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Less than a week before Thanksgiving, with spring training barely three months away, one major league team was still trying to find a manager for 2006. Last weekend new Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti spoke to Jim Fregosi and Terry Collins, two candidates with tenured seats on the managerial merry-go-round. Fregosi reportedly emerged as the front-runner, and he'd be a respectable, if uninspired, choice. But the most intriguing name to come up in the Dodgers' search was conspicuously absent from Colletti's short list.
Over the years Bobby Valentine--former Dodgers phenom, Tommy Lasorda paisan and, depending on your point of view, a dugout visionary or an arrogant pedant--has done little to hide his desire to reunite with his mentor and manage in L.A. "The Dodgers are totally part of my life, whether I'm managing them or not," the former Rangers and Mets skipper said last week. "When Jim Tracy left [he was fired after last season], it piqued my interest."
But there has been a sea change in baseball: The Pacific has shrunk, and the Japanese and American games have witnessed a beautiful blurring. Ichiro is a sure-thing Hall of Famer; Hideki Matsui just signed a $52 million contract to stay with the Yankees; and on Monday, Kenji Jojima, the first Japanese catcher to jump to the big leagues, signed with the Mariners. Likewise, Japan is no longer just for marginal major leaguers intent on squeezing out a couple more paychecks. In fact, it may be one of the few places outside the U.S. where a guy from Connecticut can be loved for being an American.
On Sunday, Valentine was serenaded by 240,000 Bobbymaniacs at a parade for the Chiba Lotte Marines, the team he led to a sweep of the Hanshin Tigers in the Japan Series last month. No doubt the giddiness of the Chiba throng was fueled in part by BoBeer, the lager with Valentine's mug on the label from the Japanese brewery Sapporo. And it's a good bet that snapshots of the Marines' manager are now embedded in more cellphones than any other sports figure in Japan. "If I tried to leave here now," says Valentine, 55, "there would probably be a riot."
Earlier this month Valentine had informal talks with the Dodgers and Devil Rays about their managerial openings. He decided no job in the States, even the dream gig in L.A., could match what he has in Japan.
Financially, that's true; the $4 million annual salary in the three-year extension the Marines gave him after the season is more than any U.S. manager's except Joe Torre's. (The negotiations were front page news in Japan's six national sports dailies.) But Valentine has something else that's eluded him in his other stops: unwavering adulation. In Texas and New York he sparred with media members and players who saw him as a condescending blowhard with a penchant for self-promotion. (In 1999, after being tossed out of a Mets game, he returned to the dugout wearing sunglasses and a fake mustache.) In Japan he's a rock star.
Valentine, who was an ESPN analyst after the Mets fired him in 2002, insists he took the Chiba job last year not to gain the attention of big league general managers but to take care of unfinished business. Three years after Texas axed him in 1992, he managed the Marines for a season, guiding them to second place. A hit with fans, he was fired because he clashed with the G.M.
Based in a dingy stadium in Chiba, a port suburb of Tokyo, the Marines were, until this year, basically the Devil Rays with a history. They hadn't won a championship in 31 years. But Bobby V has rejuvenated the franchise. His managing style--keeping an eye on pitch counts, using a bullpen of specialists, maintaining a humane practice schedule--would be familiar to U.S. fans but is a novelty in Japan. Ditto for his marketing flair, which has brought levity to the stuffy enterprise of Japanese baseball. (He designed new uniforms for the Marines this year and instituted promotions like Camera Day and letting kids run the bases after games.) His willingness to sign autographs amazes a public accustomed to standoffish stars. He has curried favor with the media by learning enough Japanese to get through postgame interviews. Marines attendance nearly doubled this season, and his players celebrated his birthday in May by taking the field in fake-nose-and-glasses getups.
So, instead of celebrating Thanksgiving in the U.S., Valentine and his wife, Mary, will vacation with the Chiba franchise on Cheju Island, off South Korea. On Nov. 15 he was part of Japan's official greeting party when President Bush, his boss with the Rangers, landed at Osaka Airport for an Asian trip. After pleasantries, Bush asked the burning question: What about the Dodgers? "This has been the opportunity of a lifetime," Valentine had explained to SI a few days earlier. "When you're involved with something this special, it's hard to just say, 'OK, I'm leaving.'"
Valentine's contract has an out clause, so if he ever wants to go home again it wouldn't be a problem. It's just that Japanese fans and players have made him feel like he's already there.