The Valentine’s Day that never came

The Waldorf Astoria is in New York’s Midtown Manhattan, at 47 stories the tallest hotel in the world for three decades, and it retains its stature today — if not physically, then cosmetically. I would never have slept there except that’s where the Montreal Expos stayed when I was the Montreal Star’s baseball writer. In those days on the baseball beat, you stayed where the team stayed.

The Waldorf was prestigious and known for its high-class, celebrity guests. The Expos were neither. Among the people who slept in Waldorf beds were Frank Sinatra, at least one Pope, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Muhammad Ali, many Presidents, The Who, Marilyn Monroe and Winston Churchill. But on this rainy April day, the only two who really mattered were Ellis Valentine and me.

Valentine was an impressive young outfielder the Expos had been grooming. He was just emerging from his minor-league cocoon, about to become the “Ellis Valentine.” I wanted to interview him and, for reasons unknown, asked him to stop by my room, which he did. He had the usual answers to the usual questions. Then, I put away my notebook.

I’d been hearing rumours about Ellis and drugs, behind his back. I wanted to mention this to him, not as a reporter but as someone wanting to caution him about the perils of drugs. I had the audacity to think — even though my only “drugs” experience was from a pharmacy — that he would listen. And maybe he did. My intentions were sincere, from one person to another. Valentine never said a word. He just looked at me, long enough to make his visit start to feel uncomfortable.

Until now, I’ve never told this story publicly.

Valentine had three solid and three mediocre years with the Expos, and I saw most of his at-bats. Drug rumours became drug facts. Sometimes, he played like he was on drugs. He became unpopular with management, the media, teammates and ultimately the fans. During it all, Ellis and I had a love-hate relationship: I loved him as a ballplayer, he hated me as a baseball writer, once calling me a “snake in the grass.” His career never matched his lofty expectations, which Valentine frequently challenged the rights of others to make. Said then-GM Jim Fanning: “He probably had as good basic tools as any player I’ve ever seen.”

Ellis was a five-tool player. That means he could do everything. He always gave the credit to his mother, Bertine. “She knows baseball better than I do,” he once told me. “She got me playing two years too early. I was seven, everybody else was nine, but I was bigger than most of them.”

Years later, I heard Valentine was in Southern California and, since I was close by, I thought about tracking him down but didn’t. When I read he’d moved to Texas and founded an organization called RAFT, to “coach and educate those regarding addiction issues, addictive behaviours and co-dependency,” I sent him a note.

I told Ellis his mother would be proud. If those were his “life” expectations, he should be, too.