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The Most Hated Man in Baseball is now adored.
His name graces a street, a brand of bubble gum and a lager. He smiles back from ATM screens, lectures to college classes, draws throngs when he appears in public. Six thousand miles from New York City, Bobby Valentine is a star. � "You gotta check this out," he says as he cues a music video on the desktop computer in his apartment in Chiba, an eastern suburb of Tokyo. From the speakers comes a synth-pop beat, and on the screen members of the Japanese band DEEN bounce into view. They are greeted at a fake press conference by Valentine, who "signs" the musicians to the Chiba Lotte Marines, the team he manages. The camera rises to focus on a disco ball, and when it pans back down, the room has been transformed into a dance club. There, amid swirling lights and pulsating music, is the 56-year-old Valentine, now in a tight blue shirt unzipped to display a healthy acreage of chest. He does the cha-cha with a beautiful young woman, twirling across the floor and shaking his hips to the rhythm. The video ends with Valentine winking at the camera.
"It went to Number 5 on the charts in its first week," says Valentine, his dark eyes wide with delight. "The kids here love it."
There is no irony in the video--the song is called Shining Ball, and the chorus translates as "this [baseball] diamond is just so beautiful"--or, for that matter, in Valentine. The former Mets and Texas Rangers manager has embraced Japan, and it has embraced him back, if at times awkwardly. Here baseball is about teamwork (the phrase for it is wa), but the Marines are not about wa. The Marines are about Bobby. He is a combination of manager, mascot and star player. There is a small shrine to him at the entrance to the Chiba stadium, and the concourse walkways are lined with 10-foot-high Bobby V murals bearing his aphorisms, informing fans, for instance, that The team is a family. A happy family makes the team stronger. He is a visiting professor at four Japanese universities, his number 2 jersey is a hot seller, and of course there is BoBeer, the Sapporo brand that bears his likeness. Not that long ago, readers of Weekly SPA!, a magazine that caters to young businessmen, voted him the person in Japan they would most want as their boss. There is a phrase for the effect Valentine has had on the game, and for his style of managing: Bobby Magic. Or, as it's usually pronounced here, Bubby Magic.
The adulation stems from the 2005 season, when Valentine inherited a band of rookies and veteran underachievers and led the Marines to their first Japan Series title in 31 years. Two weeks later they won the Asia Series, besting the Chinese national team and league champions from South Korea and Taiwan. Four months after that, eight of Valentine's players helped Japan win the World Baseball Classic. Last season the Marines faltered, finishing 65--70, but they still set attendance records, in part because of Valentine's Veeckian flair for promotion.
Managing the Marines is, in many ways, the perfect job for Valentine. He wields near-complete control over the team--acting as both coach and de facto general manager--in a city that idolizes him. At roughly $3.5 million a year, he makes more money than any major league manager in the U.S. except Joe Torre. The U.S. press dogged Valentine during his tenures in Texas and New York, but the Japanese media is docile to a fault. A year and a half ago the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays called to try to lure Valentine back to manage in the U.S., but he didn't seriously pursue either lead. "This is an opportunity of a lifetime," he said of running the Marines, "and I'm living it."
Still, something eats at the man. Spend time with Valentine and it becomes clear that he has everything except what he truly craves. And that is why he agonized over his team's slump last season, why he bristled when some rival club executives in Japan suggested that his 2005 success was a fluke, why he is so eager to show off the spoils of his success. It is why he beats the drum for Japanese baseball, hoping he can make a noise loud enough to carry over the stadium, past Mount Fuji and across the Pacific to a country that remembers a different Bobby Valentine, one who never won the World Series, who was fired from two jobs and deemed by one newspaper as the game's most despised figure.
So Valentine campaigns to change not just a culture and a game but, in the end, a reputation: his own.
Valentine was in Japan once before. In 1995, after the Rangers fired him, he came to Chiba and managed the Marines for one season. It did not go well. He fought with management and feuded with the players--though the fans loved him. Despite leading the Marines to a 69-58-3 record, their first winning season in 13 years, he was fired. Now when he speaks to Japanese audiences, something he is frequently invited to do, he starts with a self-deprecating crack. "I am the only guy in the history of the world to manage in the American League in the MLB and the National League in the MLB and the JPL of the Japan professional baseball league," he'll say. After pausing for applause, he'll add, "I'm also the only one to be fired in the American League ... and the National League ... and the JPL of the Japan professional baseball league."
In the case of the JPL, fired and rehired. Eight years after his first stint with Chiba, Valentine returned as a conquering hero. He'd been to the World Series with the Mets in 2000. He'd also become notorious: Valentine was the man who wore the fake glasses in the dugout after getting kicked out of a game, who fought with Mets management and New York beat writers, who had the balls to say what he thought even when the ballsiest thing might have been to keep his mouth shut.