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Bobby Valentine's Super Terrific Happy Hour
CHRIS BALLARD
April 30, 2007
With his progressive and creative baseball mind and his Veeckian flair for showmanship, the controversial former Mets manager is a national hero--alas, halfway around the globe
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April 30, 2007

Bobby Valentine's Super Terrific Happy Hour

With his progressive and creative baseball mind and his Veeckian flair for showmanship, the controversial former Mets manager is a national hero--alas, halfway around the globe

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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."

At Tokyo Station he 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 zigzagged through the crowd.) From there the commuter line took him east toward Chiba--past Tokyo Disneyland, with its eerily perfect replica of the U.S. version, and through acres of industrial warehouses. Gray predominated: It was the color of the roads, the sky, the water, the buildings, the suits of the businessmen on the train. Valentine, in his pink polo shirt, was the exception.

Now, as he drives home, he points out landmarks: the stadium, the park and Valentine Way, which was lined by 240,000 people for the Marines' victory parade in the fall of 2005. The city planned the celebration for days, with great precision. Fans cut the confetti into perfect little slices to make it easier for the street sweepers 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." The Marines came out hot and finished the season with the most runs scored and the fewest allowed. Valentine's approach was novel, at least for Japanese baseball. He used his bullpen liberally, changing pitchers based on matchups. He made late-game defensive replacements. He changed lineups 120 times during the season. And he did something heretical: He didn't bunt. In Japan the sacrifice is sacred, a symbol of the team's predominance over the individual. Even power hitters bunt runners over. Valentine bunted only for a hit. In his first stint in Chiba his players had at times disobeyed him, bunting against his wishes and once practicing without him when he had given them a day off. So in 2005 he'd brought help from the States in the form of Ramppen, a longtime friend and former scout, and hitting coach Tom Robson. Both were guys from back in the day, guys he could trust, guys who could help him break the Japanese players of their habits, however well-intentioned those might be.

Valentine's strategy won games, but it was his enthusiasm that won the pennant. As Horner, the ex--National Leaguer turned Japanese league slugger, recounted in Robert Whiting'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 should be play and that it should be passionate. "I'd stand next to Bobby during his 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, 'They don't give a f---.' Bobby would get mad at me, but it was true, they didn't. I could tell. And once we started to win, you could tell that they started to care."

The younger players in particular responded to Valentine. "In the past some Japanese coaches told me, 'It's supposed to be fun, have fun,' but coming from them, I didn't know what that was supposed to mean," says Toshiaki Imae, the Marines' 23-year-old star third baseman. "Bobby's different, because if he asks, 'Do you have fun?' it means he really wants you to have a fun time on the field. From the Japanese coach and from Bobby Valentine, the same words but a different meaning."

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