By John Boyle Herald Columnist
EVERETT — He couldn’t have possibly known it at the time, but Dave Valle’s training for his current job in a lot of ways began more than two decades ago when he struggled through one of the worst seasons of his 13-year, big-league career.
Valle, who is approaching the halfway point of his first season as the manager of the Everett AquaSox, sees his 1991 season with the Mariners — the one in which he finished the year hitting .194 despite being Seattle’s every-day catcher, and the one in which a Pioneer Square bar turned Valle’s batting average into a drink promotion — as a valuable resource for someone taking on a new challenge. Especially when that challenge involves managing a group of young men who are new to professional baseball, and in the case of this year’s AquaSox, struggling through a losing season. Everett entered Saturday’s game with a 10-25 record, by far the worst in the Northwest League.
“I’ve had some horrible years. In a strange way, as I look back over my career, it was the years I struggled most when I grew the most, not only as a baseball player but as a man, as a father, as a husband,” said Valle, who was drafted by the Mariners in 1978 and spent 10 seasons with the big-league club.
“When you’re hitting .194 and you’re playing every day, which I did, it is a mental challenge to show up every day and compete.”
Those struggles help Valle relate to teenagers and early 20-somethings who aren’t just losing a lot of games this season, but who are going through so many new things, from on-field struggles to homesickness to simply realizing how different life is when baseball is your every-day job.
“I’ve talked to these kids and said, ‘I’ve struggled more than all of you combined,’” Valle said. “I know what it’s like to be 0-for-20, I know what it’s like to be 3-for-50, I know that baseball hell. When those times happen, the guys who are going to climb the ladder to get to the big leagues are the ones who can fight through that.”
Valle played with Ken Griffey Jr., one of the most talented players of his or any generation, a player who made everything look easy. But Valle knows that’s the very rare exception in this game. For Valle, and for the players on his current team, the more realistic example of baseball success is a player like Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager, a former third-round pick who was hitting .156 three weeks into this season, but who also just played in his first All-Star game.
“To me that’s a baseball player,” Valle said. “He struggled, then where was he at (last week)? The All-Star game. To me that’s the epitome of somebody overcoming adversity. It’s going to happen. Don’t think it’s not going happen to you.
“If you’re playing this game, you will be humbled. You will be brought to your knees, and then what are you going to do? For me, having experienced that personally — this game was never easy for me, ever, all you’ve got to do is look at the back of my baseball card — I know what it’s like, but I also know what it’s like to overcome a difficult situation.”
And so far this AquaSox season counts as a difficult situation, but it’s one Valle and Mariners organization believe he is well-equipped to handle.
Not long after Valle’s final season with Texas in 1996, he joined the Mariners’ broadcasting team, and later also took a job with the MLB Network, yet he always had the desire to be back on the field. And with the youngest of their three children off to college, Valle and his wife decided now was the time to pursue his managerial dream.
Despite his lack of experience, Valle interviewed for the vacant Mariners position that eventually went to Lloyd McClendon, though he knew he was a long shot for that job.
“It just kind of got my juices going again,” Valle said of the interview. “My youngest daughter is a sophomore in college, and my wife is ready to kick me back out of the house. The timing of it was great, and I realized that if I waited too long there was a chance that opportunity would pass me by. To be in the interview process for a major league managerial position was really special.”
And while Valle didn’t get that job, he did enough to impress the Mariners, who later offered him the job in Everett.
“Dave’s got a great personality, and he’s been around the game a long time as a player. He’s got a very good background,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “He’s really in tune with a lot of things, and it was just a matter of time before he decided to step back on this side of things.”
Both Valle and Zduriencik agree that starting off in Everett is perfect for Valle, not only because he’s close to home, but because he’s learning the job from the bottom up. And because he’s at a level where player development is more important than wins and losses, Valle’s background as a catcher, his personality, and yes, his struggles as a player, make him a perfect fit to help bring young players along early in their careers.
“It’s always about player development first,” Zduriencik said. “At that level, you want to win, you go out every day wanting to win, but at the end of the day, you have to have the players’ best interest at heart.
“It’s different. They have to learn the rigors of playing every day in a professional environment. And that’s a huge challenge. Some kids are homesick, some kids are tired, some kids are worn out, some kids have girlfriend problems — all kinds of issues. That’s part of it at that lower level where you’re involved with all of that.
“You’re a manager, you’re a counselor, you’re a teacher. You need to be there for players, but you’re a disciplinarian in some cases, and you’re teaching them to play the game. When the year ends, what you hope happens is that the players get better, that they understand the game, and that their manager is a teacher who gave them a great introduction to this level of baseball. Basically this is a platform for them to launch forward, and a lot of that falls on the manager’s lap.”
Valle wishes his team was winning more. Friday’s sixth-inning ejection was his second in as many weeks, so some frustration comes with the mounting losses. However, he is still incredibly upbeat about his new role that in his mind comes with a bit of irony considering all three of his kids are finally out of the house.
“It’s like I’ve adopted 30,” he said. “I had to tell my kids 100 times to clean up their room. We’re talking about the same thing: what’s your approach, trust your approach, they need to hear that. But everything about the opportunity has been fantastic. It was a perfect fit and it was impossible to say no.
“Hopefully at the end of this season, every one of the guys wearing an Everett AquaSox uniform will be better because of our time here.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.