Home News Bobby Valentine still ‘lucky’ fifty years after horrific injury,

Bobby Valentine still ‘lucky’ fifty years after horrific injury,

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Bobby Valentine still feels it, even 50 years later, still senses the dull ache that’s been a part of every step he’s taken since May 17, 1973. He’ll be walking his dogs, forever one of the favorite parts of his days, and the right leg starts to scream a little, sometimes barks louder than the pets do.

“Why does it feel like that?” he’ll ask himself, but he already knows the answer.

And he knows, intimately, the unspoken terror that inhabits all athletes, especially gifted ones, whose bodies insist they are infallible until proven otherwise.

“In a mega-second things can really change for you forever,” Valentine says, taking a break from listening to a podcast as he cruises the 405 highway in southern California. “I was that same invincible athlete.”

We forget sometimes just how fragile this can all be for athletes, even — especially — the best of them, how it can all vanish in a second, in a heartbeat, in an eye blink, all of it — fame, riches, immortality — gone. Sometimes it’s an accident. Sometimes it’s self-inflicted. Sometimes it happens doing the very thing that offers such perks and possibilities.

And sometimes it’s never quite the same for them after that.

Valentine knows, because 50 years ago Wednesday he learned the lesson in a terrible, painful way. He had been on the come ever since the Dodgers made him the fifth-overall pick in the 1968 draft out of Stamford’s Rippowam High.

When he made his MLB debut Sept. 2, 1969, against the Mets at Dodger Stadium — scoring a run as a pinch runner — he was the youngest player in the major leagues at 19 years and 112 days. Before the ’73 season, he was part a significant trade between the SoCal rivals, joining Frank Robinson to the Angels in exchange for Andy Messersmith.

Bobby Valentine was a rising MLB star with the Angels before getting caught up in the outfield wall and breaking his leg.
Getty Images

Named the Angels’ starting shortstop in the spring, Valentine began crushing baseballs immediately. He spent most of April above .400, and on May 2 was still hitting .397. He cooled off, partially because he’d been asked to move to center field — a position he’d never played before — to spell teammate Ken Berry, who was battling a sore back.

Still, in the bottom of the first inning on May 17, he lined a fastball off the A’s ace, Catfish Hunter to center field before he was thrown out trying to stretch, Oakland center fielder Billy North beating him with a throw to second baseman Dick Green. Valentine dusted himself off and marched to center field disappointed but feeling his stroke was back. The hit nudged his average to .302.

A few moments later, Angels pitcher Rudy May was trying to squirm out of a jam after Reggie Jackson led off the top of the second with a triple. May struck out the next two batters then pitched around Ray Fosse in order to face Green, hitting .203. But Green got ahold of a May fastball and sent it on a rocket toward center.

Valentine was stretchered off the field.
Valentine was stretchered off the field.
AP Photo

Valentine was still learning the position, but he was one of the fastest players in baseball. He reached the fence as soon as the ball did. But that fence was, literally, a fence and not a wall: a cyclone design, covered with a loose-fitting canvas tarpaulin. Valentine leapt for the ball. His leg hit the canvas, then jammed between the wire and the tarp.

The ball vanished over the fence. The sparse crowd of 11,481 groaned, both at the 3-0 lead and the sight of Valentine on his back. Vada Pinson, playing left field, ran over to check on his teammate; what he saw made him physically ill.

“I could see the bone sticking up under his skin,” Pinson said later. “He moved his foot and it looked like a water bed, ripples.”

Valentine leg was caught up in a wall
Valentine leg was caught up in a wall that was more of a fence covered with a loose tarp.
AP Photo

Valentine was in shock and initially felt no pain. When he was transferred to a stretcher, he uncorked a shout that touched every corner of Anaheim Stadium. By the time he reached the trainer’s room, where he was pumped with painkillers, he told his friend and teammate Bill Grabarkewitz: “You might as well have shot me.”

A day later, recuperating at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Orange, Calif., and still woozy Valentine said, “‘When I went up and hit the fence, it was not a square hit. It was more diagonal. When I saw my right leg it had flopped over an easy 90 degrees to the side. I never saw a break like that. I remember seeing the ball just over my glove.

“Then,” he said, “I came down and my leg was like the branch of a tree.”

Angels Bobby Valentine smiles at Anaheim Stadium
Valentine would make a comeback, though he was never the same player.
Getty Images

Far too late, Angels GM Harry Dalton would lament, “Not spending another thousand bucks for a solid fence was the worst mistake of my life.”

Valentine actually returned for Opening Day ’74 and for a time looked like a shoo-in to win Comeback Player of the Year. A year and a day after the accident he went 4-for-5 against the Twins in Bloomington, Minn. — “Game of the week” Valentine recalls, “only time I was ever on national TV!” — to lift his batting average to .321.

But his speed was gone, and he was plagued by recurring pain in the leg, which as it healed yielded an 18-degree bend between the knee and the ankle, and left behind a fist-sized calcium knot.

“I think of the lyrics to an Adele song,” Valentine says. “She sings, ‘I was so young that it was hard to know.’ That was me. I was an athlete because I was an athlete. I didn’t really choose it, I was just good at it.”

Valentine had just turned 23 four days before he snapped the leg. He knew he wanted to play again, and did. But through all the hours of rehab — so rudimentary in ’73 he could only find a universal weight machine at Costa Mesa Junior College — he had a lot of time to think.

“I’d become something other than an athlete. What do I do now?” he asked himself constantly. He was lucky. He had an answer. An accomplished ballroom dancer, he’d always helped his instructors show the steps. A good student, he’d always enjoyed diagramming sentences and had been eager to help kids who weren’t.

“My true mentors had always thought of me as a teacher,” Valentine says.

He had his Plan B. He had the Rangers and the Mets and the Red Sox. He had his restaurants. He became the AD at Sacred Heart. He ran for mayor of his hometown. There was so much life after he ran into the fence. Four days after turning 73, there still is.

“I was lucky,” he says. “I only wish the same for anyone else who knows what it’s like.”

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