SAPPORO, Japan – It’s an hour before the first pitch of the Chiba Lotte Marines’ 2008 season, and Bobby Valentine isn’t the least bit concerned with the baseball game he’s about to manage.
He sits on a plastic seat in his dugout and pulls from his pocket a notebook with an electric-orange stripe along the cover. He opens it and reveals hundreds of Japanese characters with English words next to them.
“Look at this one,” he says, pointing to a symbol for the butterfly. There are more than 80,000 of these characters, called kanji, and while Valentine isn’t endeavoring to learn them all, he wants to reach the 2,000 or so needed for high school equivalency. He has spoken Japanese for years. That wasn’t enough, which, as with Valentine, often tends to be the case.
He’s using a system espoused by an American theologist who taught himself how to read in Japanese. It’s all about imagining, and the kanji for butterfly combines three other symbols Valentine has already memorized: insect, tree and generation.
“So,” Valentine says, “in my mind, for this word, butterfly, I have the vision of a tree that has this cocoon that has been there for generations, and it has this little insect coming out the end of a cocoon. And with it, I go insect, tree, generation. And I’ve got the kanji.
“Isn’t it crazy?”
It’s a rhetorical question, and it applies rather well to Valentine’s existence in Japan, where he’s on one hand a surprising star, the individualistic American in a culture devoted to the whole, and on the other a made-for-Tokyo marvel, the kind of cult of personality onto whom the Japanese love to glom.
From the time he showed up in Texas as a 35-year-old managing a half-dozen players older than him to the days in New York leading the Mets to the World Series and wearing a mustache-and-glasses disguise after getting booted from a game, Valentine has distinguished himself a one-man genus, unique as a fingerprint, doing things no one else would dare try.
“Eighty-(expletive)-thousand,” Valentine says, “and I’m learning them.”
Look over there, Valentine says, and he nods toward a man wearing a plaid coat over a plaid shirt.
“He’s worth about $25 billion,” he says.
It’s Akio Shigemitsu, the Marines’ owner and heir to the Lotte Group, a candy company turned conglomerate. He hand-picked Valentine to return to Chiba, a city about 40 miles outside of Tokyo, nearly a decade after Valentine wore out his welcome after one year with the Marines.
Valentine tends to have that effect. He is successful in spite of – or, perhaps, because of – his abrasiveness. He won with the Rangers, with the Mets and even in his orphan year with Lotte. Which is why Shigemitsu brought him back and why it somewhat deadened the surprise when, in 2005, the Marines, consummate losers, won the Japan Series.
The adulation continues today, and it in part keeps Valentine here. He’s not enough of a firebrand that MLB ownership would blackball him. If Valentine showed interest in running another major-league team, someone would bite. His name surfaces every winter, and the response is the same: No thanks.
“I have a job,” Valentine says. “If I was looking for one, I’d be on my knee at any door that had an opening, here or there, because I love being in baseball. But I don’t even think about it.
“You have to enjoy what you’re doing, and I enjoy it here. Whether I’d enjoy it as much somewhere else, I have no idea. I’ve never been one of those grass-is-greener guys.”
Life in Japan for Valentine tends to mimic that back home. He lives in Kaihin Makuhari, a suburb that’s equidistant to Tokyo by train as is his Stamford, Conn., home to New York City. The climates are similar. The attention, too.
Valentine is an industry. He makes $3.5 million a year. His face is ubiquitous. Sapporo put it on a can, called it BoBeer, charged a premium and donated the profits to a battered-children’s home in Chiba. If he wanted, Valentine could trademark Bobby Magic – the sobriquet given to his pixie-dust lineup changes in 2005 – and sell his smiling mug for the box of a magic kit.
“I understand why he doesn’t want to go back,” says Frank Ramppen, Valentine’s bench coach and consigliere with the Marines. “Everyone here loves him. And it’s not just admiration. It’s deeper.”
Gaijin players flock to Japan for a payday. Valentine is passionate about Japanese baseball’s health, and he cringes when its best players jump to Major League Baseball.
Initially, teams were nothing more than advertising vehicles – for Lotte or, in the case of the Marines’ opening day opponent, for Nippon Ham. They would lose $10 million a year, which, for the publicity, was reasonable. Then salaries climbed. Teams suffered. Before 2004, Valentine’s first year back, Lotte lost $40 million a season. The deficit today, thanks to stadium improvements and other Valentine-implemented plans, is $20 million.
Valentine wants to see the day Lotte turns a profit. The Nippon Ham Fighters did last season. Their manager was Trey Hillman, who now runs the Kansas City Royals, and they had Yu Darvish, the best pitcher in Japan, and they made the Japan Series for the second consecutive season, and in Sapporo, there is little bigger than the Fighters.
“I was in New York for seven years, Texas for 7½ years,” Valentine said. “Maybe I’ll get a seven-year itch here. Or maybe the owner will, then boot me out.”
There is a short man chasing after Valentine, and he is trying his best to translate “son of a bitch” into Japanese.
It’s the sixth inning of a scoreless game, and the Marines load the bases. They’re facing Darvish, and with two outs, up steps Tsuyoshi Nishioka, their No. 3 hitter. He blisters a ball at first baseman Terrmel Sledge, who fumbles before tossing it to Darvish. He and Nishioka’s feet meet the bag simultaneously. The umpire pumps his fist, and Valentine is livid.
He storms out of the dugout, and behind him is a translator. Valentine’s Japanese is good, but not good enough to argue with the umpires by himself.
After a minute, he gives up, and about an hour later, the game ends, the Fighters 1-0 winners. It could be a tough year for Valentine. He lost his two best relievers, Masahide Kobayashi and Yasuhiko Yabuta to the major leagues. His opening day starter left the game with a leg cramp and his first baseman got run over by a Fighters hitter peeling down the first-base line.
Valentine, for now, takes solace in his notebook. He’s about a quarter of the way there, 540 kanji conquered, and with a 12-a-day pace figures to finish in July. Opening day’s dozen had a decided lilt toward nature: butterfly, rainbow, snake, lightning bug, insect, pond, bug, ground, scorpion, horse chestnut, single and prefecture.
“Ooh, look at this one,” he says, and he points to the kanji for prefecture, a rather simple-looking one with three prongs at the bottom.
“For this one,” Valentine says, “I’m driving through that street in Chiba that takes me out into the countryside. I have my window down, and three hooks come into the car and are gouging my eye out.”
He goes silent.
“And I make these up.”
No one else could.