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Bobby Valentine's Super Terrific Happy Hour (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday November 6, 2007 10:16AM; Updated: Tuesday November 6, 2007 10:16AM
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Ex-Met Agbayani says his skipper is having more fun in Japan.
Ex-Met Agbayani says his skipper is having more fun in Japan.
Koji Sasahara/AP
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To the Japanese, whose love of baseball rivals America's, Valentine's return was the ultimate affirmation. A World Series manager choosing to come back to Japan validated the Japanese game. Most of the previous gaijin in the JPL had been either washouts in the States, such as Tuffy Rhodes, or aging power hitters in search of one last big payday, such as Bob Horner and Kevin Mitchell. That Valentine had taken the time to learn Japanese, which he speaks proficiently, and that he'd had success during his first go-round in Chiba only made him more lovable. "He understands the heart, and always gives respect," says Yukiatsu Akizawa, the president of AM/PM markets, a sort of Japanese 7-Eleven, and a friend and business associate of Valentine's. "Bubby is magic."

Valentine's appreciation of Japanese baseball history helped as well. The game has been played here since 1872, and its icons are beloved, from 1950s slugger Makoto Kozuru to alltime home run king Sadaharu Oh to present-day stars such as Ichiro and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Tokyo and its suburbs support five pro teams, and fans travel to away games in packs, bringing drums and horns and executing coordinated cheers (a different one for each player). During a Marines game the rightfield stands come alive with tatenori: 2,000-odd souls pogo up and down like a field of Whack-a-Moles. The fans cheer for each player and his contribution; one cheer goes Otsukaresamadesu. It translates roughly as "Thank you for your fatigue."

Effort, tradition and teamwork are prized in Japanese ball, and practice is a ritual in itself, to be perfected. "To the Japanese players, getting there early, taking your fielding, your bunting practice, all of this counts," says Frank Ramppen, one of Valentine's bench coaches. "You take pride in each element. If you work hard on all those things but the team loses, you still had a successful day."

Valentine has succeeded in simultaneously honoring and doing away with these traditions, and that's part of what made him a revolutionary of sorts -- the beloved king of the gaijin.

It is an afternoon in August 2006, late in the baseball season, and Valentine is driving through Chiba in his custom-made BMW, gunning the gas and listening to a Gwen Stefani song on the radio. This morning he returned from a road trip by train, using the three-hour ride to study Japanese from the yellow folder he keeps in his travel 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 shortest thing -- I've been there," Valentine says. "It's because you can't just say 'it's f------ hot' here. You have to say, 'The temperature is warmer currently than in a relative fashion to the temperature yesterday,' because you don't want to offend anyone."

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