The Most Hated Manin Baseball is now adored.
His name graces astreet, a brand of bubble gum and a lager. He smiles back from ATM screens,lectures to college classes, draws throngs when he appears in public. Sixthousand miles from New York City, Bobby Valentine is a star. ¬∂ "You gottacheck this out," he says as he cues a music video on the desktop computerin his apartment in Chiba, an eastern suburb of Tokyo. From the speakers comesa synth-pop beat, and on the screen members of the Japanese band DEEN bounceinto view. They are greeted at a fake press conference by Valentine, who"signs" the musicians to the Chiba Lotte Marines, the team he manages.The camera rises to focus on a disco ball, and when it pans back down, the roomhas been transformed into a dance club. There, amid swirling lights andpulsating music, is the 56-year-old Valentine, now in a tight blue shirtunzipped to display a healthy acreage of chest. He does the cha-cha with abeautiful young woman, twirling across the floor and shaking his hips to therhythm. The video ends with Valentine winking at the camera.
"It went toNumber 5 on the charts in its first week," says Valentine, his dark eyeswide with delight. "The kids here love it."
There is no ironyin the video--the song is called Shining Ball, and the chorus translates as"this [baseball] diamond is just so beautiful"--or, for that matter, inValentine. The former Mets and Texas Rangers manager has embraced Japan, and ithas embraced him back, if at times awkwardly. Here baseball is about teamwork(the phrase for it is wa), but the Marines are not about wa. The Marines areabout Bobby. He is a combination of manager, mascot and star player. There is asmall shrine to him at the entrance to the Chiba stadium, and the concoursewalkways are lined with 10-foot-high Bobby V murals bearing his aphorisms,informing fans, for instance, that The team is a family. A happy family makesthe team stronger. He is a visiting professor at four Japanese universities,his number 2 jersey is a hot seller, and of course there is BoBeer, the Sapporobrand that bears his likeness. Not that long ago, readers of Weekly SPA!, amagazine that caters to young businessmen, voted him the person in Japan theywould most want as their boss. There is a phrase for the effect Valentine hashad on the game, and for his style of managing: Bobby Magic. Or, as it'susually pronounced here, Bubby Magic.
The adulationstems from the 2005 season, when Valentine inherited a band of rookies andveteran underachievers and led the Marines to their first Japan Series title in31 years. Two weeks later they won the Asia Series, besting the Chinesenational team and league champions from South Korea and Taiwan. Four monthsafter that, eight of Valentine's players helped Japan win the World BaseballClassic. Last season the Marines faltered, finishing 65--70, but they still setattendance records, in part because of Valentine's Veeckian flair forpromotion.
Managing theMarines is, in many ways, the perfect job for Valentine. He wieldsnear-complete control over the team--acting as both coach and de facto generalmanager--in a city that idolizes him. At roughly $3.5 million a year, he makesmore money than any major league manager in the U.S. except Joe Torre. The U.S.press dogged Valentine during his tenures in Texas and New York, but theJapanese media is docile to a fault. A year and a half ago the Los AngelesDodgers and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays called to try to lure Valentine back tomanage in the U.S., but he didn't seriously pursue either lead. "This is anopportunity of a lifetime," he said of running the Marines, "and I'mliving it."
Still, somethingeats at the man. Spend time with Valentine and it becomes clear that he haseverything except what he truly craves. And that is why he agonized over histeam's slump last season, why he bristled when some rival club executives inJapan suggested that his 2005 success was a fluke, why he is so eager to showoff the spoils of his success. It is why he beats the drum for Japanesebaseball, hoping he can make a noise loud enough to carry over the stadium,past Mount Fuji and across the Pacific to a country that remembers a differentBobby Valentine, one who never won the World Series, who was fired from twojobs and deemed by one newspaper as the game's most despised figure.
So Valentinecampaigns to change not just a culture and a game but, in the end, areputation: his own.
Valentine was inJapan once before. In 1995, after the Rangers fired him, he came to Chiba andmanaged the Marines for one season. It did not go well. He fought withmanagement and feuded with the players--though the fans loved him. Despiteleading the Marines to a 69-58-3 record, their first winning season in 13years, he was fired. Now when he speaks to Japanese audiences, something he isfrequently invited to do, he starts with a self-deprecating crack. "I amthe only guy in the history of the world to manage in the American League inthe MLB and the National League in the MLB and the JPL of the Japanprofessional baseball league," he'll say. After pausing for applause, he'lladd, "I'm also the only one to be fired in the American League ... and theNational League ... and the JPL of the Japan professional baseballleague."
In the case of theJPL, fired and rehired. Eight years after his first stint with Chiba, Valentinereturned as a conquering hero. He'd been to the World Series with the Mets in2000. He'd also become notorious: Valentine was the man who wore the fakeglasses in the dugout after getting kicked out of a game, who fought with Metsmanagement and New York beat writers, who had the balls to say what he thoughteven when the ballsiest thing might have been to keep his mouth shut.
To the Japanese,whose love of baseball rivals America's, Valentine's return was the ultimateaffirmation. A World Series manager choosing to come back to Japan validatedthe Japanese game. Most of the previous gaijin in the JPL had been eitherwashouts in the States, such as Tuffy Rhodes, or aging power hitters in searchof one last big payday, such as Bob Horner and Kevin Mitchell. That Valentinehad taken the time to learn Japanese, which he speaks proficiently, and thathe'd had success during his first go-round in Chiba only made him more lovable."He understands the heart, and always gives respect," says YukiatsuAkizawa, the president of AM/PM markets, a sort of Japanese 7-Eleven, and afriend and business associate of Valentine's. "Bubby is magic."
Valentine'sappreciation of Japanese baseball history helped as well. The game has beenplayed here since 1872, and its icons are beloved, from 1950s slugger MakotoKozuru to alltime home run king Sadaharu Oh to present-day stars such as Ichiroand Daisuke Matsuzaka. Tokyo and its suburbs support five pro teams, and fanstravel to away games in packs, bringing drums and horns and executingcoordinated cheers (a different one for each player). During a Marines game therightfield stands come alive with tatenori: 2,000-odd souls pogo up and downlike a field of Whack-a-Moles. The fans cheer for each player and hiscontribution; one cheer goes Otsukaresamadesu. It translates roughly as"Thank you for your fatigue."
Effort, traditionand teamwork are prized in Japanese ball, and practice is a ritual in itself,to be perfected. "To the Japanese players, getting there early, taking yourfielding, your bunting practice, all of this counts," says Frank Ramppen,one of Valentine's bench coaches. "You take pride in each element. If youwork hard on all those things but the team loses, you still had a successfulday."
Valentine hassucceeded in simultaneously honoring and doing away with these traditions, andthat's part of what made him a revolutionary of sorts--the beloved king of thegaijin.
It is an afternoonin August 2006, late in the baseball season, and Valentine is driving throughChiba in his custom-made BMW, gunning the gas and listening to a Gwen Stefanisong on the radio. This morning he returned from a road trip by train, usingthe three-hour ride to study Japanese from the yellow folder he keeps in histravel bag. Valentine likes the language but chafes at its formality,empathizing with Bill Murray's character in the film Lost in Translation."When he's filming the ad and it takes forever to say the shortestthing--I've been there," Valentine says. "It's because you can't justsay 'it's f------ hot' here. You have to say, 'The temperature is warmercurrently than in a relative fashion to the temperature yesterday,' because youdon't want to offend anyone."
At Tokyo Stationhe was briefly besieged by fans with camera phones. ("Got to keep moving,it's the only way to avoid the mobs," Valentine explained as he zigzaggedthrough the crowd.) From there the commuter line took him east towardChiba--past Tokyo Disneyland, with its eerily perfect replica of the U.S.version, and through acres of industrial warehouses. Gray predominated: It wasthe color of the roads, the sky, the water, the buildings, the suits of thebusinessmen on the train. Valentine, in his pink polo shirt, was theexception.
Now, as he driveshome, he points out landmarks: the stadium, the park and Valentine Way, whichwas lined by 240,000 people for the Marines' victory parade in the fall of2005. The city planned the celebration for days, with great precision. Fans cutthe confetti into perfect little slices to make it easier for the streetsweepers to pick up. Within hours of the parade the asphalt was immaculate.
That season was,Valentine says, "one of those times when everything goes right." TheMarines came out hot and finished the season with the most runs scored and thefewest allowed. Valentine's approach was novel, at least for Japanese baseball.He used his bullpen liberally, changing pitchers based on matchups. He madelate-game defensive replacements. He changed lineups 120 times during theseason. And he did something heretical: He didn't bunt. In Japan the sacrificeis sacred, a symbol of the team's predominance over the individual. Even powerhitters bunt runners over. Valentine bunted only for a hit. In his first stintin Chiba his players had at times disobeyed him, bunting against his wishes andonce practicing without him when he had given them a day off. So in 2005 he'dbrought help from the States in the form of Ramppen, a longtime friend andformer scout, and hitting coach Tom Robson. Both were guys from back in theday, guys he could trust, guys who could help him break the Japanese players oftheir habits, however well-intentioned those might be.
Valentine'sstrategy won games, but it was his enthusiasm that won the pennant. As Horner,the ex--National Leaguer turned Japanese league slugger, recounted in RobertWhiting's You Gotta Have Wa, the Japanese game is really "work ball,"whereas in the U.S. people play ball. Valentine stressed that the game shouldbe play and that it should be passionate. "I'd stand next to Bobby duringhis postgame speech, on the steps of the dugout, and I'd look at the players'faces while he was talking," says Ramppen. "And I told Bobby, 'Theydon't give a f---.' Bobby would get mad at me, but it was true, they didn't. Icould tell. And once we started to win, you could tell that they started tocare."
The youngerplayers in particular responded to Valentine. "In the past some Japanesecoaches told me, 'It's supposed to be fun, have fun,' but coming from them, Ididn't know what that was supposed to mean," says Toshiaki Imae, theMarines' 23-year-old star third baseman. "Bobby's different, because if heasks, 'Do you have fun?' it means he really wants you to have a fun time on thefield. From the Japanese coach and from Bobby Valentine, the same words but adifferent meaning."
Valentine thoughtthe fans should have fun too. One of his first moves was to cut a slot in the14-foot-high fence down the rightfield line. Before every game he walked downthere and signed autographs--something Japanese players and managers neverdid--and he ordered his players to do the same. The opening came to be known asBobby's Window.
Autographs werejust the beginning of the marketing makeover. Valentine had the team add asection of seats down the first and third base lines so fans could be closer tothe action. He ordered luxury boxes upgraded, brought in more (and better) foodvendors and pushed to build a team "museum" in which a fan could havehis photo taken with a life-sized Bobby cutout, peruse replica lockers or posefor a picture as if he were being thrown in the air, as Valentine was after theMarines won the championship. Before Saturday-night home games Valentine, whowas a ballroom dancing champion as a teenager, teaches the cha-cha to Marinesfans as a way to attract women to the park. (It's worked; more women andchildren buy tickets to see the Marines than to see any other Japanese baseballteam.) The Marines also started a loyalty club, similar to a frequent-fliersystem, that allows fans to trade in points for tickets and merchandise. It nowhas more than 70,000 members and has brought in 270 million yen (roughly $2.3million) in revenue.
Valentine andLarry Rocca, a former Mets beat writer at the Newark Star-Ledger whom themanager hired to head the Marines' promotions-and-marketing department, evenfound a way to inspire fans to camp out for admission to a regular-season game:On 360-Degree Beer Stadium night, from the moment the gates opened at 5 p.m.until the end of the game, all beer was half price. Along the concourse eachbeer maker had its own gantlet of servers, all young, attractive and perky,with taps at the ready. Kirin's girls wore neon green and yellow, Suntory'swore red, and Sapporo's 13 women were dressed in black, with shirts that read I‚ô• BEER. Roaming the stands were even more servers, each outfitted with a beerbackpack--essentially a pony keg in a sling--and a tap. The Marines sold 50,000beers, or an average of more than two per adult in the crowd. It was enough tomake the dingy concrete bowl of a stadium seem festive.
Wherever a producttie-in is possible, the Marines make it. You can buy a Bobby Valentine boxlunch (tomato, beef, broccoli, rice) or chew Marines bubble gum (embossed witha caricature of Valentine's smiling face). During pitching changes, a Volvologo appears on the scoreboard and a Volvo with one door cut out drives thepitcher from the bullpen to the mound. Valentine wanted a mascot, so the tall,wide-eyed Rocca pulled a clown wig over his thinning blond hair and becameM-Crash. Gregarious, bright and profane, Rocca was perfect for the job, and bythe end of the '05 season M-Crash was a sensation (and something of a sexsymbol).
Come midseason theMarines were selling out games, and by the end attendance had tripled, to 1.3million. After winning the title, the Chiba players celebrated by spraying3,100 bottles of beer (to represent their 31 years of futility) and 260 bottlesof champagne (to represent the fans, the "26th man") at a luxury hoteldowntown exactly two hours after the game. As is Japanese custom, the playersand coaches wore protective eyewear, literally donning beer goggles. "Therewere a lot of people who were crying," remembers Benny Agbayani, theMarines leftfielder and a Valentine favorite from their days together with theMets. "The team had always been in fifth, sixth place. These guys didn'tknow what it felt like to win."
Neither didValentine. After 36 years in the game, he had finally won a championship, andwas being celebrated for it. He became the first foreigner to win the ShorikiAward, presented annually to the person who makes the greatest contribution toJapanese baseball. Parades were held, commemorative magazines printed.
"It was thebest experience I've had in the game," says Valentine. Surely he would berecognized for his genius back home.
Few in MajorLeague Baseball deny that Bobby Valentine can manage. He is acknowledged to beone of the best minds in the game, and few managers work harder to gain an edgeon an opponent. (Valentine was famous for studying video, and the cameras hehad installed at Shea Stadium led to accusations that he stole signs.)"What was unique about [Valentine] was his game approach," says SanFrancisco Giants' G.M. Brian Sabean. "He was a top-step guy who watchedevery pitch. You didn't see him overchecking lineup cards and rifling throughmatchup stats. He had a general idea what he was going to do on a given day andwhat personnel he was going to use. But more important, he watched the game.You have to have a feel for that. I don't think he gets quite the credit hedeserves."
Oakland A'sdesignated hitter Mike Piazza, a former Valentine favorite with the Mets, alsopraises his old skipper, but it comes with a caveat. "He's definitely oneof the smartest managers I've known--but he can also be unpredictable."
The issue in theStates, in other words, was never Valentine's skill as a manager. The issue washis personality. While some were drawn to him by his charm and confidence,others saw him as condescending, still others as arrogant. This is probablywhy, after winning 581 games with the Rangers, he had to go back to the minorsand then Japan before getting another major league job. It's probably also why,after being fired by the Mets, he ended up in broadcasting, then back inJapan.
Still, hecherishes all his baseball memories, which is evident when you visit hisapartment. Valentine lives about two miles from the Chiba stadium, so he canbike to work. His top-floor apartment, with a balcony from which, on a clearday, you can see Mount Fuji, has three bedrooms, two guest rooms and the feelof an upscale bachelor pad. There are leather couches and cases of BoBeer.Perched on almost every horizontal surface are mementos: a black bat with thenames of all the Marines players, photos of Valentine with the last three U.S.presidents (TO BOBBY VALENTINE, BEST WISHES, reads the note from George W.Bush, his onetime employer with the Rangers), photos of Valentine doffing hiscap, photos of him with the team, photos of him with heads of state, photos ofhim with his family. There are, it turns out, few photos in the apartment thatdon't have Valentine in them.
What is moststriking about the pictures from New York is Valentine's appearance: His hairis gray and thinning, brushed back from a widow's peak, and he looks tired.Today his hair is dark brown, fuller and brushed forward. He smiles often andworks out for an hour and 40 minutes a day. (He teaches a dance class at Gold'sGym in exchange for a membership.) He looks five, even 10 years younger.
His life isdominated by the game. He says he doesn't get homesick but rather"friend-sick," so he flies his buddies out to Japan. He sees his wife,Mary, every five weeks for a homestand. "Mary's great about it," hesays. "She understands I need something to do. I go on vacation for twodays, I'm sitting on a beach and I'm supposed to relax. Relax? I need somethingto do. People say, 'Play golf.' Maybe when I'm 63, but not now. I'm not justtaking money here, this isn't cake. I work 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. But I work outmore, I feel better, I'm not stressed. It's about passion."
Most nightsValentine goes out to dinner and talks baseball. Those who know him say he'smellowed. "With the Mets we had a lot of meetings," says Agbayani, whoplayed for Valentine on the 2000 World Series team. "[Last] year we had afew meetings, but he's been very calm. He's so supportive. In the Mets dayshe'd be yelling."
Asked about this,Valentine harrumphs, "Well, there are a lot more reasons to be calm here. Idon't have to deal with a lot of the s--- I had to deal with overthere."
This is partly bydesign. In his second stint with the Marines, Valentine was granted nearlyabsolute power. Uniforms? He designed them. Draftees and new acquisitions? Hepicked them. New team executives? He recruited them. As his right-hand man hebrought in Shun Kakazu, a 26-year-old with a Harvard degree. (He wrote histhesis on undervalued players in Japan.) Kakazu functions as an assistant G.M.,going over scouting reports with Valentine and analyzing stats.
To legitimize hissuccess, Valentine realizes he must also legitimize Japanese baseball, whichAmericans have long thought of as "Four A" ball. This becomes harderwith every defection to the States by a Japanese star and every successfultransition to the Japanese system by a marginal major leaguer. So wheneverpossible, Valentine proselytizes on behalf of Japan's league. "I made astatement last year that my team that won the Japanese championship could haveplayed against the [2005 World Series champion] White Sox," he says,"and some baseball people said, 'Oh, hell, the talent level doesn't matchup. Bobby's just talking.' My statement was made in the belief that we wereplaying at the highest level of any team I'd ever seen play. I knew thatwithout a doubt. We didn't have as much talent--I never said we did, and Inever will--but with our heart and the way we played, the way we built as ateam and built individually during that season, we could have beaten any teamin the world."
Whether Valentinetruly believes this is unclear. But the statement certainly attractedattention--White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen laughed at it--and attractingattention is something at which Valentine is an expert. "One of the thingspeople like and dislike most about me," he says, "is that I open mymouth, I say stuff." His whole body comes alive when he launches into anopinion or a story, reveling in triumphs past, foes vanquished. Pull out a taperecorder and he amps the performance up a notch, moving into broadcaster mode.He slows down, emphasizes words, speaks in paragraphs, uses exaggerated handgestures. When asked over lunch one day if there are common misconceptionsabout Japanese baseball, his answer lasts more than five minutes. Only thearrival of the food keeps him from going on longer.
Valentine hasalways been eager to talk, but he is even more eager when a U.S. journalistcomes to Japan. After that initial interest from the Devil Rays and the Dodgersat the end of 2005, he's had little contact with Stateside teams. (AlthoughValentine is under contract with the Marines through the '09 season, he says,"If a baseball conversation leads to a baseball situation that I feel is agreat fit, one of those opportunities of a lifetime, I'd talk.") Despitehis success, few in the States look to him for advice, something that perplexeshim. "You know what I'm really surprised at is that when teams areinterested in signing a guy [from Japan] they don't call me," Valentinesays. "Information is power, and I got a lot of information here, so I canmake other people more powerful here if they want it."
Does he have anyidea why teams wouldn't call him? "I don't know," he answers. "Ireally don't."
There is aJapanese phrase that Valentine likes to quote: Chisai kuni desu kara. It means"because it's a small country." "People ask why there are nogarbage cans," he says, "and they answer, 'because there's no litter.'Ask why there is no litter and they say, 'because it's a smallcountry.'"
Japan is not, ofcourse, a small country.
It has 127 millionpeople. But its customs can be intractable. There is a Japanese axiom, "Theprotruding nail gets beaten down." Valentine refuses to be hammered down.Rather he is the claw grip, trying to yank free whatever he can. He wants toexact big change--change his franchise's operations, the way the leaguepromotes itself, the way its minor league functions--and, as he did in theStates, he has little regard for those who come between him and progress.
It is a fallevening near the end of last season, and Valentine has left his apartment to goout to dinner with his minor league manager, Hide Koga, and a Mets foreignscout, Isao O'Jimi, who worked with Valentine in New York and now serves as aninformal adviser and drinking buddy. Koga, 66, has a white flattop and amustache that perches like a thin white caterpillar on his upper lip; he playedwith Sadaharu Oh and coached in the U.S. minor leagues. Valentine is involvedin a struggle with Koga over how to teach the game. He wants Koga to do it theAmerican way--the Bobby way--but Koga can't help himself: He still believes inbunting runners over, in trying for slap hits.
In 2005 thatwasn't a problem, but in '06, as the Marines struggle--they are a .500 team atthe time of this dinner--men like Koga can't help but wonder whether theJapanese way isn't better after all. Even the phrase Bobby Magic belies apopular skepticism. "That magic stuff, what s--- is that?" saysRamppen. "They don't want to credit the gaijin here."
Valentine has setup this dinner in part to talk about the upcoming draft with O'Jimi and in partto have a sit-down with Koga. The food is extravagant--lobster, abalone, gooseliver, filet mignon--washed down with pints of Kirin and glasses of sochu, apotato liquor similar to vodka that, the Japanese claim dubiously, does notcause hangovers. It doesn't take long for Valentine to get into it withKoga.
"We've hadthis conversation a thousand times," Valentine says. "The Japanesef------ way. You've got our hitters not swinging through the ball. All yourhitters suck."
"But I was DonBaylor's interpreter," Koga replies, "and he said--"
Valentine cuts himoff. "I don't care," he says. "That was 20 years ago, Hide.Besides, Don Baylor's an idiot." Valentine is just getting warmed up."A lot of things can happen if you teach them to bunt for a hit, like Ikeep telling you. The last three years it was a good play, but this year,well...."
O'Jimi joins in:"Bubby, I hear your fourth hitter, the catcher, bunts by himself."
Valentine nods."Nine times ... because he wants to show his teammates he'sunselfish."
Koga wants toblame the Marines' hitting woes on Robson, the American hitting coach, butValentine won't let him. "He's a lazy gaijin, O.K., he is," Valentinesays of his friend, "but it doesn't mean that what he did last year waswrong." He pauses. "This year no one wants to make a mistake. What thef--- is that?"
Koga has noanswer. He frowns. Valentine frowns back. "Hey, we could go back to beingmediocre, I don't care," the manager says. "It's only my life'swork."
As Valentinechastises, he also tries to teach. He obviously likes Koga; he is justfrustrated by him. So Valentine hammers home the Bobby way. Koga asks about aMarines prospect who's afraid to steal because he's not 100% sure he'll besuccessful. "You must allow him to get picked off first base without sayinghe's stupid or a rookie, so he knows how far to go without getting pickedoff--so he has freedom," says Valentine. "It's like skiing. If youalways ski the easy run, you never learn. You must fall down to learn."
At one pointValentine offers the team president job--currently held by Ryuzo Setoyama--toKoga. "Hide, why don't you be my G.M.," Valentine says, pointing hisKirin at Koga. "Think about it. I know you like to teach, I know they needyou. But the food's a lot better up here than in the minor leagues. Go on theroad with me, have nice dinners."
Koga isreluctant--he likes working with players--but Valentine says he'll come back tohim on it. More food comes, followed by more Kirin, and Valentine can't helphimself. "I'm not one to brag often ... O.K., all the time," he says.He has to preach his gospel. He sits, legs spread, an alpha male in a positionof power, and holds forth: on old teams, old grudges and his players.
About his startingshortstop, Tsuyoshi Nishioka: "He sucks this year. He's s---."
On Mitchell, theformer Giant who played briefly in Japan: "A great guy but the worst gaijinever to play here."
On why KenjiJohima, the catcher for Mike Hargrove's Seattle Mariners, is platooning behindthe plate: "Because his manager's an idiot."
Three months laterthe season is over and the U.S. is crazy about Japanese baseball, but not aboutValentine. Matsuzaka, the star pitcher for the Seibu Lions, dominates the news.Valentine? He is mentioned as an outside candidate for the Giants and theWashington Nationals jobs. But he is interviewed by neither team.
Valentine has comeback to New York City. The Japanese Chamber of Commerce is honoring him withits Eagle on the World Award, given annually to prominent figures who furtherJapanese-American relations. The other honorees are former Deputy Secretary ofState Dick Armitage and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi. The awardspresentation is at the New York Hilton in midtown Manhattan. It is a swankaffair: black tie, filet mignon, stylish Japanese women on the arms of powerfulexecutives from companies such as Sony, Panasonic and Sumitomo. A popularJapanese singer, Yosunake, opens the evening with a couple of rousing numbersin his native tongue, then finishes by singing New York, New York decked out ina glittering sequined floor-length coat.
Valentine isintroduced. "In Japan he's taken the status of rock star," the hostsays. "He not only raised the status of baseball to rival that of theUnited States, but he's a master of human chemistry." Valentine nods at thecompliment, takes the stage, makes a couple jokes in Japanese and opens withthe anecdote about being the only person to manage in the AL, NL and Japanesepro ball and also be fired in all three leagues. He thanks the crowd, thenaddresses the subject of Matsuzaka. Only 24 hours earlier the Red Soxsuccessfully bid $51.1 million for the right to negotiate a big league contractwith him.
"Here, the dayafter the great 26-year-old pitcher Matsuzaka, from the Seibu Lions, took thatbridge that I'm trying to build--he took that bridge over to play in the UnitedStates--I have to say that I have very mixed feelings," Valentine says."One is the joy, for him, his family and my team, because he won't pitchagainst us again. But also one of sadness and disappointment in theprofessional league of Japanese baseball for allowing him, a great nationaltreasure, to in fact leave their league. I think that this audience here, whichis building many bridges of commerce and industry between two of the greatesteconomic countries in the world, must be reminded at this time that Japan has asport that is their national sport. There are 150 million people there and thetrue national sport is baseball, the only industrialized country in the worldthat the national sport is baseball."
Valentine pausesto let his words sink in before he resumes. "And that in itself is a greatresource. And it should be looked at as something that should be treasured andkept and cherished and cultivated and nourished, just as your companies aredeveloping and growing. And the same type of synergy that's in this room shouldbe involved in making Japanese baseball a world power. Not only on the field,because the players can play, but also in the front office and the ownershiplevel so that the players can be paid what they should be paid and stay inJapan to keep that league as strong as it can possibly be, so that my dream ofa true World Series will in fact come true in the very near future."
The crowd cheerspolitely, but the real audience for Valentine's comments, the world baseballcommunity, does not hear them. Despite the event's location in New York City, Iam the only member of the U.S. media present.
So Valentine slipsoff into the night, neither harassed nor feted in his home country. All of themajor league managerial openings have been filled. As a result Valentine willspend the 2007 season, which began on March 24, as the Marines' manager, anincreasingly invisible figure to baseball fans in America. Perhaps it is theprice he must pay for his nearly perfect life in Japan. Since Japanese baseballis not considered world-class, his accomplishments there do not carry muchweight at home, and since the best Japanese players keep leaving for theStates, he cannot make Japanese baseball world-class, no matter how manybridges he builds or box lunches he sells.
Thus BobbyValentine remains stranded somewhere in the middle of his own bridge, a mancaught between two worlds, a hero in the wrong country.
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There is a phrase for the effect that Valentine has hadon the game and for his managing style: Bubby Magic.
Readers of a Japanese magazine for young businessmenvoted Valentine the person they'd most want for a boss.
After 36 years, Valentine finally won a championship."It was," he said, "the best experience I've had in thegame."
Valentine realizes he must legitimize Japanesebaseball, which Americans have long thought of as "Four A" ball.
Does Valentine have any idea why big league teams won'tcall him? "I don't," he answers. "I really don't."
KING OF THE GAIJIN Bobby V's relentlessly upbeat nature has made him a favorite among Japanese children and women.
STAN HONDA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
BUBBY BALL No stage is too small for the ex--ballroom dance champ.
BAN THE BUNT Valentine has imported a love of the long ball and a disdain for Japanese small ball.
MY WAY Valentine had a street named for him after the Marines won it all in '05.
A NEW GAME Ex-Met Agbayani says his skipper is having more fun in Japan.
LONG WAY HOME Valentine says he'd return for the right U.S. job.