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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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Valentine has come back to New York City. The Japanese Chamber of Commerce is honoring him with its Eagle on the World Award, given annually to prominent figures who further Japanese-American relations. The other honorees are former Deputy Secretary of State Dick Armitage and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi. The awards presentation is at the New York Hilton in midtown Manhattan. It is a swank affair: black tie, filet mignon, stylish Japanese women on the arms of powerful executives from companies such as Sony, Panasonic and Sumitomo. A popular Japanese singer, Yosunake, opens the evening with a couple of rousing numbers in his native tongue, then finishes by singing New York, New York decked out in a glittering sequined floor-length coat.

Valentine is introduced. "In Japan he's taken the status of rock star," the host says. "He not only raised the status of baseball to rival that of the United States, but he's a master of human chemistry." Valentine nods at the compliment, takes the stage, makes a couple jokes in Japanese and opens with the anecdote about being the only person to manage in the AL, NL and Japanese pro ball and also be fired in all three leagues. He thanks the crowd, then addresses the subject of Matsuzaka. Only 24 hours earlier the Red Sox successfully bid $51.1 million for the right to negotiate a big league contract with him.

"Here, the day after the great 26-year-old pitcher Matsuzaka, from the Seibu Lions, took that bridge that I'm trying to build--he took that bridge over to play in the United States--I have to say that I have very mixed feelings," Valentine says. "One is the joy, for him, his family and my team, because he won't pitch against us again. But also one of sadness and disappointment in the professional league of Japanese baseball for allowing him, a great national treasure, to in fact leave their league. I think that this audience here, which is building many bridges of commerce and industry between two of the greatest economic countries in the world, must be reminded at this time that Japan has a sport that is their national sport. There are 150 million people there and the true national sport is baseball, the only industrialized country in the world that the national sport is baseball."

Valentine pauses to let his words sink in before he resumes. "And that in itself is a great resource. And it should be looked at as something that should be treasured and kept and cherished and cultivated and nourished, just as your companies are developing and growing. And the same type of synergy that's in this room should be involved in making Japanese baseball a world power. Not only on the field, because the players can play, but also in the front office and the ownership level so that the players can be paid what they should be paid and stay in Japan to keep that league as strong as it can possibly be, so that my dream of a true World Series will in fact come true in the very near future."

The crowd cheers politely, but the real audience for Valentine's comments, the world baseball community, does not hear them. Despite the event's location in New York City, I am the only member of the U.S. media present.

So Valentine slips off into the night, neither harassed nor feted in his home country. All of the major league managerial openings have been filled. As a result Valentine will spend the 2007 season, which began on March 24, as the Marines' manager, an increasingly invisible figure to baseball fans in America. Perhaps it is the price he must pay for his nearly perfect life in Japan. Since Japanese baseball is not considered world-class, his accomplishments there do not carry much weight at home, and since the best Japanese players keep leaving for the States, he cannot make Japanese baseball world-class, no matter how many bridges he builds or box lunches he sells.

Thus Bobby Valentine remains stranded somewhere in the middle of his own bridge, a man caught between two worlds, a hero in the wrong country.

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