Former New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine likes to think big and says Major League Baseball should be eyeing expansion to Japan.
Valentine, who just kicked off his second season in his second stint as manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan’s Pacific League, said baseball needs to become more global.
“I think there needs to be an expansion of MLB to Asia and I think Japan is the place to be,” Valentine said. “True expansion should be the ultimate goal of everyone who deals with baseball on both sides of the pond.”
Valentine said Japan’s game has made great strides in recent years and that many teams in Japan’s professional leagues, like the Softbank Hawks, are good enough to compete with the best teams in the majors.
“I’d put that team against any team in the world in a 10-game series,” said Valentine. “Their owner is willing to spend the money to try to get the best team in the world. I think that’s ambitious and good for him.”
Softbank owner Masayoshi Son signed former major leaguers Tony Batista and Jolbert Cabrera in the offseason and added them to what already was one of the best lineups in Japanese baseball. The team is off to an impressive 5-0 start.
Like the major leagues, there are vast disparities in the wealth of Japan’s professional teams, but Valentine doesn’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.
“I think the model of all leagues is Major League Baseball without a salary cap,” said Valentine. “Every year you see teams that don’t spend a lot of money make it to the playoffs. I think that’s wonderful, it’s like McDonald’s vs. ‘mom and pop.’ “
Valentine, who is entering the second year of a three-year contract with Lotte, would not rule out a return to the major leagues someday. The native of Stamford, Conn., has previously managed the Texas Rangers and the New York Mets, and led the Marines to a second-place finish in his first year in Japan in 1995.
“I’m 55 now and hope to be in uniform until I’m 70,” said Valentine. “I don’t have a particular connection to a team in the majors but there’s a chance I’ll manage there again someday.”
Valentine’s team finished fourth last year, just missing out on the third and final playoff spot. The team added former Montreal Expos player Val Pascucci in the offseason and is off to 3-2 start.
After a 26-0 rout of the expansion Rakuten Golden Eagles on March 27, it’s clear the Marines won’t struggle for runs.
Former Mets Benny Agbayani and Matt Franco are also part of one of the best batting orders in Japanese baseball.
Valentine is hugely popular among the Lotte faithful and is probably the team’s most recognized personality. Unlike other managers in Japan, Valentine likes to take part in batting and fielding practice and his energetic approach appeals to Japanese fans.
After years of declining attendance, Japanese baseball has made several changes this year and Valentine thinks they will make the game better.
Field-level seats will be introduced in several parks, giving fans an unobstructed view of the field. In the past, screens down each foul line prevented a clear view. Interleague play will also make its debut this season.
“I think this is going to be a great year for Japanese baseball,” said Valentine. “We’re doing everything we can to make the game more fan-friendly.”
Eagles need help
The Rakuten Eagles asked pro baseball officials in a 12-team executive committee meeting Thursday to allow and help the first-year team to add a number of productive players to its talent-short roster.
The call to help strengthen Rakuten’s player list came after the Sendai-based Pacific League team lost four straight games, including a 26-0 shutout loss to the Lotte Marines, after winning the season opener on Saturday. They were also swept in a three-game series by the Softbank Hawks.
“We agreed to ask for cooperation from all teams,” said Rakuten official Tomoharu Inoue, who bowed to representatives of the Central and Pacific leagues.
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