ORLANDO, Fla. — Bobby Valentine stood on the top step of the New York Mets' dugout at Champion Stadium, just as he had done many times before. But this time he was wearing a black track suit instead of a uniform, and he was chatting amiably with manager Jerry Manuel.
That was obviously a tantalizing image for the dozens of Mets fans sitting in the stands behind the dugout, many of whom yelled to Valentine to please return to the Mets for a second term in office. Valentine ignored those entreaties, or never heard them, and kept talking to Manuel, the third man to hold his old job since he was fired eight years ago.
Valentine, who managed the Mets from 1996 to 2002, could not be bothered with such far-fetched speculation because he was too busy pumping Manuel for information. He was not asking about palace intrigue or issues of job security, only about Manuel's team and his players.
Now a commentator for ESPN's "Baseball Tonight," Valentine is in the midst of a self-initiated immersion course over three weeks to learn as much as possible about the estimated 700 baseball players he has not seen in the past six years. He is using his eyes to watch them and his ears to hear what those around them think.
"I've been away a long time," Valentine said. "A lot changes in six years. So I'm going back to school."
For two days in February, Valentine was on assignment in Florida for ESPN, but when that assignment ended, he stayed on and has been paying his own way. With a spiral-bound book of scouting reports under his arm, Valentine is trying to learn as much as he can before opening day.
Not content to learn gradually as he goes, Valentine has attacked the task. Plan your work and work your plan is one of his mottos, and he is doing it.
In typical Valentine fashion, he first broke down the problem into manageable numbers. Before he arrived in Florida, he went through every major league roster and added up how many players he did not know.
"There were 1,322 players in the major leagues last year," he said. "I counted about 700 I didn't know."
Friends of his in the game helped him compile scouting reports on all 30 teams, and the book contains information on hundreds of players, including minor leaguers. He said each day he goes through a different team. And he is also looking to extract information from the professionals he meets.
On Wednesday, he spoke to Manuel about his players and about some of his basic baseball philosophy. He also spoke to the Mets' pitching coach, Dan Warthen, taking notes in the margins of his scouting book. He chatted with the new Mets catcher Rod Barajas about the challenges of receiving pitchers for the first time in a game situation.
After he was done gathering information on the field, Valentine walked through the stands on his way to sit with the scouts behind home plate as fans buzzed, "It's Bobby Valentine." Many asked for his autograph. Several told him how much they would like to see him back in a Mets uniform leading the team again.
On this trip through the stands with a reporter, though, Valentine ignored those pleas. Yes, he would like to manage again. And, like everyone else, he knows that if a team like the Mets gets off to a poor start and he is sitting in the "Baseball Tonight" studio sounding insightful, the cry will go up to hire him. The pleas will be especially loud in Flushing, where he was the last manager to take the Mets to the World Series.
"It's awkward," he said, sounding irritated at the subject. "I'm not here for that. I've got a different job now, and I've got a lot of work to do."