Valentine thought the fans should have fun too. One of his first moves was to cut a slot in the 14-foot-high fence down the rightfield line. Before every game he walked down there and signed autographs--something Japanese players and managers never did--and he ordered his players to do the same. The opening came to be known as Bobby's Window.
Autographs were just the beginning of the marketing makeover. Valentine had the team add a section of seats down the first and third base lines so fans could be closer to the action. He ordered luxury boxes upgraded, brought in more (and better) food vendors and pushed to build a team "museum" in which a fan could have his photo taken with a life-sized Bobby cutout, peruse replica lockers or pose for a picture as if he were being thrown in the air, as Valentine was after the Marines won the championship. Before Saturday-night home games Valentine, who was a ballroom dancing champion as a teenager, teaches the cha-cha to Marines fans as a way to attract women to the park. (It's worked; more women and children buy tickets to see the Marines than to see any other Japanese baseball team.) The Marines also started a loyalty club, similar to a frequent-flier system, that allows fans to trade in points for tickets and merchandise. It now has more than 70,000 members and has brought in 270 million yen (roughly $2.3 million) in revenue.
Valentine and Larry Rocca, a former Mets beat writer at the Newark Star-Ledger whom the manager hired to head the Marines' promotions-and-marketing department, even found a way to inspire fans to camp out for admission to a regular-season game: On 360-Degree Beer Stadium night, from the moment the gates opened at 5 p.m. until the end of the game, all beer was half price. Along the concourse each beer maker had its own gantlet of servers, all young, attractive and perky, with taps at the ready. Kirin's girls wore neon green and yellow, Suntory's wore red, and Sapporo's 13 women were dressed in black, with shirts that read I ? BEER. Roaming the stands were even more servers, each outfitted with a beer backpack--essentially a pony keg in a sling--and a tap. The Marines sold 50,000 beers, or an average of more than two per adult in the crowd. It was enough to make the dingy concrete bowl of a stadium seem festive.
Wherever a product tie-in is possible, the Marines make it. You can buy a Bobby Valentine box lunch (tomato, beef, broccoli, rice) or chew Marines bubble gum (embossed with a caricature of Valentine's smiling face). During pitching changes, a Volvo logo appears on the scoreboard and a Volvo with one door cut out drives the pitcher from the bullpen to the mound. Valentine wanted a mascot, so the tall, wide-eyed Rocca pulled a clown wig over his thinning blond hair and became M-Crash. Gregarious, bright and profane, Rocca was perfect for the job, and by the end of the '05 season M-Crash was a sensation (and something of a sex symbol).
Come midseason the Marines were selling out games, and by the end attendance had tripled, to 1.3 million. After winning the title, the Chiba players celebrated by spraying 3,100 bottles of beer (to represent their 31 years of futility) and 260 bottles of champagne (to represent the fans, the "26th man") at a luxury hotel downtown exactly two hours after the game. As is Japanese custom, the players and coaches wore protective eyewear, literally donning beer goggles. "There were a lot of people who were crying," remembers Benny Agbayani, the Marines leftfielder and a Valentine favorite from their days together with the Mets. "The team had always been in fifth, sixth place. These guys didn't know what it felt like to win."
Neither did Valentine. After 36 years in the game, he had finally won a championship, and was being celebrated for it. He became the first foreigner to win the Shoriki Award, presented annually to the person who makes the greatest contribution to Japanese baseball. Parades were held, commemorative magazines printed.
"It was the best experience I've had in the game," says Valentine. Surely he would be recognized for his genius back home.
Few in Major League Baseball deny that Bobby Valentine can manage. He is acknowledged to be one of the best minds in the game, and few managers work harder to gain an edge on an opponent. (Valentine was famous for studying video, and the cameras he had installed at Shea Stadium led to accusations that he stole signs.) "What was unique about [Valentine] was his game approach," says San Francisco Giants' G.M. Brian Sabean. "He was a top-step guy who watched every pitch. You didn't see him overchecking lineup cards and rifling through matchup stats. He had a general idea what he was going to do on a given day and what personnel he was going to use. But more important, he watched the game. You have to have a feel for that. I don't think he gets quite the credit he deserves."
Oakland A's designated hitter Mike Piazza, a former Valentine favorite with the Mets, also praises his old skipper, but it comes with a caveat. "He's definitely one of the smartest managers I've known--but he can also be unpredictable."
The issue in the States, in other words, was never Valentine's skill as a manager. The issue was his personality. While some were drawn to him by his charm and confidence, others saw him as condescending, still others as arrogant. This is probably why, after winning 581 games with the Rangers, he had to go back to the minors and then Japan before getting another major league job. It's probably also why, after being fired by the Mets, he ended up in broadcasting, then back in Japan.