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Sunday, Jan. 24, 2010

Valentine's philosophy brought Marines glory, money


Special to The Japan Times

Second in a four-part series

News photo
Historic achievement: Manager Bobby Valentine reached the pinnacle of Japanese baseball when his Chiba Lotte Marines swept the Hanshin Tigers in the 2005 Japan Series. AP PHOTO

Bobby Valentine was born and raised in Connecticut and was chosen one of the most outstanding high school athletes in the history of the state, in a survey by Sports Illustrated.

He was recruited by the University of Southern California, whose football coach expected him to fill the shoes of departing All-American running back, O.J. Simpson, but he dropped out after meeting Tommy Lasorda, then a manager in the Los Angeles Dodgers' minor league system, who persuaded him to switch to professional baseball.

Valentine worked his way up the minor league ladder to the big team, but did not fulfill his early promise and was traded to the California Angels.

In 1973, he ran into a chain-link fence in Anaheim, ripped his leg apart and was never the same again. He spent a total of nine years as a part-time infielder/outfielder in the major leagues before retiring in 1979.

He managed in the minor leagues for a time, then, in 1985, took over a chronically weak Texas Rangers team, winning United Press International's Manager of the Year award two years later when he led the club to a second-place finish.

He had a knack for molding young players into winners and was generally regarded as one of the most intelligent, visionary and charismatic managers in MLB.

At the same time, however, he had an abrasive, condescending, sarcastic side that alienated some people and developed a history of conflict with certain players, front office executives, umpires and sportswriters.

It was a testament to his high-octane personality that in one 12-month span, the New York Press Photographers Association would give him its annual "Good Guy Award" and The Sporting News would run a cover story on him which asked the question, "Why Does Everyone Hate Bobby Valentine?"

Fired by the Rangers in 1992, Valentine took a job managing the Triple-A Norfolk (Va.) Tide, the Mets' top farm club. While there he was approached by Tatsuro Hirooka, the famed former manager of the Yakult Swallows and the Seibu Lions, who had taken over as GM of the Chiba Lotte Marines. Hirooka persuaded him to come to Japan and manage the club in 1995.

The Marines had just moved from Kawasaki in the heart of Japan's industrial belt, where, known as the Lotte Orions, they had played in a rusting, polluted, headache-inducing stadium and habitually occupied the nether regions of the Pacific League, to Makuhari in Chiba — a recently built town of antiseptic office towers and residences, exhibition and concert halls.

Hirooka had brought Valentine in primarily as a novelty item, a way to stimulate fan interest, while he, Hirooka, rebuilt the organization.

Unbeknown to Valentine, Hirooka had only intended to keep his American manager for two years, whereupon he would be replaced by farm team manager Akira Eijiri, whom Hirooka was grooming for the job.

* * * * *

The Marines did well playing in a modern concrete bowl that was as windy as Candlestick Park and, in the early spring, just as dank and frigid. However, there were frequent clashes between Valentine and the coaches Hirooka had hired to assist him. The coaches preferred the established way, the martial arts approach to the game which dated back to the 19th century when baseball was first introduced to Japan.

It was a system that manifested itself in dusk-to-dawn days in lengthy spring training camps that were three to four times longer than in the U.S. There was a focus on so-called "guts" drills where players were made to field balls to the point of exhaustion and it sometimes entailed corporal punishment, where coaches would kick and slap recalcitrant players.

Valentine instituted his own hybrid approach. Although he started on Feb. 1 as all other Nippon Professional Baseball teams did, (weeks earlier than MLB teams), he conducted short, snappy practices — three hours a day in camp, not nine as with many other Japanese teams — and during the season he held softer pre-game workouts, all to conserve energy for the games.

He reduced the number and length of pre-game meetings involving the entire team and also shunned the use of the sacrifice bunt, a favorite tactic of nearly all Japanese managers, believing the meetings a waste of time in general and the sacrifice bunt a waste of an out.

However, throughout most of the season, it became clear that Valentine was never completely in charge. The Japanese coaches, uncomfortable with Valentine's approach, sometimes countermanded his instructions after consulting with Hirooka and held secret practices without his knowledge.

A memorable incident occurred in September that year after the team returned from a long, arduous road trip in the midst of a wilting heat wave and Valentine elected to give everyone a full day off before the next regularly scheduled game. When Valentine visited the stadium on that supposed off-day, however, he found the entire team in full practice mode, with GM Hirooka himself directing the proceedings.

Lotte finished the season in second place. It was the team's best showing in years and some of the top Marines players praised Valentine for trying to make baseball fun and some of them averred, off the record, that the martial arts approach of Hirooka and the Japanese coaches was unsuitable for the modern Japanese game.

Valentine, believing he was operating from a position of strength, wrote a letter to acting owner Akio Shigemitsu suggesting that the coaching staff be changed.

The coaches, for their part, however, told Hirooka that they would resign unless Valentine was fired. One of them, Shozo Eto, a respected veteran of the baseball wars in Japan, said that Valentine did not make enough of an effort to understand the psychological value of the traditional Japanese approach, or show enough respect to the people trying to help him.

Eto called his season with Valentine "the worst year of my life."

GM Hirooka took Eto's side.

In his end-of-season report to Akio Shigemitsu, he lamented that the philosophical differences were simply too great between the two sides. He said that tactical errors by Valentine, which, not surprisingly, included a failure to employ the sacrifice bunt, had cost the team 15 victories (although he somehow neglected to notice in his mathematical calculations those decisions Valentine had made which had helped the team win 27 more games than the previous season.)

In the end, Shigemitsu agreed with Hirooka that Valentine had to be fired. Some believe a deciding factor was the letter Valentine had written to Shigemitsu.

Going over the GM's head in that fashion had been a serious breach of organizational protocol.

* * * * *

The next season, with Valentine gone, Lotte suffered a return to the lower depths. Now it was Hirooka and his coaches who were replaced.

The franchise stayed near the bottom of the league under a succession of Japanese managers. Meanwhile, over in the U.S., Valentine had taken over the New York Mets in 1996 and had guided them to several impressive seasons, winning the National League pennant in 2000, before losing to the Yankees in the World Series in five games.

After Valentine was fired in 2002 amid a conflict with Mets executives, Shigemitsu, now convinced he had made a mistake in letting Valentine go, decided to invite him to return to Japan and manage the Marines once more.

Back in Japan, Valentine picked up where he had left off, reinstating a compact training routine with a focus on conserving energy for the actual regular-season contests. He allowed his players the undignified liberty of wearing shorts in pre-game practice, during the sauna-bath heat of the Japanese summer, the only manager in the conservative NPB to do this.

In addition, he let his players grow their hair as long as they wanted. He also made an effort to learn and speak Japanese, which although not overly successful, separated him from most other gaijin in Japanese ball.

Equally significant, he changed his lineup almost daily and gave even the youngest, rawest rookie a chance to play in crucial situations. He had two or three players vying for each position. The result was a highly motivated group of players, none of them stars.

Within a year, Valentine had his team in contention, a state of affairs that disturbed traditionalists, who still looked askance at Valentine's looser style of management and his disdain for the almighty sacrifice bunt.

In the late summer of 2005, an article appeared in the weekly magazine Shukan Asahi that claimed the Lotte players were on drugs. The article included a quote by former Lotte GM Tatsuro Hirooka who said, "The players aren't really that good. They hardly practice at all. The only possible explanation is that they are on drugs."

However, much to the dismay of the editorial staff at Shukan Asahi, no evidence of drugs was uncovered. Former Giants coach Yutaka Sudo and sports commentator, who observed Marines workouts and was impressed, had his own explanation for the team's good showing.

"Valentine knew how to meld into the team and become one with the players," he said. "He practiced with them, showed them how to hit, run and slide, and constantly encouraged them.

"That's something most Japanese managers are too aloof to do. They just stand there, arms folded, criticizing mistakes. But Valentine got emotionally involved. He made the players like him in the beginning. And they played harder as a result."

Lotte finished the 2005 season in second place, 4 1/2 games behind the Softbank Hawks. The Marines scored the most runs in the league, allowed the fewest and had the lowest number of sacrifice bunts in either league. They also went on to defeat the Hawks in a dramatic five-game playoff.

Perhaps the defining moment in Valentine's championship season came in the eighth inning of the final playoff game at Fukuoka Dome before a screaming crowd of 30,000. Trailing 2-1, with one out, and runners on first and second, right-handed hitting platooning catcher Tomoya Satozaki came to bat for Lotte.

Former catching great and baseball sage Katsuya Nomura, in his capacity as a TV commentator, observed that "The smart thing to do in this situation is a sacrifice bunt."

Valentine chose to let Satozaki hit away.

Nomura's advice and Valentine's move represented, of course, one of the most fundamental differences between the Japanese style of baseball and the American way. Conservative vs. aggressive.

Satozaki whacked a soaring double off the left-field wall and two runs scored. Lotte won the game, 3-2, and with it, the Pacific League pennant.

The adrenaline-fueled Marines went on to defeat the heavily favored Hanshin Tigers in four straight games by a combined score of 33-4.

* * * * *

Valentine's goal his second time around was not just winning. He wanted nothing less than to turn the Marines into a profit-making business that would distinguish it from the typical NPB club that had long functioned in the red and had been considered as an advertising tool and tax write-off for the parent company.

Given what he considered to be a free hand by Akio Shigemitsu, who with his many other duties (he was head of the fast-food operation, Lotteria, among other things), was not a hands-on leader of the club, Valentine plotted a successful strategy.

The revitalization efforts included the valuable contributions of Shigeo Araki, Lotte's youthful, brainy director of business operations who had joined the team around the same time, which caused such a marked jump in attendance and revenue.

As Araki explained in an interview, "Makuhari, where Chiba Marine Stadium is located, is out of the way and it is difficult to get to. We had to give people special motivation to make the trip. So in addition to the game itself, we created all sorts of amusements.

"We set up a concert stage for entertainment and for street performers in front of the main gate. We set up all sorts of food and souvenir stalls and other concessions, which was also helpful because, in the beginning, we did not get a cut from concessions inside, as the rights to them were owned by the stadium.

"Then, after the game, we allowed kids to come on the field to run the bases and then have their pictures taken with their favorite stars. We allowed their parents to come down on the field and pose with them, too.

"So at times in the 2005 season, we had hundreds, up to a thousand kids in line waiting their turn to run the bases."

Valentine did his part to make Chiba the most "fan-friendly" NPB team.

Unlike most Major League Baseball parks, there was no way for the fans to get down on the field from the stands in Chiba Marine Stadium, so Valentine had a part of the infield fence above the dugout cut out and set up an area atop the dugout for a table and a couple of chairs, where fans could come by and get autographs. This area was dubbed the "MSZ," an acronym for Marine Sign Zone.

Valentine also made it a point to mingle with the fans outside the park before a game, signing autographs. He would even open the window of his manager's office and let people strolling on the concourse thrust in sign cards for his signature.

He gave special attention to the female segment of Lotte fandom. A one-time teenage dancing champion, he gave cha-cha lessons on Saturday game days, for a time, twirling about in his baseball uniform with a succession of lady customers waiting for the privilege and before one game, he put on ballroom dancing exhibition with a Japanese partner in full gown.

Still handsome and virile looking in his early 50s, his graying hair dyed brown, he attracted more female fans to Lotte, many of them in their vintage years, than any other team in Japan.

So many feminine cries of "Bobby! Bobby!" could be heard around the stadium that reporters joked that he was Chiba's "Yon-Sama," the nickname given to Bae Yong Joon, a popular South Korean actor and huge heartthrob in Japan.

It is perhaps accurate to say that no manager has ever worked harder than Valentine to promote his team. It was estimated he signed 100,000 autographs every year. He also sent out thousands of signed New Year's cards to Lotte faithful, as well as hundreds of congratulatory telegrams to schools in the Chiba area during the April school entrance period.

Furthermore, he participated in a plethora of events he helped design to get the fans involved, such as "Handshake Day" and "Blood Pressure Awareness Day."

On top of that, he also granted an unending stream of interview requests to anyone and everyone who asked, be it to representatives from the major media or graduate students writing papers about his management style.

Time and again, he stressed the need to get involved with the citizens of Chiba.

"I see very little effort made from coaches of other teams and the managers of other teams to do anything other than winning the game they are playing," he said.

"Players really have more responsibility to the community and to the fans — not just going out and playing."

The result of his efforts was that the Chiba Lotte Marines drew over 1,300,000 in attendance in 2005, doubling their 2004 total, and ranked No. 1 in all Fan Sabisu surveys.

* * * * *

Declan O'Connell, a longtime foreign resident of Chiba and a hard-core Marines fan who hails from Ireland, explained the impact of Bobby V. on the area by saying, "It is difficult to exaggerate the effect Bobby has had on the people of Chiba, in particular in 2005. I was working in a small city in rural Chiba at that time, and there was literally an extra spring in people's steps that fall. It was wonderful to see kids in Chiba Lotte Marines hats, and talking excitedly about their local team — young players (at that time) like (Tsuyoshi) Nishioka, (Toshiaki) Imae, etc. were wonderful role models.

"Sport matters to the community, it really does," O'Connell added. "It has to do with people's self-image and it has to do with pride of place, pride in where you come from.

"It is no exaggeration to say that Bobby has made a difference in people's lives in Chiba-ken, which is not a particularly 'sexy' area of Japan — it's always been vaguely uncool, actually, with a strange soulless feel to new areas like Makuhari, and a somewhat 'dead' feel to rural Chiba. Chiba Lotte Marines became a fundamental part of the community."

Valentine also took it upon himself to decide on draft picks and new acquisitions. He paid a visit to the governor of Chiba to acquire the operating rights to Chiba Marine Stadium, giving the team control over concessions and advertising for the first time, thereby making Lotte one of the few pro teams in Japan to enjoy that special privilege.

He gave speeches at the American Chamber of Commerce of Japan and to other foreign business groups which resulted in lucrative advertising deals with companies like Hartford Insurance and MasterCard. He also orchestrated an agreement with the Boston Red Sox to share marketing ideas and explore joint projects.

To say that Valentine liked Japan was an understatement, and not only just because of his hefty salary. He reveled in the food, the culture, the language, the fans, and most of all his players, over whom he could exercise more power than he could MLB counterparts.

"I kind of like it," he said, "that I can tell a guy to hit 10 straight balls to right field in batting practice and if he doesn't succeed, he comes over to me afterwards and apologizes."

What's more, he did not have to worry about dealing with arrogant, overpaid superstars that were so much in evidence in MLB, or a media in the U.S. that was often hostile to him.

As he himself liked to note, "In Japan, the manager is held in higher esteem than in the States. It's often the manager who is interviewed at the end of a game, before the star player."

In fact, the Japanese sports media was so infatuated with him, in the early heady days, at least, that it was impossible to imagine a "The Most Hated Man In Baseball" story as The Sporting News had done.

A small, but muscular man himself, Valentine delighted in casting himself as a champion of the Japanese game, urging stars not to defect to MLB and ridiculing the popular notion that superior size and strength of the MLBers gave them an advantage.

"It's my destiny to be in Japan," Valentine told CBS News.

But, as it would turn out, it was not his destiny to stay.

Robert Whiting's 20th anniversary edition of "You Gotta Have Wa" was released last spring.


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