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Group linked to Valentine explored buying BayStars

by Jack Gallagher

Like a batter with three strikes, Bobby Valentine is promising to go down swinging.

Forced into lame-duck status by the Chiba Lotte management, which said in December that 2009 would be his final season at the club’s helm, the Marines skipper confirmed Wednesday that he was approached last year by a consortium of wealthy Japanese and foreign investors interested in purchasing another existing NPB franchise and putting him in charge.

Though Valentine rejected the overture and declined to identify the team, The Japan Times has confirmed through baseball sources that it was the Yokohama BayStars.

“I never considered the possibility that I would leave this team,” Valentine said of Lotte. “And it was not the first time I said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks to another club.’ “

The former manager of both the New York Mets and Texas Rangers turned down offers to return to the majors with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers after the 2005 season.

Valentine had been counting on his promised “lifetime contract” status with the Marines.

The group of investors subsequently abandoned their bid for the Yokohama club when the bottom dropped out of the global economy.

The match between the UPI’s 1986 American League manager of the year and the BayStars would seem to be ideal, with the high-energy, promotionally inclined Valentine taking over both the front office and field management of a club that has languished in the standings and at the gate for more than a decade since winning the Japan Series in 1998.

With a large foreign community and a stadium located in the heart of the city, Yokohama would appear to be a perfect destination for Valentine once his days with the Marines are finished.

BayStars manager Akihiko Oya is in the final year of his contract, and it is hard to envision any scenario where he would be retained for the 2010 season.

During a chat in Yokohama prior to the Marines-BayStars preseason game on Wednesday, an upbeat Valentine made it clear that he doesn’t feel his time in Japan is nearing an end.

To the contrary, he sees opportunities on the horizon.

When asked if this was his final year in Japanese baseball, the first foreign-born manager ever to win the Japan Series was very direct.

“I don’t think so,” Valentine said. “I am keeping all of my options open. I won’t rule anything in or out. Japan has been good to me.”

Valentine, who piloted the Mets to the 2000 World Series, says he likes his club’s chances this season.

“I like our pitching staff and our players,” commented Valentine, whose Marines finished fourth in 2008, after coming within one game of returning to the Japan Series in 2007. “I think we have a chance to come together and do well.”

With rumors swirling that recently signed second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, who is returning to Japan after a four-year stint in the majors, is in line to be the future manager of the Marines when his playing days are finished, one can’t help but feel that Lotte management has put itself in a nearly impossible situation.

Forcing Valentine out the first time — back in 1995 — was tough enough on the loyal fans of the Marines, but one has to wonder what it will be like now, after Valentine has led the club to glory on the field, significantly boosted attendance, and put a recognizable face on the brand.

It is pretty obvious what the nightmare scenario for the Lotte executive branch is — Valentine leads the team into the playoffs and wins the Japan Series again.

How could he not be offered a new contract if this plot unfolded?

But this bunch in the Lotte front office is hard to figure out.

Years ago they said Valentine had a “lifetime contract.” Then that was later downgraded to “his tenure will be determined by results and the fans.” Now they have pushed him halfway out the door.

Less than admirable moves considering what Valentine, who was honored with the Matsutaro Shoriki Award for his contributions to Japanese baseball after the Marines won the 2005 Japan Series, has done for the franchise.

Valentine’s commitment to the game here is unquestioned. It is hard to foresee a scenario where he doesn’t have a seat in the dugout next season, whether it is in Yokohama or with some other club, if he really wants it.

“It’s all about Japanese baseball and growing the game here,” Valentine noted. “I think I still have a lot to offer.”

At the time the Marines announced they would not offer him a contract extension, Valentine was very gracious.

“They just wanted to go in a different direction,” said Valentine. “They wanted to change things and I certainly understand that.”

Anybody who knows how much of a competitor the 58-year-old Valentine is knows that the decision had to be difficult to accept. But the Connecticut native refused to lash out in response and is calmly going about the business of preparing his charges for the upcoming campaign.

Valentine’s refusal to take the low road and say anything bad about the Lotte management attests to the fact that he is going to retain his dignity until the final hour of the final day.

A class act until the very end.