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Clandestine campaign led to Valentine’s demise

by Robert Whiting

First in a four-part series

It was just about the time that Chiba Lotte Marines acting owner Akio Shigemitsu declared that Bobby Valentine could run his team “for life” that things began to go sour. Until then, the former Texas Rangers and New York Mets manager had been riding a wave of success that many commentators on Japanese baseball had thought impossible for a gaijin kantoku to attain.

He had arrived in 2004 to take over a team that had not had a winning season in nearly a decade and was one of the least popular in Japan. A year later, employing a looser American-style approach to training and a charismatic, impassioned, style of leadership, Valentine steered the Marines to a Japan championship, becoming, in the process, the first foreign manager ever to win a Japan Series.

Moreover, he gave Marines supporters a special boost when he challenged the 2005 MLB champions, the Chicago White Sox, to a “Real World Series” — a long-held dream of many Japanese baseball fans — claiming that his team could hold its own with any club on the globe.

Valentine won a number of honors, including Manager of the Year, and was chosen the “ideal boss” by readers of Weekly Spa, a popular magazine that caters to young businessmen. A newspaper editorial by the president of Nippon Metal called on Japanese firms to begin treating employees “the same way Bobby does” and curb their tradition of harsh management and overwork, which included 60-70 hour work weeks.

It was estimated by Hakuhodo Advertising, that the national media exposure Lotte enjoyed — a vast worldwide conglomerate of hotels, candy, chewing gum, fast-food restaurants and financial services — immediately following the Marines’ Japan Series victory was worth the equivalent of more than $30 million in free advertising.

This prompted Lotte acting owner Akio Shigemitsu, who was bursting with pride (“This is the greatest day of my life,” he was heard to say during the Marines victory parade through downtown Chiba), to agree to reward Valentine with a new four-year contract worth $20 million, making the him the second-highest paid baseball manager in the world behind then-New York Yankees skipper Joe Torre.

Shigemitsu also signed onto a number of MLB-style additions to windblown Chiba Marine Stadium suggested by Valentine, including a new sports bar, luxury boxes, deluxe suites, picnic tables and an HD screen.

Valentine’s exploits drew the attention of major media from North America as well as Japan. He was profiled by The Washington Post, The New York Times and HBO, giving the name Lotte a healthy dose of exposure in the U.S.

The highlight was a documentary produced by a trio of New York filmmakers entitled “The Zen of Bobby V,” which premiered in the spring of 2008 at the Tribeca Film Festival and then aired on ESPN.

Although Valentine failed to win a second pennant — the Marines finished fourth in 2006 and missed by a game in 2007 (when “Zen” was filmed) — attendance and revenue had quadrupled under his watch.

Shigemitsu began talking about a lifetime extension of Valentine’s contract. Valentine’s supporters boasted that he was headed for the Japanese Hall of Fame.

But then the roof began to fall in.

The 2008 Marines finished in the second division — albeit barely in a four-team race for the flag. It was the third time in the five years of the Valentine administration that this had happened, and it was not the kind of record people expected from one of the world’s most expensive managers.

Moreover, attendance had grown by only 2.7 percent during that ’08 campaign. In December, Valentine was called back to Japan from the U.S. and unceremoniously informed that when his contract expired in 2009 he would not be invited back.

As Lotte’s congenial president Ryuzo Setoyama explained to the media, the team had been losing money to the tune of $30 million to $40 million a year, despite the unprecedented buzz the Marines had created in the Chiba area community. Although revenue had risen, so had expenses, including player salaries and stadium improvements.

(New video boards and HDTV broadcasting equipment alone had cost more than $8 million a year.)

At the same time, TV revenue had remained virtually non-existent. Local television stations continued to pay a paltry $1,500 to televise one Marines home contest, a tiny fraction of what the more popular Yomiuri Giants commanded.

The baseball Marines were a subsidiary of Lotte Japan, which, along with its sister company Lotte Korea, was bleeding money in the wake of the ’08 global meltdown and was unable to help.

Shigemitsu had said earlier that he would decide on Valentine’s future at the conclusion of the 2009 season after examining the team’s performance and gauging the wishes of the fans.

But the fact of the matter was that his father, Takeo Shigemitsu, the 85-year-old chairman of the Lotte empire, who had single-handedly built the business up from a small chewing gum stand (at a time when most Koreans in Japan were relegated to menial jobs like shining shoes, the mizu shobai nighttime entertainment business such as hostess clubs or the yakuza underworld) had never been happy with the $20 million deal his son had given to Valentine in the first place and had decreed that the contract could not be extended at that exorbitant price.

Moreover, in an offseason tripartite summit of the father, the son and team president, the father ordered the ballclub’s deficit to be reduced to a manageable ¥2 billion ($20 million), and Setoyama was assigned the task of making the budget cuts.

* * * * *

Setoyama reckoned that under these circumstances Valentine was simply too expensive for someone, in his opinion, who seemed to be going backward.

Furthermore, he said, if you counted all the dozen or so people who had been enlisted in the Valentine effort to modernize the team, then, by the team president’s calculation, he was costing Lotte a total of $8 million a year.

The “Valentine Family,” as the media dubbed it, included Shigeo Araki, a former IBM executive and IT whiz who had been brought in to update business operations, Shun Kakazu, a young Harvard graduate who had constructed a sophisticated player data base, and Larry Rocca, a former New York sports writer, who had initiated American-style promotions (ladies night, salaryman’s night, disco night) and successfully solicited several million dollars worth of corporate sponsorships for Lotte.

Setoyama asked them, along with several others, to submit their resignations and accept a buyout.

Noteworthy in this blitzkrieg of change was that none of those getting the ax, including most notably Valentine, were given an opportunity to discuss and renegotiate their contracts downward. The decision to dismiss them was as final as it was swift.

Valentine, stunned at going from being a “lifetime” manager to lame duck in the blink of an eye, appealed directly to Akio Shigemitsu for an explanation of this disastrous turn of events. Surprisingly, however, the acting owner refused to return Valentine’s phone calls or answer e-mail inquiries.

More than any other team in the NPB, the Marines during the Valentine era had been identified by their manager.

At the entrance to the park, a flat-screen TV showed continuous loops of Bobby greeting fans. The concourse walkways inside the park were lined with 3-meter high Bobby murals, inscribed with his aphorisms — e.g. “The team is a family. A happy family makes the team stronger.”

Even the food there had his image on it, including the Bobby box lunch, a brand of sake with his picture on the label, a beer named after him and Bobby bubble gum.

Near the main entrance to the stadium there was a small shrine in his honor, featuring his papier mache image, and not far away there was a street named after him, Bobby Valentine Way.

But now, Setoyama began dismantling every reminder of Valentine’s influence. Down came the shrine, the main gate video presentation, the murals and posters on the walls. The beer, the hamburgers and other Bobby V. products also gradually disappeared.

Valentine’s many supporters wondered what the hell had happened.

How could he sink low, so fast?

The members of the Lotte oendan (cheering section) and various fan groups were furious at this turn of events. They had formed a special bond with Valentine during his years with the Marines. Not only had he given them a team worth cheering about, but he also made them an integral part of the organization, unlike Japanese managers who tended to keep their distance from the outfield hoi polloi.

He had always made himself available to sign autographs inside and outside the stadium. He had participated in pep rallies and after home games had made it a point to see that his players walked out to the right-field stand area where the oendan stationed themselves to shake hands with the fans and express their thanks.

He had taken to calling the Lotte oendan “No. 26″ because with their raucous enthusiastic cheering, they were the equivalent of an extra player on the team roster. He declared many times over that they were the best fans in the world.

As Kazuhiro Yasuzumi, an oendan member who works in a Tokyo-based ophthalmic goods firm, put it, “I went to Lotte games for years. It was always easy to get a ticket to sit in the outfield stands, because it was usually half-empty. But that all changed after Bobby came. You had to stand in line. He made Lotte special. He made Lotte a big part of the community, whereas before it wasn’t.

“Bobby has been a phenomenally successful manager with CLM, both on and off the field. He’s also been a great ambassador for baseball generally, especially American baseball. It was clear it would take a while for the changes he was making to reap benefits. But it didn’t make sense to get rid of him. There are other ways to deal with the economic problems.”

Daigo Asada, a young sports marketing executive who could be found in the outfield cheering section for nearly every home game, was incredulous.

“How can they do this?” he cried.

“Valentine is a man who said we were good enough to play in a real World Series. Who else has ever been able to say that? Considering the Marines cannot afford a payroll with a lineup of stars and free agents like Yomiuri or Softbank, Bobby has been doing a superb job. You can’t get anybody better than Bobby V. This is treason against Japanese baseball. This is about Japanese society. This shows that you try to change things and you get hammered down.”

Anger at the sudden changes in the Lotte organization thus set the stage for one of the more confrontational seasons in the history of the NPB.

* * * * *

From Opening Day 2009, Lotte fans in the outfield seats, declared war on Setoyama. They hoisted banners pillorying Lotte executives for their decision to let Valentine go.

“Clap Your Hands If You Want Setoyama To Resign” read one sign. “What An Unforgivable Disgrace” went another. “Death to Lotte Management” said one more.

Stadium security would quickly eject fans raising particularly offensive banners, but others quickly took their place.

Mitch Murata, a corporate adviser and ardent Marines fan, observed wryly, “These guys are more organized than al-Qaeda.”

At the same time, oendan members launched a drive to collect signatures demanding Valentine’s return.

Setoyama supporters within the organization, stunned by the reaction of the fans, began a stealth smear campaign intended to sully Valentine’s reputation. They whispered that he was taking kickbacks from foreign players, that he had recruited one gaijin player from a local bar, and that he had hired his own son to design new Lotte uniforms, while collecting a hefty royalty on their sale.

They also claimed that he had sexually harassed Lotte female employees, that he was anti-Japanese and even racist, noting he used terms like “the f—–g Japanese way.”

A new assistant general manager named Akira Ishikawa seemed intent on making Valentine’s life as miserable as possible. He reportedly countermanded Valentine’s instructions to players before and during games, and twice after Valentine had become involved in on-field disputes with the umpires came down to take the side of the men in blue.

A key, if unusual, combatant in the effort of the front office to discredit Valentine was a moon-faced, middle-aged woman named Yoko Yoneda, who, at the start of the 2009 season, had been elevated to the No. 3 spot in the front office, in charge of media relations and VIP suites.

With a fondness for garish fashion — black, zebra-striped polyester shirts and loud pink dresses — and carrying a mauve business card that described her as a “fortune teller” who did “character and color analysis,” she was surely one of the strangest NPB executives in the annals of the game.

Yoneda made news at the beginning of the season, when she ordered reporters to stop wearing jeans and to use keigo, or formal Japanese when speaking to the players. This was the cause of great mirth to some observers, since most reporters had nothing else in their wardrobe and most players, for their part, were so uneducated they could not understand honorific Japanese.

A former cheerleader at high school baseball powerhouse PL Gakuen and an employee at Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd., which manufactures Pocari Sweat, a Japanese soft drink, Yoneda had been introduced to Akio Shigemitsu, by the president of Otsuka, and had been given a job in the Lotte front office in 2006.

No one could figure out what the nature of her relationship was with the diffident billionaire’s son, who denied there was anything romantic going on. He simply explained in a news conference that Yoneda was an “eccentric character” who told his fortune.

Setoyama was just as surprised at her elevation to the top ranks of Lotte as everyone else.

From spring training on, Yoneda had pressured scribes to criticize Valentine more in print and, in one case, demanded a reporter to write Valentine had chosen the wrong pitcher. She complained that Valentine’s lifelong friend, coach Frank Ramppen could not even hit fungoes properly.

As head of the VIP suites, she cut off access to Valentine’s wealthy supporters (including an American corporate executive who spent $15,000 a year on tickets to Marines games but who, Yoneda said, had damaged a VIP room carpet).

She then turned around and granted entree to the families of select Marines players like star infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka in an effort to curry favor with them (and was even seen spotted playing Nintendo Wii video games in one of the $2,000 suites).

To some observers, Setoyama and his men were employing a kind of “mura hachibu,” (village ostracism), a tactic designed to isolate Valentine, make his final season as miserable as possible, and perhaps force him to quit early and thereby save the front office part of his salary — or, if that was not possible, at least affect Valentine’s ability to run the team successfully.

The last thing Setoyama seemed to want was for Lotte to win another Japan Series and cause such a groundswell of support for Valentine that the organization would have no choice but to offer Valentine a new contract.

* * * * *

The battle for the soul of the Marines entered a new phase, a month into the 2009 season when a Valentine sympathizer working in the front office leaked the minutes of an executive meeting in which Setoyama, shedding his mask of congeniality, dismissed complaints from the oendan and the petition they were circulating, as worthless.

“The fans are like carp, they will eat anything you feed them,” he was quoted as saying, adding, “Regarding those people in the right-field stands that are pro-Valentine, we should think about changing locations if they’re going to damage our image. If we have unworthy fans like this, let’s just move our home stadium. It’s just a bunch of stupid Chiba fans anyway.”

Setoyama claimed the minutes were a forgery, but they were later proven real. And the public revelation of his remarks prompted the appearance of even more protest banners, including one sign that alluded to front office graft as a motivation for his actions and another that alluded to Setoyama’s own adventures in sexual harassment, along with others offering helpful suggestions as to what Setoyama could do with himself.

The most memorable, however, was a banner, reading “Bobby Forever,” that was so huge it stretched across half the outfield and was 30 rows high. After one game, angry fans supporting Valentine congregated outside the stadium demanding an audience with Setoyama, forcing the team president and his assistants to hide inside until they dispersed.

Valentine himself kept his silence, aware that a clause in his contract forbade him from criticizing the team under the penalty of being fired and losing his salary.

But by mid-season, the oendan petition had reached 112,000 signatures. It was presented to the elder Shigemitsu, who rotated between Tokyo and the Seoul office of Lotte Korea, on one of his regular visits to Japan. The wizened patriarch was so upset at the bad publicity the Marines were getting, and the way his son Akio was handling things in general, that he ordered an investigation into the goings-on at Lotte.

Valentine and his supporters held out hope that the investigation would result in the firings of Setoyama, Ishikawa and Yoneda, once the elder Shigemitsu discovered just how badly they had behaved.

Indeed, many staff members expected that to happen. But it was not to be.

The final report of the investigation, which was not released to the public, concluded that the rumors being spread about Valentine were untrue. In fact, most of the interviewees, if not all, had supported Valentine.

However, in the end, the old man decided that the American kantoku would, nonetheless, still have to go. Perhaps it was simply to save his son from further embarrassment or perhaps he did not know what else to do, since he knew next to nothing about the baseball team he had owned for several decades.

Either way, he wasn’t saying.

At any rate, as one observer put it when the report was completed, something had to be done.

“You’ve got usotsuki (liars) on one side and tengu (an egomaniac) on the other. It was not a good mix.”

Robert Whiting’s 20th anniversary edition of “You Gotta Have Wa” was released last spring.