The Nikkan Sports, on the front page of its Aug. 23 edition, ran a speculative but spectacular story with a headline saying Bobby Valentine would return to Japan in 2004 for a second tenure as manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines.
Hard to believe it will have been nine years since Bobby V. led the perennial Pacific League second division team to its only top three finish in the last 22 seasons, but it was 1995, the year the Great Hanshin Earthquake killed more than 5,500 people in Kobe and surrounding areas, and when the Aum Shinrikyo cult released sarin gas in the Tokyo subways, killing 12 and injuring hundreds.
Then-Lotte general manager Tatsuro Hirooka had the brilliant idea to bring in an experienced, charismatic, fiery American to guide the Marines, and Valentine did a fantastic job. So spectacular, that Hirooka fired Valentine at the end of that season because he didn’t win the pennant. Does that make sense?
Having managed the Texas Rangers from 1985 to 1992, Valentine was piloting the New York Mets Triple-A team in Tidewater, Va., in 1994 when he got the call to rescue the critically ill Lotte franchise.
In the days when only three foreign players were allowed on each team’s varsity roster, Valentine brought in major league veteran position players Julio Franco and Pete Incaviglia and promising young lefty pitcher Eric Hillman who would win 12 games that year.
He also got rid of the Marines’ sissy-like pink-trimmed uniforms in favor of a more fearsome-looking black-and-silver which made the M’s look more like the NFL’s Oakland Raiders than a Sunday beer league softball team.
Valentine got the players to believe in themselves and to perform to the best of their ability. To paraphrase a U.S. Army slogan, the Marines were all they could be.
No way he could have won the PL championship that year, though. The title went to the Orix BlueWave, managed by Akira Ogi and with a roster loaded with talent including a super leadoff man by the name of Ichiro Suzuki. Lotte finished 12 games behind, but Valentine clearly outmanaged Ogi when the Marines swept Orix in a late-season three-game series at Kobe as the BlueWave were about to clinch the flag.
Though Hirooka wasn’t satisfied, the strong second place finish was good enough for the Chiba fans who began attending games more regularly and boosted Lotte’s home attendance from 1,086,000 in 1994 to 1,270,000 in 1995, an increase of 17 percent. In spite of this, rumors surfaced in mid-September of ’95 of a rift between Hirooka and Valentine.
Sports papers suggested the manager might not be asked to return in 1996, and fans, realizing it was Valentine who was responsible for the club’s amazing improvement, put on a massive display of support with banners in the stands, urging the Lotte management to “Keep Bobby” for a sure-fire run at the pennant the following year.
Hirooka would have none of it, however. He canned Valentine and was later relieved of duties himself a year later, after the Marines went right back to where they had been since their days as the Lotte Orions in Kawasaki — a “B-class” team, finishing fourth, fifth or sixth every year since 1996.
They are currently mired in fifth place in the Pacific League in this, the third year of the tenure of manager Koji Yamamoto, a good guy who has not been able to build a winner.
Valentine, meanwhile, in 1996 was carried back to Virginia and his old job in Norfolk, managing Triple-A for the Mets. He was promoted that year to guide the National League Mets and kept that position for six-and-a-half years, winning the NL pennant in 2000 and a place in the subway World Series against the crosstown rival New York Yankees.
This year, he’s working as an analyst of major league games on ESPN and, according to the Nikkan article, he cannot comment on anything that might be going on with regard to the Marines or any other team in the American, National or Japanese leagues, because his contract with the Mets does not officially expire until the Mets’ schedule ends, and that should be about Oct. 1, because they aren’t going to the postseason.
Should the scenario prove to be true, and the Marines re-enlist Bobby as manager, the Pacific circuit could have three American managers in 2004, assuming Orix keeps Leon Lee. Trey Hillman will be in the second year of his contract with the club to be known as the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters next season.
Wouldn’t it be something if that happened, and the teams finish in the top three and get to play in that wacky playoff system the PL has scheduled?
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