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A Made Man in Japan

Valentine is a national hero after Chiba Lotte's title, and if Dodgers call, leaving won't be easy.

November 01, 2005|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — "Bobbeeee!" They recognize him wherever he goes. Even out of uniform -- no ball cap, no big No. 2 on his back -- everyone in Tokyo seems to know who Bobby Valentine is.

"Bobbeeee!" They shout and try to shake his hand (he hates that) or take his picture with their cellphone cameras.

Having Bobby Valentine on your cellphone is a very cool thing in Japan right now.

Always popular, Valentine has become an even bigger star in the week since his Chiba Lotte Marines, the team from the Tokyo 'burbs and the standing joke of Japanese baseball, defied the usual skeptics and socked their way to the club's first championship in 31 years.

"Bobby Magic," the media here call it. "Bobby's Family" read the newspaper headline under the team's victory photo after they swept the Hanshin Tigers from Osaka in four games to win the Japan Series. If people have heard the speculation that Valentine may leave Japan to manage the Dodgers, no one is going to be rude enough to ask him if it's true.

Tokyo is Bobby's Town.

Take the crowd in Shibuya on Friday evening, the neon glowing over one of Tokyo's hippest and busiest neighborhoods. Valentine is standing at Shibuya's famous intersection with three buddies from college days who came over to see the final series -- "the Goons," he calls them affectionately -- when a murmur begins to surf the crowd.

"Is it Bobby?" people ask, and suddenly he and his friends are surrounded, like a milestone home-run ball that has landed in the bleachers. Ten, 20, 50 people with more coming, all thrusting cellphones into his face until finally Valentine calls a halt and strides away.

He leads the Goons across the intersection and into a pachinko parlor, the Japanese gambling arcades that are a cross between slots and pinball. People sit at machines, transfixed, as thousands of tiny steel balls tumble about in a deafening rattle. They look as if their fate is in those balls. But an old woman recognizes Valentine and abandons her post at the machine to ask for an autograph.

When Valentine steps toward her, he accidentally kicks over a bucket of pachinko balls. Thousands of the tiny steel balls roll down the aisles and scatter under machines.

"It's OK, it's OK, Bobby," says the owner, rushing up to soothe him. She doesn't want Valentine to be upset. Staff members grab brooms. The Americans escape into the neon night.

Suddenly the owner is chasing after them. "Bobby!" she shouts. He left without giving her an autograph. "Arigato" -- thank you -- Valentine says as he bows and signs. She's over the moon.

Yep. This is Bobby's Town.

*

Understanding Bobby Valentine's place in Japan -- and what success in Japanese baseball means to him -- is essential to understanding why leaving here would be a tougher call than anyone in L.A. could imagine, should the Dodgers make an offer.

Valentine back in Dodger blue? A reunion with Tommy Lasorda, his long-ago minor league manager and mentor? What's to hesitate on? Why be coy?

"I'm not kidding anybody, I think it would be great to manage the Dodgers," Valentine says as he drives home after recording a postseason interview for Japanese TV. "Especially when Tommy's still alive, especially when I still have this great energy to get around that city.

"If they're sure I'm the guy they need, that there's a fit, it might happen to be the right thing."

Whether the Dodgers can afford Valentine might be another matter.

According to a source close to the Marines, Valentine made $2.95 million this year, maxing out on his bonuses, in the second year of a three-year contract. Incentives in Japan can be linked to anything, unlike in major league ball, so a new contract for Valentine could be structured around bonuses for victories above a specified number, each round of playoffs or other team accomplishments.

It's expected that he will be offered a three-year extension worth $4 million a year, plus incentives, as a starting point, with the understanding that it will rise during the negotiation process.

In any event, Valentine bristles at suggestions that Japan is baseball purgatory, a place he came to in order to get more games under his belt while waiting for a "real" opportunity in major league baseball to come his way. He sees himself as uniquely positioned to break down the provincial, chauvinistic instincts of baseball people on both sides of the Pacific.

These are two very different baseball cultures, he argues, each with its merits, each ignoring the best of the other at its peril. And if he leaves Japan, he worries that he'll be sending a signal that Japanese baseball is less significant than major league ball.

"Look," he says, "I have friends who have said, 'I know you can't wait to get back, I hope someone offers you a job.' And I wonder where I went wrong in my friendship for them not to understand. What is it that they don't get?"

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