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International community signs on to help keep Bobby V. in Chiba

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You heard where those dedicated fans of the Chiba Lotte Marines gathered more than 110,000 signatures on a petition opposed to the team’s dropping of American manager Bobby Valentine at the end of the 2009 season. The document was delivered to the team’s front office earlier this month for presentation to team owner Takeo Shigemitsu.

What impact the action will have on the club’s decision not to renew Valentine’s contract remains to be seen, but the international community added its support to the 59-year-old manager, as several foreigners added their names to the appeal for his retention.

Jeff McNeill, a longtime Japan resident active on the boards of several non-profit organizations here, collected signatures from affiliates of Japan’s global business circle from well-known figures such as former sumo wrestler Konishiki, to express their appreciation for what Bobby has done for baseball and the community.

McNeill said he got the idea to get the non-Japanese population involved after learning what the fans in Chiba were doing.

“When I saw the fans at Marines Stadium collecting signatures to express their support for Bobby, I thought there were many in the international community who would want to add their names to the list,” he said.

“From company presidents and diplomats, to volunteer leaders of many of Tokyo’s international organizations, to school age children, people signed the petition. In a few days I was able to collect more than 100 signatures. When asked to sign the petition to express support of Valentine, not a single person declined.”

Asked why he feels so strongly about backing Valentine, McNeill rattled off a dozen reasons for his own support.

“Bobby has not only been an exemplary manager, leading the Marines to the Japan Series championship in 2005, but he has also contributed greatly to the game of baseball from the fan’s point of view,” said McNeill.

“He helped introduce many new fan-friendly ideas at Marines Stadium to add sparkle and entertainment for the people going to the games.

“Equally important, he has been a wonderful ambassador for baseball because of his willingness to give back to the community. For many of the international schools, he donated his time and baseball memorabilia to help support fundraising at school auctions and events.

“He volunteered to speak at non-profit organizations such as the Tokyo American Club and university alumni groups to talk about the beauty and excitement of the game of baseball. He conducted free clinics for children to help develop their baseball skills and assisted charities, such as the Konishiki Kids Foundation, for underprivileged children.

“Bobby volunteered to help the U.S. Embassy baseball team with its game against the Japanese Diet members (and played in the game as well). All this he did without asking anything in return,” McNeill concluded.

Valentine was also instrumental in organizing two All-Star games, pitting Japanese players against foreigners, for charity. One was in 1995 to help victims of the Great Hanshin Earthquake; the other in 2005 to assist those affected by the December 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia.

While the Marines fans continue to support him, most conspicuously by waving a huge pinstriped flag with the No. 2 under the name “Valentine” during their cheering turns at Lotte games, the manager said last week he had no further comment about the petition issue, other than what was already quoted by Kyodo News.

That was, “It is an honor to have people care about me. The fandom in Chiba is passionately committed and the best you will find.”

The situation will become more complicated in October, of course, if Lotte wins the Pacific League pennant or at least qualifies for the PL Climax Series. Having completed the interleague season on June 21, the Marines began the second phase of play against their own league rivals on Friday, hosting the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in Chiba.

Entering Friday’s games, Lotte stood in fifth place, eight games out of first but only three behind the Rakuten Eagles and two in back of the Seibu Lions in the race for third place and the last playoff berth.

Valentine predicted the key to catching Seibu, Rakuten and maybe the first-place Fighters and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks is for his own players to stay healthy. The recent return of regular shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka to the starting lineup after missing 15 games with an injury figures to make a huge difference.

In wrapping up the interleague schedule with a victory over the Central League pace-setting Yomiuri Giants and looking ahead to the remaining three months of the regular 2009 season, Valentine said, “I think we can get it done. There are some good teams in the Pacific League and, when the season is over, I hope everyone will realize the Marines are a good team, too.”

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com