by Wayne Graczyk
He’s baaaaaack. Bobby Valentine, former major league manager with the Texas Rangers and New York Mets, has agreed to return to Japan as field boss of the Japanese Pacific League Chiba Lotte Marines, the team he guided in 1995. Valentine was introduced in
that capacity at a press conference in Tokyo on Nov. 3 and began working and re-acquainting himself with his players at the team’s autumn camp in Urawa, Saitama Prefecture, two days later.
The flamboyant Valentine had been hired by the perennial second division Lotte club nine years ago, picked personally by then-Marines General Manager Tatsuro Hirooka whose task it was to turn the franchise into an A-Class entity in the six-team Pa League.
Valentine did the job, leading the team to an impressive second place standing, its only finish in the top three in the past 20 years, and putting it into position as a genuine pennant contender for 1996. But the manager and G.M. had a falling out and, despite strong support from Marines fans and a 17 percent increase in home attendance from the previous season, Bobby V. was fired. Hirooka was canned himself a year after that.
Valentine returned to the majors the following year, managing the Mets for seven seasons and taking them to the World Series against the Yankees in 2000. His contract expired at the end of the just-concluded season.
Lotte, wrapping up an eighth consecutive year in fourth place or below, needed a manager, and acting owner Akio Shigemitsu knew just who to call.
During his re-introduction to the press and Japan, Valentine said, “I am very anxious to get to know the players of the Lotte team and the Pacific League once again, and I really believe when I left last time, I left my work incomplete, so I’m very excited.”
He said he was not so surprised to hear from the Chiba team owner. “Mr. Shigemitsu and I have met many times since I left and, when his manager’s job became open, he did not hesitate to offer me the job. He knew what he wanted for his team, and he went out and got it. I respect that decision-making process.”
Valentine intimated that, since he left eight years ago, he never forgot his Japan experience. He displayed a book given to him as he departed in 1995. It contains the signatures of many fans who did not want him to leave at that time. “To feel wanted and needed is a part of anyone’s life,” he said.
Also, he has followed Japanese baseball through the Internet which has flourished in the past decade, and he appeared here with the Mets in March of 2000 when the team opened its official National League regular season with two games against the Chicago Cubs at Tokyo Dome.
In addition, he pointed out that, during his years with the Mets, he always had a Japanese player on the team and had Japanese reporters with him at all times, reminding him of Chiba Marine Stadium and allowing him to practice his Japanese language skills.
In New York, Valentine managed pitchers Takashi Kashiwada, Hideo Nomo, Masato Yoshii and Satoru Komiyama and outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo, a free agent about whom rumors have spread regarding a possible re-uniting with Valentine in Chiba. “We will go through the proper channels and talk with him,” said Valentine, expressing interest.
Asked what he expects from the Marines personnel this time, Valentine said, “It is difficult for me to make an evaluation without seeing the Lotte players. I know we are in the same league as the Japan champion Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, and I respect the other teams in the league and know we must improve. I believe we will improve.
“I’d like the players to always put on a good performance, with exciting plays, good defense and clutch hitting. I hope to evaluate what we have in the autumn camp, then try to add to that with the best players possible.”
As for what made him decide to return, the 53-year-old manager said, “I followed my heart. I think it was the right thing to do at this time in my life and want to make this one of my greatest experiences.” His wife, Mary, also attended the press conference.
Asked how he will be able to avoid the problems that prematurely terminated his first tenure as the Marines’ manager, Valentine said, “The last time I was here, I worked with a great baseball man in Mr. Hirooka. I learned many things from him that were helpful in my development as a manager. At the end, we had some philosophical differences.
“This time, our philosophy of trying to do our best and winning, and using my knowledge and direction in which the team will go, will allow me to direct this club as a manager should.”
Valentine will be the third American manager in the Pacific League in two years. He will match strategies with Trey Hillman who will be in his second year as manager of the Nippon Ham Fighters. Leon Lee managed the Orix BlueWave this past season, and Valentine was interested in what both had to say.
“I met with Leon at the World Series (last month in Miami) and talked about his experiences, and I communicated with Nippon Ham people about the experiences Trey had,” he said. He later met Hillman at the Pacific League East-West post-season all-star game Nov. 9 at Shizuoka and said he is looking forward to managing against his compatriot.
“They will be exciting games,” predicted Valentine of the 2004 series between the Marines and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, “especially when we go to the new domed stadium in Sapporo” which did not exist in 1995.
Regarding his deal with the Lotte team, Valentine said, “It is a very flattering contract. It is for three years with a two-year (team) option, probably for the same dollars a man who has managed 2,500 games in his life would get anywhere in the world.”
His chances of leading the Marines to post-season play will be substantially increased by the Pacific loop’s playoff system that begins Oct. 1, 2004, and involves the top three clubs in the league standings. Valentine thinks the idea “is great,” and reminded us he had the Marines playing the best ball of any P.L. team as the 1995 season drew to a close.
He clearly out-managed Orix skipper Akira Ogi in sweeping a three-game series in October of that year, delaying the BlueWave (with Ichiro Suzuki) pennant-clinching in Kobe. Had the playoff system been in place then, it might well have been Lotte, not Orix, in the Japan Series against the Central League Yakult Swallows.
Prior to the Valentine hiring announcement, the Marines fired three American players; pitcher Brian Sikorski, outfielder Derrick May and infielder-outfielder Rick Short. Third base man Jose Fernandez may also leave the team for another shot at the majors, leaving Japan veteran pitcher Nate Minchey as the only foreign player on the Lotte roster.
Valentine will be looking to improve his batting lineup and pitching staff with new gaikokujin, and he’s got two brain trust members coming in from the U.S.: batting coach Tom Robson who worked with Bobby in Chiba in ’95 and also with the Mets, and infield base-running coach Frank Ramppen, a former minor league player in the Minnesota Twins organization who also served as general manager of the Bobby Valentine Sports Gallery Cafe in Stamford, Connecticut.
At the conclusion of the press briefing, Shigemitsu presented his new manager with Marines uniform jersey No. 2, the same as he wore with the Mets.
He may be wearing No. 2, but Lotte fans think he’s No. 1, and that’s where owner Shigemitsu expects Valentine to take his team. Good move.