TRAVELING ON: Bill Valentine (right), shown with Warren Stepehns during Dickey-Stephens ballpark construction, has retired from the minor league baseball club.
People will go both ways on this one, I suspect. But count me among the number that believes we probably wouldn't still have Texas League baseball in NLR without the influence of Bill Valentine.
He's retired from the Arkansas Travelers, effective March 10.
I'm guessing we'll still see the 76-year-old around his favorite restaurants, a jug of red at the ready.
UPDATE: I reached Valentine. He insists there's nothing more to the story than what the release said. For 33 years, he's been at the ballpark virtually every day, seven days a week, and was the guy closing the park or the restaurant, where he and his wife Nena work from Tuesday to Saturday each week. "I'm not sick. There's nothing really wrong. But at my age, I get a little tired."
Valentine said he'll continue to drop in on the restaurant and he says he has a few loose ends on the baseball end of things. Nena will cotninue to do books for a time. But he said his plans are to cut loose and spend some time at home with his wife. It'll be a hard habit to break. He said Travs' management have said they intend to continue Valentine's Restaurant in its current form, but Valentine said he could see a day, without the Valentines' involvement, that they might choose to go a different direction than the upscale Italian with well-priced fine wines that the old ump developed.
NORTH LITTLE ROCK - After a 40-year association, including the last 33 as the club's executive vice president, Bill Valentine has announced his retirement from the Arkansas Travelers. The Executive Committee of the Travelers has accepted his decision and resignation effective as of March 10, 2009.
"I've been in baseball for almost 60 years," said Valentine. "Over the past couple of years, I think the daily grind has gotten to me a bit. Most nights I have been the last person to leave the ballpark, and I'm usually here seven days a week. I've just gotten tired."
Valentine, 77, grew up at Travelers Field in Little Rock working various jobs from clubhouse boy to ball shagger to concession worker. He attended umpire school in 1950 after graduating from North Little Rock High School, and became the youngest professional umpire in baseball history in 1951 at the age of 18. He worked his way up the minor league ladder until being elevated to the American League in 1963. He was let go by the AL in 1968 after attempting to start an umpire's union.
He came back to Little Rock in 1969 and joined Jim Elder on the air for Travs broadcasts for the next eight years. Valentine also worked as a television sportscaster and radio deejay on KARK (now KARN), did some sports writing for the Arkansas Democrat and was executive director of the Arkansas Republican Party. In 1976, the Travs were searching for a new general manager after Carl Sawatski was elected president of the Texas League. The Executive Committee of the fan-owned Travs hired Valentine to replace Sawatski for the 1976 season.
Over the first five years of his tenure at the helm of the Travs attendance jumped over 150,000. Valentine displayed a knack for promotions pioneering many giveaway nights and bringing various entertainment acts like Captain Dynamite to Travs games. Other unique promotions like pre-game midget wrestling or amateur boxing were frequent at Ray Winder Field, and Valentine was awarded the Lee MacPhail Trophy in 1983 as baseball's top promoter.
The Travs were the top draw in the Texas League during the 1980s, and in 1989 Valentine was named the double-A Executive of the Year by the Sporting News. In 1990 the Travs were recognized by Baseball America with the coveted Freitas Award that recognizes one organization's long term stability and success.
The Travs' charter as a fan-owned ballclub mandated that all profits must be used for the upkeep of Ray Winder Field, which was in a state of disrepair by the mid-1970s. Thanks to the increased attendance during his years, Valentine oversaw numerous renovations to the ballpark including new restrooms, clubhouses and playing surfaces on top of the annual up-keep on the venerable facility. Due to Valentine's near obsession with cleanliness, Ray Winder Field was one of the most spotless ballparks in the country.
After the 2000 season Valentine signed an agreement to make the Travs the Texas League affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels, ending the 35-year relationship with the St. Louis Cardinals. The team ended an 11-year drought by winning a league championship in the first year of the new affiliation.
In August 2005 the voters of North Little Rock approved a two-year, one-cent sales tax to build a new home for the Travelers. Valentine was instrumental in the construction of Dickey-Stephens Park. Due to his diligence and attention to detail, Bill was one of the driving forces that contributed to the success of the project. About to enter its third season in the downtown riverfront, Dickey-Stephens Park has been lauded as one of the finest minor league parks in the country.
Six times voted Texas League Executive of the Year and a member of the Texas League and Arkansas Sports Halls of Fame, Valentine has also been given the George Troutman Award in 1994 for long and distinguished service to baseball. He will continue to serve the rest of the current term on the Board of Trustees of Minor League Baseball.
Pete Laven, who became the Travs GM in 2007 when Valentine relinquished the position, will remain in his current role running the day-to-day operations of the club. The 2009 season will be Laven's 11th with the Travs.
"I've been lucky to work so closely with one of the true legends of professional sports," said Laven. "I know I can speak for hundreds of people across the country when I say that we owe Bill a debt of gratitude for our careers. He saved baseball twice in Central Arkansas, and our ballpark has his fingerprints all over it."
"Pete really has been tremendous as the general manager for the past two years," Valentine said. "I know the franchise is in terrific hands with him. And I'll tell you something else. Our office staff has never been better.
"I think I've done everything that I possibly can with the Travs," continued Valentine. "The franchise has come a long way from when they hired me to take over in 1976. I'm very proud of what we have accomplished here. I think I can say that baseball in Central Arkansas is better off today than it was when I started here."