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Friday, Nov. 18, 2005
Valentine's success this season an achievement for the ages
Against all the odds he got the job done and he did it his way.
I am still shaking my head at the achievement by American manager Bobby Valentine in turning the Chiba Lotte Marines from perennial losers into powerhouse champions.
When you stop and think about how quickly he accomplished the feat, and the obstacles he had to overcome, it seems even more incredible.
Valentine is that rare breed who understands what it takes to be successful in a very difficult situation -- like managing a team in a country where most of your own players don't even speak the same language you do.
The key to being a successful manager or coach in any professional sport is having good talent, believing in the product and knowing how to use it.
But it takes more than that to be great. There is an extra dimension required to reach that plateau. The truly gifted leaders have it.
Valentine provided that intangible ingredient this season, catapulting the Marines to glory in both the Japan Series and Asia Series.
The four-game sweep of the Hanshin Tigers in the former was about as impressive a show as you will see in pro sports -- nearly total domination -- and made Valentine the first foreign-born manager ever to win the Japan Series.
I have been fortunate to know coaches well who have won the Super Bowl (Dick Vermeil) and the NBA title (Al Attles), and the common trait that both shared with Valentine was their fierce and single-minded determination to implement their philosophy and stick to it.
What impressed me most this season was Valentine's ability to be both an inspirational and calming force on his troops. He had a young team, backed them and they responded.
Too often over the years, we have seen coaches and managers rely too much on veteran players while the future of their franchises ride the bench.
During the middle of the season, when his team was accused of using performance-enhancing drugs, Valentine stepped forward and denied the rumors, taking the heat off his charges and quickly refocusing the club.
Valentine clearly learned from his first experience in Japan, when he was unceremoniously dumped by then-Lotte GM Tatsuro Hirooka at the end of the 1995 season, despite leading the club to its best finish in over 20 years.
This time around, with nobody in the front office interfering with his plan, the former New York Mets skipper needed just two seasons to lead the Marines to the most improbable of achievements.
Valentine once told me that the most important trait for a pro baseball player is "the ability to adjust in time and space."
I think he practices what he preaches.
Let's face it, Bobby V. is no fool. He knew what he needed to have the shot to succeed here and he made sure he got it when he returned to Lotte.
He brought in his own people, assembled a roster he was comfortable with, and piloted it all the way to the top.
It's no secret that in sports -- and in life -- you have to be selfish to be great.
You can't be worried about what other people think if you want to get the job done properly. Popularity is not high on the list of priorities and the Marines' bench boss understands this.
Valentine has always been his own man. Over the years he has endured a good deal of criticism on both sides of the Pacific -- and never blinked.
Because he has confidence in himself.
I once asked the Connecticut native why people either liked him or disliked him, and there was no middle of the road on the issue.
His response was telling.
"It is what it is," he said with a shrug of the shoulders and a smile.
The message was very clear -- he wasn't concerned about what his critics thought.
Many people believe that Joe Torre, as manager of the New York Yankees, has the toughest job in pro baseball.
Having team owner George Steinbrenner looking over your shoulder all of the time and second-guessing you certainly makes Torre's life stressful.
But it pales in comparison to what Valentine has dealt with here.
At least Torre and Steinbrenner can communicate with each other.
Valentine has had to overcome the language barrier and the cultural differences that come with being a foreigner in a homogeneous society.
How many other managers in the majors could come here and do what he has?
I would say almost none.
If Valentine is not the best manager in pro baseball at this time -- anywhere in the world -- I don't know who is.
I keep thinking back to something that Vermeil said in 1999, when he led the St. Louis Rams to an amazing turnaround culminated by a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV.
"Winning isn't complicated," he said. "People complicate it. If you surround yourself with the right people, winning is easy."
When I congratulated Valentine recently on his triumph in the Japan Series, he summarized his feelings concisely.
"I had a great group to work with."
Jack Gallagher was named a top 10 columnist by the Associated Press Sports Editors for his work in 2004.