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Lotte fans step up to plate to keep Valentine

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CHIBA — Bobby 2010.

If it sounds like a campaign slogan, that’s because it is. The slogan is the rallying cry for a group of Chiba Lotte Marines fans who started a movement dedicated to keeping manager Bobby Valentine with the team.

During the offseason, the Marines announced they would not be renewing Valentine’s contract, essentially making the 2009 season his last.

“We, the fans, don’t understand at all,” said Tomoya Sato from Chiba, who was organizing the efforts outside Chiba Marine Stadium before the Marines faced the Seibu Lions on April 4.

“We continue to protest to show that we want Bobby Valentine to stay and how much we support him.”

The protest started after the team’s announcement over the offseason sparked a number of fans into action.

“The movement started this year in January,” Sato said. “There was a report last year that the Marines will not extend Bobby Valentine’s contract after this season. This is a one-sided decision.

“They want to get rid of Valentine because two of the club officials, (president Ryuzo) Setoyama and (vice president Akira) Ishikawa, are afraid of Bobby’s big influence.”

While Valentine didn’t respond directly to the movement’s goal, he voiced his appreciation for the passion the supporters have for the team.

“We have the greatest fans in the world,” Valentine said. “They have a mind of their own and I appreciate all the support they give to our team.”

The fans showed their appreciation for the manager prior to Saturday’s game, unfurling banners in the right-field stands, each with messages of support for Valentine, as well as flags bearing his jersey number (2) and singing a song of support.

While the Valentine and the Marines were inside preparing to face Seibu, Sato and his group were outside of Marine Stadium, soliciting signatures from fellow fans who also want Valentine around next season.

The group’s members were stationed at various points, some bearing banners, some holding clipboards for signatures and nearly all wearing shirts bearing the slogan, “Bobby 2010.”

“Our goal for the number of signatures is currently 100,000,” Sato said. “But we know we will exceed that number soon, so we’ll have to make it 200,000 or 300,000.

“The main members of this movement total about 300 people,” Sato said. “We have collected more than 20,000 signatures as of yesterday (April 3, opening day).

Valentine is in his seventh year overall with the Marines and is 434-374-18 with the team (through Sunday). He led the team to a 69-58 record and a second-place finish in the Pacific League in his first season in 1995, but was abruptly released after the season.

Valentine returned to the team in 2004, going 65-65-3 and finishing fourth in the Pacific League. In his second year back, in 2005, he led the Marines to an 84-49-3 record, won the PL Climax Series and swept the Hanshin Tigers to win the Japan Series title. The Marines also won the inaugural Asia Series title that season.

Valentine’s achievements have made him a hugely popular figure with fans, some of whom credit Lotte’s impressive attendance figures as a part of his influence.

“First of all we think Bobby’s contribution to the Marines is very huge,” Sato said. “In 2005 he led the team to the Asian Series victory. It is Bobby’s impact that brought the atmosphere and enthusiasm of the Marines fans.”

Sato also criticized the Marines top officials for their public stance concerning Valentine’s future.

“They (the team) operate information by improperly using the mass media,” Sato said. “They ignore the contribution Bobby Valentine has made. We want the media to inform as many people as possible how many fans support Bobby Valentine and want him to stay.”