SPORTS

Love letters from out in right field

Hal Quinn March 23 1981
SPORTS

Love letters from out in right field

Hal Quinn March 23 1981

Love letters from out in right field

SPORTS

Hal Quinn

It’s a long drive by yourself from Montreal to West Palm Beach, Fla. The green Mercedes pulled into a turnpike gas station and halted alongside another Mercedes, a white one. “If you’re going all the way south, why don’t you follow me?” the attractive young woman behind the wheel asked. To Ellis Valentine of the Montreal Expos it seemed like a good idea, harmless and innocent. But for the six-foot, fourinch outfielder trouble is like a faithful puppy, always following close behind. And so, 800 km later, the Georgia night came alive, helicopters overhead training their searchlights on the tandem Mercedes, the white one in the lead, the green behind. “I looked up through the sunroof and thought, ‘What is this, C.H.i.P.sT ” It turned out that the white Mercedes was stolen, the woman driving it wanted on suspicion of murder. The weapon—the car. When the police stopped Valentine, the officer leaned on the green Mercedes and asked, “Where you goin’?” Valentine replied, “I’m just going to work.”

His work is throwing baseballs from the outfield farther, faster and straighter than almost anyone else, and hitting them as regularly as the game’s best. Valentine’s modest rebuttal: “It’s only amazing to people who can’t do it.” But simple things become events in this 26-year-old’s life. “It’s just that I’m so big. I can’t walk into a room without people noticing.” He is noticed most often for appearing, or not appearing, at baseball parks across North America. In the past two seasons, the Expos of Montreal have played to the end of the season with the pennant of the eastern division of the National League still in sight. They have yet to win it. As exhibition games began last week at their training camp in West Palm, 51 players were in uniform, with one conspicuous absentee from last year. Ron LeFlore was supposed to make the difference between second and first place last season. He stole 97 bases, a club record. He now plays for the Chicago White Sox. Even without LeFlore, the Expos remain one of the most talented teams in baseball, and without him more notice will be paid to what the gentle giant in right

field does and doesn’t do this season.

It was Sept. 21 last year, the pennant race captivating the nation. Diving for a ball in the outfield at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Valentine sprained his wrist. He did not play again. Privately and publicly he was maligned. Many felt that with Valentine playing, the Expos would have won the pennant. He was accused of faking his injury. “They [management] told me that at 80 per

cent of my capacity I was better than most of the players in this league. I didn’t like that. If I wasn’t ‘right,’ I didn’t want to go out there and hurt the ball club. My team-mates would expect things of me and I didn’t want to let them down. That’s the way I honestly feel, the way I’ve always felt, and I’m not going to change.”

All Valentine had done prior to Sept. 21 was hit for a .315 average, with 13

home runs and 67 runs batted in. After the first 40 games of last season he was the team’s offensive leader but, in an earlier game against St. Louis, Roy Thomas threw him a fast ball. Valentine didn’t duck in time, the pitch fractured his cheekbone and Valentine missed the next 37 games. When he returned, with a football-like face mask protecing him, he hit five home runs and knocked in 25 runs in 29 games. He then suffered a hip injury and played but briefly before diving after that ball in St. Louis.

Through it all Valentine was doggedly pursued by the media, his every move “noticed.” “I’d be asked a couple of questions and the next day there I am in the headlines.” Nothing has changed. One day early this spring, Valentine didn’t take batting practice. The next day the media had him being traded to the New York Yankees. A very private person living a very public life, Valentine has “thought of walking away from the game many times. It gets to you, it gets to everyone in baseball, not just the players. I’m not a press person, not a TV person. A lot of the guys need it, go after it. I don’t.”

Always a gifted athlete, always “bigger than the other kids,” Valentine’s baseball career started when “my

mother did something with my birth certificate so I could play with nineyear-olds when I was 7.” Eyes brightening, flashing a smile that disarms everyone but Georgia policemen, Valentine says, “And I was a star.” As a teenager he became one of the best highschool pitchers in the nation. “I just loved stopping them with my arm and winning the game with my bat.” The Expos drafted him as a pitcher/first baseman but, when he reported to camp with a limp from a senior-year broken leg that would stay with him for years, “they put me in right field and I’ve been

there ever since. I guess they didn’t want to jeopardize their investment.” And he’ll be there when the Expos try for the pennant again this season, lifting fans from their seats as he throws out base runners with his awesome arm. (“I’d just love to be a pitcher again. That’s what I’d really like.”) But as the season goes along, on the field, in the clubhouse or at the wheel of his green Mercedes, Valentine knows that however innocently, harmlessly, “trouble” is likely not far behind.