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Valentine embraces life in Japan
by Alan Schwarz
For a guy living 12,000 miles away, Bobby Valentine's name has come up an awful lot this season. Mentioned for managing jobs with the Devil Rays and Dodgers, and even possibly a general manager position, Valentine not only led his Chiba Lotte Marines to their first Japan Series title since 1974, but also thrust himself back front-and-center into major league conversations.
Valentine sat down to talk about his Marines, the lingering lure of the majors and just what in the world BoBeer tastes like.
ALAN SCHWARZ: Your name was discussed prominently for several managing jobs this fall. Why didn't those work out?
BOBBY VALENTINE: That's a hypothetical conversation. The job that I'm doing is a job that I cherish, and it provides me with a great challenge. The owner and the team have given a wonderful deal of appreciation for the job that I do and I'm being rewarded quite handsomely. The combination of those things was never presented as a situation that I could have somewhere else.
I respect the fact that the 30 jobs there are treasured. It's just regretfully there are a whole lot of people who don't understand that there are 12 jobs here that are just as cherished, and I feel like I have one of the great jobs in baseball.
AS: Did winning your first championship feel any different because it came abroad, or did it feel like you had dreamt about?
BV: I think that this situation was as good as it gets, culminating with the parade yesterday with about 300,000 people, people being as happy as they could possibly be. There is even a different situation here, where the manager is hoisted into the air by the team three times. You feel as light as a feather. Teamwork is displayed and trust is shown by the manager and the players, and it is really a cool way to end the whole thing.
AS: What was the reaction to an American leading his team to the title? That had never happened before.
BV: I think that there was intrigue during the last couple seasons as to how I might do, and there was a great deal of adulation once the job was accomplished. I found very little resentment. I found very little antagonistic feelings from the society.
AS: Speaking of the adulation coming your way, have you tasted Sapporo's new Valentine-celebrating brew, BoBeer? Give us a scouting report.
BV: Oh yeah. The proceeds from the sale of a beer go into a charity fund. I tasted it during one of the victory celebrations. We went through 3,100 bottles of beer being poured on one another and 260 bottles of champagne being sprayed on one another. It's Sapporo black label, so it's the real thing. It is a good tasting beer.
AS: Who are some of the star players in Japan who might someday come to the major leagues, perhaps the next Hideki Matsui?
BV: I just think that this isn't a situation anymore where it is just one or two players. When Hideo Nomo broke that barrier 10 years ago, people thought he would return on the next boat back to Japan. Now the talent level is very similar. Every team has many players who, if they chose to change cultures, uniforms, languages, etc., I think they could play--well, I know they could play in the major leagues, but a lot of them could have an impact too. Kenji Johjima is a catcher who will kind of break that catcher barrier with the Seattle Mariners.
AS: What about Nobuhiko Matsunaka, the Fukuoka Hawks first baseman who's basically Japan's Albert Pujols?
BV: I doubt that he'll come. He is a terrific player; it's just that he's also the cornerstone to that entire organization. Tadahito Iguchi has left that team, Johjima is going to leave that team, and it is a team managed by Sadaharu Oh. There is the pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. He's a young guy that has been rumored to go, and he's really talented. He has probably that little extra that everyone looks for in a super pitcher--his breaking ball breaks a little more, his fastball moves a little more than the average. But I don't think he's going to be able to depart this year. He might, but I don't think so.
AS: You've spoken publicly about having the Japan Series champion play the major league World Series champion. Give us a prediction of Chiba versus the White Sox--two pitching-and-defense teams that were shockingly similar.
BV: It would be a great series. There is nothing that the White Sox have that Marines don't have--everything is very similar. The leadoff hitter is very similar, the second place hitter is very similar, the pitching staff is very similar, the bullpen is very similar. I think it would be the team that got the breaks, just like in every seven-game series.
I think that series could be bigger than the owners, bigger than the players, and if it was played in Hawaii where it was halfway between both countries, the stands would be filled, probably half for each team. The money that could be raised, which would be an awful lot of money, should and could go into a worldwide charity fund that benefits kids, and becomes a win-win-win situation for everyone who cares about baseball.
Five groups need to really be involved. I think the fans would crave it, and then there's two groups of owners on each side of the pond and two groups of players on each side of the pond. If the leader of any of those groups is opposed to it, I think they should stand up and be counted--let the world know they are opposed to it and give reasons why.
AS: What about the upcoming World Baseball Classic, which you have criticized as merely an exhibition for individual players?
BV: I don't think it takes the place of the series to determine the best team in the world. If you want to determine what country has the best players, that is what the World Baseball Classic will be for. But I think all of baseball's fans know that baseball is a great team sport, and that teams come together over a long period of time. They learn to work together, play together, be together and usually the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Exhibition series show exactly what individual talent can do against individual talent, and that is a great thing for the world to see.
AS: Word has it that you bicycle everywhere--particularly to every game.
BV: I live in a waterfront community, so our stadium is right on the bay of Japan, and there is beach from where I live to the stadium, so most days during the spring and summer I ride a mountain bike that goes over all terrains. It's a cultural thing, getting to experience the area, but it's also an exercise routine for me. A couple times I've almost caused some accidents by people being surprised that I was riding my bike beside them.
AS: As far as immersing yourself in the culture, do you really study Japanese for an hour every day?
BV: I have my iPod mixed in with a lot of the music that I enjoy with my Japanese lesson. So I'll be reciting verse while I'm riding, or if I'm in the gym doing my workout I'll have my headphones on. It's a tough language, and I'm an old, dumb guy, so it's not like one of these things where after two years I'm totally fluent. I enjoy the language and I enjoy learning new things.
AS: How do you say, "Thank you for the three-year extension?"
BV: It's four years--you never know what you read in the paper. I can say that pretty easily, because I did: Ato yo nen ga honto ni arigato gozaimashita.
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.