he had been reaching since he was a youngster in Southern California.

“EXPOSED” TO MONTREAL

Valentine grew up in Los Angeles after moving from Arkansas with his family when he was three years old. He discovered the lightning in his arm around the time he was seven years old, pitching against children two years older than he was because those his age were unable to handle his power on the mound.

“I realized very young that I had a special throwing arm,” Valentine said. “We played hard back in the day.”

His arm was just part of what made him special as he plowed through grade school and into high school. He was the star athlete at Crenshaw High a decade before Darryl Strawberry brought the school national attention by becoming the top overall pick in the 1980 MLB First-year Player Draft. Valentine played varsity baseball for three seasons and was also a football star but broke his leg during the summer between his junior and senior seasons and that altered his future just a bit.

“Strawberry came through at the right time,” Valentine said. “Crenshaw had only been open about a year when I was there. It opened in ’69 and that was my sister’s class. I was able to be in the first full graduating class.”

The injury, however, likely knocked Valentine out of the first round of the draft, allowing Montreal to grab him in the second round with the 29th overall pick before signing him for $30,000.

“Back then you could only play varsity for three years because high was 10th, 11th and 12th grade,” Valentine said. “I played varsity [baseball] all three years but I played my senior year with a pin in my leg because I broke it. I wasn’t able to play football [that year] but I played baseball. I couldn’t do much because I couldn’t pitch or play the other positions I usually played so I played a lot of first base.

“I was a pitcher; I loved it. They drafted me as a pitcher-first baseman but they [ultimately] put me in right field because they didn’t want any contact with my leg. I was okay with not being able to pitch. It wasn’t like I was going to be thrust into something I didn’t enjoy. Back then I didn’t have the will to try and stay as a pitcher. I wanted to be able to do all the other stuff.”

Valentine admits that he knew very little about Montreal when he was drafted. That didn’t matter much to him, though, because he simply wanted to play and the where, initially, wasn’t an issue. Ultimately, though, he admits that over time, because he was in Montreal, he wasn’t as marketable in the United States.

“I wasn’t getting pitches to hit and when you don’t have guys behind you that can hit home runs as easily as you can, then why should they pitch to you?”

“Back then they didn’t have cable or internet, the things they have today, so a lot of those years got wasted in terms of media coverage,” Valentine said.

Media coverage didn’t matter, though, in the summer of ’72 when Valentine was sent to Florida to play for Montreal’s affiliate in the Florida East Coast Rookie League. The Cocoa Expos were a miserable squad that went 9-47, finishing 33.5 games out of first place in the four-team circuit. Valentine held his own, though, hitting .266 with a homer and 18 RBIs in 53 games.

“When I went to Florida it was my first time away,” Valentine said. “It was different, a culture shock for me. I really didn’t know how to handle those first couple of days. I didn’t see anyone that looked like me. To be honest, everyone in South Central [L.A.] was black. Growing up, I never had the opportunity to intermingle with other communities.

“When I signed with the Expos, they first took me to Jamestown, New York to see how I would enjoy that. I went into a real different place those first couple of days. There are not too many black folks in Jamestown, New York. I found myself a little homesick. I got through that for a few days and then they shipped me to Cocoa Beach where we shared a field with the Astros.”

The effort in Cocoa Beach earned him a promotion to West Palm Beach of the Class-A Florida State League in 1973 and he began to show the promise that would take him to the big leagues. Valentine hit .308 [seventh in the league] with eight homers and 61 RBIs [fifth] in leading the Expos to first place and a berth in the league championship series.

“I just kind of got into the outfield thing there and there were a few guys like Larry Parrish and myself and we did really good down in West Palm,” Valentine said. “I kind of realized there were some things I had control over, like my playing ability, and I had a pretty good season.”

Valentine got his first true exposure to Canada and French-Canadian culture in 1974 while playing for Quebec of the Double-A Eastern League. He once again led his team to first place and a post-season berth after hitting .263 with five homers and 50 RBIs. He was added to Montreal’s 40-man roster at season’s end.

That set the stage for what would be his breakout 1975 at Memphis of the Triple-A International League. There would be no post-season this time but Valentine did lead the league in hits [151], runs [87] and was tied for the lead in doubles [30]. He was fifth in the league in hitting [.306] and eighth in RBIs [66].

Valentine’s big year was also due, in part, to Memphis manager Karl Kuehl, who had been his skipper in 1972 when he first signed. The two had a special bond and the work they did together proved to be of immeasurable benefit to Valentine, who would make his Major League debut later that summer.

“He is no longer with us but he was really the guy that turned on the light switch that helped me move from the minors to the majors in my terms of thinking,” Valentine said. “I can’t thank him enough for what he did back then. He was a very good baseball man and an excellent teacher and that’s what Montreal actually needed.”

The lessons that Valentine learned from Kuehl were enough to get him to Montreal in September in the waning days of Gene Mauch’s tenure as manager. Valentine made his debut on Sept. 3 at Veteran’s Stadium against the Phillies. He went 0-for-3, popping up against Tom Underwood in his first Major League at-bat.

Valentine picked up his first hit two days later in the second game of a doubleheader against Pittsburgh at Parc Jarry in Montreal. He led off the third inning with a single to center off Jim Rooker. Two innings later, he led off again and took Rooker deep for his first career homer, a bomb to deep left off yet another 2-2 pitch. He had a six-game hitting streak that September and finished by hitting .364 [12-for-33] with a homer and three RBIs.

Kuehl replaced Mauch as manager in 1976 but neither he nor Valentine got off to a good start. Valentine was hitting .238 with a pair of homers in just 42 at-bats when he was sent to Denver of the Triple-A American Association. Kuehl would last a bit longer, posting a 43-85 record before he was replaced by Charlie Fox for the final month of the season.

Valentine was frustrated by the demotion and took it out on opposing pitchers. He hit .309 with seven homers and 32 RBIs in 57 games for Denver before returning to Montreal in July.

“I was very disappointed and didn’t know how to handle it,” Valentine said. “It made me angry and made me want to show my talents and ability so that when I ended up getting back to Montreal, I would stay there. I had struggled early on; I wasn’t getting pitches to hit and when you don’t have guys behind you that can hit home runs as easily as you can, then why should they pitch to you?

“They said, ‘We aren’t going to pitch around this dude’ and I didn’t get a whole lot to hit for quite some time that season. I did the best I could the first part of the season and then I came on back and did okay.”

The Expos moved into Olympic Stadium in 1977 and had a new manager in Dick Williams, who had piloted the A’s to World Series championships in 1972 and ‘73. Valentine got off to a better start than he did the year before and had a strong season despite only playing in 127 games. He missed nearly two dozen games in the second half of the season after fouling a ball off his foot. Still, he endeared himself to the fans in Montreal when he christened Olympic Stadium on April 15 by hitting the park’s first homer in a 7-2 loss to the Phillies.

Valentine earned his lone All-Star berth that season – he went 0-for-1 with a walk in the game – and garnered some attention in the MVP voting before finishing the season by hitting .293 with 25 homers and 76 RBIs in 508 at-bats. The Expos, however, finished in fifth place, 12 games under .500. Valentine thought that the club should have given Kuehl a bit more time rather than turning to Williams.

“They thought they needed and wanted someone who wanted to win but a manager doesn’t win,” Valentine said. “The players win. So, they went out and got Dick Williams. He was a great manager but not for a team full of young guys. He was a good manager for a team full of veterans. The young guys needed someone to bring them along and show them but he didn’t show you anything. He wanted you to do this, this and this and we never did that kind of stuff. It took him [Williams] a while to get us to that place. We were just too young for that in terms of our ages, we weren’t that mature yet.”

The club continued its maturation process in 1978 but only moved up to fourth place, 10 games under .500. Valentine, however, had a career season. His defense and his arm were on full display as he won the Gold Glove. He hit .289 with a career-high 165 hits and once again had 25 homers and 76 RBIs.

THE SITUATION BEGINS TO TURN AND THE INJURY

While Valentine put together another solid season in 1979 — .276, 21 HR, 82 RBIs – nagging injuries began to become an issue. That combined with his affinity for the nightlife in Montreal, including drugs, made for a bad combination.

“I had a sciatic nerve problem, which is one thing that was a factor in all of this,” Valentine said. “I broke my leg in high school and that was part of the reason I had a lot of leg injuries. All of my leg injuries were on my left side – sciatic, knee, hamstring, Achilles and significant bone loss. I played the first year and a half of my minor-league career with a pin in my leg. It ran from my knee to my ankle and so I ran with a slight limp. No one noticed as much as they thought I was cool. When my career was over I had surgery on my right knee because I compensated for so many years because of the injuries on my left side.

“And, I didn’t have a drug problem. I had an Ellis problem. Drugs were something I did to deal with things. I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know how to handle my emotions so I medicated them. The stuff you used to medicate pain also did the same for feelings and emotions and that became a factor. When my career was over I had to face those challenges and decided to change all that. I started working on Ellis and didn’t have to medicate myself or do the things I was doing or run from me. The cocaine was a way of feeling invisible or different and I had to learn about all those things.”

Valentine started 1980 off well enough. He was hitting .297 and had 28 RBIs through the end of May. Montreal was starting to come around after a slow start and finished May at 21-20 on route to a 90-72 record. Valentine, however, would miss much of the season after the life-altering events of May 30 in a game against St. Louis at Busch Stadium.

The Expos were ahead 6-2 in a game they would go on to win, 10-4, when Valentine came up with two outs in the sixth. The bases were empty and Valentine was facing Roy Thomas, who had had relieved starter Jim Kaat in the fifth. Valentine already had a double and three RBIs in the game so perhaps Thomas was simply trying to brush him back when he threw a fastball high and tight. Valentine did not react quickly enough and was hit square in the face.

“All I remember is that I couldn’t get out of the way,” Valentine said. “Roy Thomas was a big right-hander and I played against him all the way through the minors – we played the Cardinals quite a bit. He had a big, swooping, right-handed curve so I had to stay in there tight. But he also had a fastball that rode up and in and that was the pitch he threw that I got hit with. I was expecting a breaking ball and I tried to hang in there. He throws this fastball that’s rising and I froze. I don’t know if it was my stance or whatever, I couldn’t get out of the way. I moved my chin a little so it didn’t hit me square in the eye.

“I don’t remember if I lost consciousness but I heard that I didn’t go down. I never watched the pitch where I got hurt. I’ve never seen it, no one has ever shown me or sent it to me. I’ve never seen footage if there is even footage. For years I didn’t talk about it and I didn’t deal with it very well. I know it took me a while to recover some of the vision and the gaps that happened for several years afterward. It was pretty jarring.”

The pitch fractured several bones in Valentine’s face as well as leaving him concussed. He didn’t return to the lineup until July 10 when the Expos were facing the Cards again, this time at Olympic Stadium. Valentine came back with a vengeance, though, hitting in 17 of 21 July games upon his return. That included an 11-game hitting streak that helped push his batting average up to .322 by July 29.

Valentine stayed hot through the end of the season, authoring a pair of seven-game hitting streaks in August. He finished at .315 with 13 homers and 67 RBIs in 86 games. He also missed much of September after suffering a hand injury that some in management and in the clubhouse didn’t think was serious enough to prevent him from playing. Despite a strong second half, Valentine’s career would never be the same.

THE BEGINNING OF THE END

The tension that ended the 1980 season was still there in 1981 and when Valentine got off to a slow start, the Expos traded him to the Mets on May 29, a day short of a year since he was he hit by the pitch. Montreal got a closer in Jeff Reardon and throw-in Dan Norman, who had come to New York from Cincinnati in the Tom Seaver deal four years earlier. Valentine was hitting .211 with 15 RBIs at the time of the trade.

“The team [Montreal] had gotten to a point where we could manufacture runs at any given time,” Valentine said. “We could drive in runs; steal some bases and we could score some. The problem was we couldn’t hold it and that’s why they traded me for Jeff Reardon. And he shined. The table was set, he just had to keep the ball in the ballpark. But they had to get rid of me and Jeff went to Montreal because they had Neil Allen at the time.

“I don’t think Montreal would have ever traded me if didn’t get hit. I put up numbers for Montreal for years and defensive numbers for years. I would drive in 70 and look at defensive play, I probably saved that many runs, too. Those numbers you never see. They would not have traded, they had no reason to. But they feared I would leave or never regain my playing ability so they had to get something from me as soon as they could. Unbeknownst to them, I never would have left Montreal. I would take pay cuts to stay there, that’s how much I loved it.”

Valentine, who was on the disabled list with a pulled hamstring at the time of the trade, did not love New York and New York came to not love Valentine. His miserable season continued after the trade, where he hit .207 with five homers and 21 RBIs in 48 games during the strike-shortened season.

“My year and a half in New York was a struggle,” Valentine said. “I had just gotten off the injury in Montreal, it was pretty severe and I was still trying to come back. I had the same symptoms and [concussion] protocols that football players exhibit. That happened in 1980 so we’re talking ’81, ’82 and ’83. I had lost all peripheral vision in those years. That’s why it was so hard to hang in there on curves from right-handed pitchers.

“What I had before getting hit I didn’t have anymore. Righty to righty was like looking down a tunnel. There was a gap there when certain curves and other pitches were thrown and I couldn’t see it so I would freeze first instead of reacting. By the time I was able to react my career had changed and I had no real control over that. It took a while for me to regain that and manage it.”

New York manager George Bamberger didn’t seem to know what he could have had in Valentine and wound up platooning him with Joel Youngblood, another right-handed hitter who was largely a journeyman backup throughout his career, in right. Valentine hit .288 with eight homers and 48 RBIs in 111 games in 1982. Youngblood was traded to Montreal that August.

“They were platooning me with Joel Youngblood against lefties,” Valentine said. “When I left Montreal, I was a starter. When I came to New York, I wasn’t starting anymore. I was trying to come back from that injury and the next thing you know I’m real frustrated with the team and they are doing things. I had a rough time there. It was finally over and I moved on but I had hoped for better things in New York but they never gave me the opportunity.”

Valentine signed with the Angels as a free agent for the 1983 and hit .240 with 13 homers and 43 RBIs in 86 games. The injuries were mounting, though, and the Angels released him after he missed all of 1984 save for two rehab games with Edmonton of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. He signed with Texas midway through 1985 and had a good run at Oklahoma City of the American Association, hitting .314 with 10 homers and 33 RBIs in 46 games.

It earned Valentine a call-up in September and he finished his career by playing in 11 games for the Rangers during which he hit .211 with two homers and four RBIs.

“After [New York] I just got hurt again,” Valentine said. “The injuries just kept happening. I got tired of rehabbing and trying to come back. I had just had enough. So, the Rangers asked me to come out of what was really retirement. I had a two-year contract with the Angels and I couldn’t perform.”

Valentine’s final game was Oct. 3, 1985, in Texas against Oakland. He went 0-for-3. His last at-bat produced a flyball to right in the seventh inning off Bill Krueger.

He never gave any thought about joining his former teammate Warren Cromartie, who was enjoying a stellar second career in Japan.

“I felt that if I couldn’t play in the States, I didn’t need to go play in Japan,” Valentine said. “I also didn’t have the ability to bounce back like I did when I was younger.”

POST-PLAYING DAYS

Valentine’s story doesn’t end, however, with that final at-bat in Texas. Not long after that game he got sober and has remained that way for more than three decades. He went on to be a successful counselor, first in California and then Texas before retiring in 2014.

“When my career was over, I addressed the things I needed to address and my counseling career came up,” he said. “I did that for 28 years. One the things I tried to do when counseling was to be honest. I lived this and I shared it.”

His last brush with baseball came in 1990 when he participated in an Old-Timer’s Game. His at-bat against Hall-of-Famer Bob Gibson produced a memorable result.

“I hit a line drive off Gibson, hit him right in the head,” Valentine said. “When I was a kid I used to get into him and watched on TV whenever Gibson pitched. I would imitate him pitching, kick the leg up and do all that. But we were playing in an Old-Timer’s game and I hit a line drive off his coconut and the ball bounced four rows behind the first base dugout.

“He went down like someone shot him. I ran to the mound to see if he was dead because it was so loud. Bob Gibson was a tough guy and when I got there he was just lying there. He looked up at me and said, ‘Dammit Valentine, why don’t you pull the ball?’. He threw the ball down and away and I lined it right up the middle. He never pitched in an Old-Timer’s game after that.”

Valentine doesn’t watch much baseball anymore, though. The game has become as unfamiliar to him as it has to so many other players of his era.

“I watch highlights more than anything and keep an eye on certain players,” he said. “I’m really not an avid fan anymore because I don’t understand the way they play. That’s not the way I was brought up. It’s very hard to follow.

“I have a hard time with things, like when you see a guy sitting on second with no one out. A right-handed hitter comes up and I am on deck and this guy hits the first pitch to the third baseman. Now you have one out and a man on second and he just took an RBI out of my bat. He didn’t even try to get the runner over to third. Things like that hurt the team. It’s hard to watch. We used to steal a base, hit and run, bunt, squeeze plays, you miss that. Then you see guys making it to the Major Leagues and they hit .200, are in the starting lineup and making millions.”

Who knows what Valentine could have made if not for a wayward fastball?

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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